The programme is best when it aims to shake, not shockby Lucinda Smyth / November 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
This piece contains some minor spoilers
When Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror first aired on Channel 4 in 2011, it was astonishing. There was nothing else like it on television. Engaging with contemporary concerns surrounding internet privacy and social media, it not only presented an eerily prescient view of the near-future, but crucially it did so from the perspective of the ordinary and everyday. It explored dystopian possibilities at a fine-grained level, often depicting the lives of average people, employing low-key lighting and mostly lesser-known actors. This small-scale intimacy is what made the show effective: it felt claustrophobically close-to-home.
Fast-forward five years and Black Mirror has had a Hollywood makeover. Now in its third series, the show was acquired by Netflix last year, and under its direction is noticeably bigger, glossier and sharper. Offering six episodes per series instead of three, the American streaming service has doubled the size of the show in one dramatic data-dump. The acting line-up includes Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), with a directing credit from Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), and writing help from Michael Schur and Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation). How did all this come about, and what effect has it had on the tone of the show?
The first stage of this transformation dates back to 2014. Though still broadcasted by Channel 4, the festive episode “White Christmas” marked a significant departure from Black Mirror’s early homegrown approach. Firstly, it starred Jon Hamm, then at the peak of his Mad Men fame. Hamm’s vulpine good looks and smooth American charm were a far cry from gawky Domnhall Gleeson (“Be Right Back,” series two), or ruddy-faced Rory Kinnear, who played the Prime Minister in the infamous pilot. (This episode featured a prime minister in an uncompromising situation with a pig, and resurfaced last year amidst Cameron rumours.) “White Christmas” aired on US Netflix that December, and, largely as a result of the Hamm-factor, stimulated American interest in other Black Mirror episodes. By the new year, Black Mirror had become a minor sensation. It was announced nine months later, in September 2015, that Netflix had bought the series for a reported $40 million, and would be shooting twelve new episodes.
So now six of those have arrived, what impact has the shift had? What about the new series—sorry, season—is different? Visually speaking, it’s split in half. Three episodes retain the peculiarly English quality of series 1 and 2 (“Shut up and Dance”; “Men Against Fire”; “Hated in the Nation”), the other three lean more towards Grand American Sci-fi (“Nosedive”; “Playtest”; “San Junipero”). In making that compromise, Black Mirror has lost something of its original flavour. It seems caught between the large canvas and the minutiae, unsure of exactly where it wants to go.
What is striking about this series, though, is not just that it looks slicker: it is also more sentimental. The stand-out episode is “San Junipero,” an uncharacteristically optimistic lesbian love-story. San Junipero is a surreal paradise for elderly people, accessible through a highly sophisticated version of VR. The two female protagonists meet in this virtual sphere and, liberated from both the homophobic past and debilitating present, fall in love. If you think that this might sound like a slushy digression from the usual Black Mirror lark, you would be right. The downsides to the San Junipero eternity are scarcely touched on. For a series with the sarcastic tag-line: “The Future is Bright,” in this instance it really did offer a sweet deal.
Referring to this episode, Charlie Brooker said in a recent interview with Wired: “That was the first one written for this season, so I was thinking: what are people going to expect? … I thought, what’s a more hopeful take?” But is a lurch to sentimentality really unexpected from the creator of Black Mirror? Before turning to television, Brooker made his name as a grouchy TV critic for the Guardian. Brooker is brilliantly entertaining as a columnist—his sentences spring with profanity and mind-bending metaphors. Yet he is not just a “funny” writer. Seething beneath the flippancy is a genuine frustration with the state of humanity when programmes like Celebrity Big Brother are still enormously popular. As a result Brooker’s print writing often jerks from the disgruntled to the romantic. In 2012, he wrote an article about becoming a father for the first time. Though prefaced with a self-conscious apology— “I look sinister when I grin, like I’m secretly defecating in my trousers and enjoying the warm glow more than is strictly necessary”—the piece was ultimately sincere. In the following two years, this earnest streak began to emerge more prominently until finally, in 2014, he announced the end of his regular column: “Everybody talking at once and all over each other… I fail to see the point of roughly 98 per cent of human communication at the moment.”
Later that year, the annual TV round-up Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe featured a strange five-minute interlude from documentary-maker Adam Curtis. Touching on themes that have recently been expanded in Curtis’s 2016 documentary Hyper-normalisation, the five-minute segment summarised the post-modern political tactics of Vladimir Serkoff, an advisor to Putin. Informative, yes, but the interjection was so surreally out-of-kilter with the sarcastic tone of Screenwipe that it initially seemed like a parody. In fact, it was Brooker turning in a more openly serious direction.
While Brooker’s earnest twists are effective in his comedy, however, they often seem heavy-handed in Black Mirror. The show works best instead when the boundaries between cynicism and sentimentality are ambiguous. The most successful episodes are not those on the biggest scale, with the showiest concepts, the most impressive gadgets, and the clearest moral messages. They are the smaller, character-focused stories, which leave you feeling unsure of whether the central concept is a good or bad thing.
By far the best episode of series three, “Shut up and Dance” tells the story of Kenny, a nervy 19-year-old who is filmed through his webcam by anonymous hackers. Threatened with an impending video leak, Kenny is forced into performing a series of tasks. These range from the uneventful to the disturbing. The conclusion is chilling, but this is not just because of its shock twist—it is also because it leaves you in a state of moral uncertainty. Unlike “San Junipero,” which is uncomplicatedly positive, or “Playtest,” which is uncomplicatedly negative, “Shut Up and Dance” gives you something to think about.
This is where the power of Black Mirror lies: in its ability to shake, not shock. When the show becomes a lecture explicitly pro or against digital culture, something is lost in the effect on its audience. Netflix—a “binge-watch” streaming service—feeds into the addictive internet culture Black Mirror often critiques, and the irony is not lost on Brooker. But a bigger problem is the danger of sacrificing nuance in favour of neatly trimmed Hollywood cutouts.