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‘Black Mirror’ Bandersnatch Isn’t the Future of TV, It’s a Microcosm of Netflix’s Current Business Model

In the streaming age, all media is 'choose your own adventure.'

by Jason Koebler
Jan 2 2019, 4:16pm

Image: Netflix

“Bandersnatch,” the new choose-your-own adventure episode of Black Mirror, is rightly getting lots of attention for its inventiveness and branching story arcs. Within hours of its release, redditors and Black Mirror superfans began mapping out all the possible ending, and how the viewer’s inputs would alter young programmer Stefan Butler’s descent into madness.

There have been hundreds of recaps and reviews of “Bandersnatch,” but if you still haven’t seen it, the interactive film follows Stefan Butler, a video game programmer working on an adventure game called Bandersnatch, based on a fictional choose-your-own adventure book of the same name. As he works on the game, Stefan slowly begins to lose touch with reality and suspects that he’s not in control of his own actions; one viewer decision even opens up a meta storyline in which he learns he’s part of a Netflix special. There are a handful of endings in “Bandersnatch.” Stefan can live a relatively normal life if he talks about his mental illness with his therapist and goes on meds; in another, he kills and dismembers his father and releases a well-reviewed game before eventually being arrested. My favorite involves him going through a mirror, time traveling to his childhood, and changing the past.

The general consensus about the interactive film seems to be that Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker deserves respect for the episode’s ambition, creativity, and Easter eggs, but that ultimately the narrative—the story itself, regardless of the choices the viewer makes—is a bit too meta and bland. I largely agree with that assessment. I had fun watching “Bandersnatch,” but the episode hasn’t stuck with me the same way that the best episodes of Black Mirror do.

In any case, “Bandersnatch” is getting lots of deserved hype for pioneering a format that could usher in the dawn of “interactive TV.” In many ways, though, “Bandersnatch” is a microcosm of the current entertainment and media landscape.

We have the unprecedented ability to choose from thousands of shows across network TV, cable, and streaming services. If you like watching YouTube, the possible universe of entertainment becomes millions of shows made by millions of people all over the world, about every possible topic. In 2017, there were 487 original scripted programs across television and streaming services, according to data from the FX cable network. In 2018, Netflix alone planned on releasing 700 original TV shows and 80 original movies worldwide.

Increasingly, this programming isn’t based on a writer or producer’s original ideas for a show, but on the individual choices and aggregate viewing habits of Netflix’s (and other streaming subscribers) customers. Netflix decides to buy programming in part based on what shows have performed well in the past, and it uses big data and viewing habits to help decide what original shows it should make. These shows are increasingly microtargeted to people who watched similar shows, which means that we are all picking and choosing not only the shows we watch on Netflix, but the types of shows that will be made in the future.

And so perhaps there is another layer of commentary to “Bandersnatch.” We are subconsciously choosing our own adventure, all the time.