Culture

How ‘Black Mirror’ Went from Being a Clever Show to a Televised Thinkpiece

Charlie Brooker's show has moved from TV to Netflix, bringing in an American sensibility that leaves you wondering what its underlying message achieves.

by Rod Bastanmehr
22 October 2016, 7:00am

A still from 'Black Mirror' series three episode, "Nosedive" (Photo by David Dettmann/Netflix)

In a year that's felt like a slow-burning rubbish pile, Black Mirror has shown up right on time. The Charlie Brooker series fittingly migrated from Channel 4 to Netflix's digital TV service, where it gained an American following. Its third season, which premiered on Friday – Netflix company bought the rights for a reported $40 million – continues the show's principal fascinations: man, machine and the questions of who controls what.

It's a nifty premise. Horror has, for decades now, been the genre most well-suited to tell us about ourselves. Nothing gets to the heart of human behaviour more than vulnerability, fear, irrational paranoia. Across cultures, broad readings of horror tropes feel like anthropology. But what does Black Mirror tell us about us now?

Not much, it would seem. You don't need horror and science fiction to dabble in allegory, but it goes without saying that they're at their most potent when they do. The degree to which can vary – Japan's much-lauded canon of horror films are remarkably effective and self-contained, but if you're looking to understand, say, the country's patriarchy, the genre's fascination with female rage will do you well.

Black Mirror, on the other hand, is entirely devoid of allegory. It is, instead, robustly about the thing itself. Technology is a stand-in largely for, I guess, technology? And our slavish devotion to its convenience is meant to embody the way that we are, well, slaves to its convenience.

The biggest change to this season comes from Netflix, where the show is now featured under its "original series" banner. We leave the strictly English confines of the first two seasons, and enter the US (as well as other countries), under the eye of select American filmmakers. As a result, textures of the new season feel uneven, with pace and style varying wildly. The washed out and saturated tones you'd recognise from English TV persist, except in Joe Wright's season opener, which more closely resembles a video game cutscene.

A still from 'Black Mirror' series three episode, "Nosedive" (Photo by David Dettmann/Netflix)

The granular pace of British drama is swapped at times for the fevered pitch of American editing. The Dan Trachtenberg-helmed "Playtest" episode moves at the speed of a paranoid thriller, while James Watkin's "Shut Up and Dance" is a repetitive slog. It's an odd change. From my view across the pond, English television is an often more insular experience, something America's "golden age" has since adopted – the key is to hold a lot both within the frame and below the surface.

Black Mirror is most often held up against The Twilight Zone, another pretty nihilistic anthology series. Technology factored heavily there too, but it was awash instead in Cold War paranoia. Cyclicality was central to Rod Serling's program. Atomic anxiety, the perils of McCarthyism, the stringent dread of the Other; paranoia was everywhere in The Twilight Zone, but the fear of the moment was framed as repeating psychosis. A period piece, a modern setting, an elaborate dystopian future; these weren't storytelling choices, they were meant to signify the ways in which we are doomed to repeat the same conflicts, with the decades and scapegoats mere details, in a tragic unending story.

Black Mirror has less to say about where we've been and who we are in the 21st century, because we are, basically, figuring it out all over again. It's less about fear than behaviour. Whereas Twilight Zone felt like a Rorschach test, Black Mirror is a thinkpiece.

Brooker's show is outraged, but to what end? Serling was almost entirely preoccupied with morality, and the irony of the show's many nihilistic endings felt akin to finger wagging, a perennial "I told you so". The show has less to say, largely because of the vagaries of the moment it's responding to. Not too long ago, technology was saddled with the baggage of utopia: a tool meant to guide us into a new age full of promise. Shows like Star Trek boldly took us to a time when our ills were assuaged by technology, not enabled by it. In that sense, Black Mirror is truly a grim fairy tale for our time, where our sneaking suspicion that machines don't entirely have our back has become real. Just this past month, a New York Magazine essay on the perils of technological addiction became the defacto postcard from the edge.

But this is a one-dimensional attempt to manifest three-dimensional fears. Some episodes have proven strangely prophetic: The second season finale, "The Waldo Moment", shows a TV entertainer bafflingly manage to dupe the public and climb the political ranks, an eerie echo of things to come in the US; the series' pilot features the British Prime Minister having sex with a pig.

The newest season features an episode that serves as a potent metaphor for immigration, tapping into what is undoubtedly the defining political issue on the two continents that Black Mirror now belongs to. These are absurd times, in which talk of walls, verifying refugees' ages and denigrating human rights lawyers is commonplace. So much of what makes sci-fi powerful is the way in which it asks us to confront who we are. Black Mirror makes for an occasionally enjoyable ride, but its interest is in telling us who we could be. It's a warning in the eye of a hurricane, too goofy in its aesthetics to register as art, and too on-the-nose in its storytelling to land as a metaphor. Black Mirror asks us to look at our own reflection, but it doesn't entirely care who is looking back.

Black Mirror is available to stream on Netflix as of Friday the 21st of October

@rodb

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