Blightyvision: Black Mirror

Created by Charlie Brooker
Written by Charlie Brooker (“The National Anthem” and “15 Million Merits”), Konnie Huq (“15 Million Merits”), and Jesse Armstrong (“The Entire History of You”)
Starring Rory Kinnear and Lindsey Duncan (“The National Anthem”), Daniel Kaluuya and Jessica Brown-Findlay (“15 Million Merits”), Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker (“The Entire History of You”)

Charlie Brooker was recently added to my very short list of writers who can get me to watch a show simply by virtue of their involvement, and I’m sure he’d be entirely underwhelmed if he knew.  His new drama, Black Mirror, was pegged as “The Twilight Zone” for the computer age — or, more precisely, for the age of social networking.  But there’s a key difference.  In “The Twilight Zone,” we were confronted with impossible situations in a time or place that operated by a different set of rules.  In Black Mirror, though, the source of the horror is traceable — likely to something you’ve got open in another tab right now.

The series is made up of three stand-alone stories of an hour each, with different cast and settings.  To that extent, one could theoretically watch them alone or out of order, but the progression away from familiarity — with the first episode being close to home and the third nigh-inevitable but still distant — has its own sort of narrative flow to it.  Plot-wise, they exist alone; thematically, they need each other.

Brooker uses the first story, “The National Anthem,” to drag us right in by the ankles because for all we know, something just like it will happen tomorrow morning.  A princess has been kidnapped, and a video from her kidnapper demands publicly televised indecent acts by the Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) to free her.  But the video wasn’t sent to him — the kidnapper made it viral on YouTube, and now the whole world is waiting for the PM’s decision.  This story is bleak, hide-your-eyes-and-laugh-nervously comedy, but the comedy falls away bit by bit as we’re shown the psychological effects of the event on the PM.  Kinnear carries the whole story with a sort of despairing, very English gravitas, and it’s one of those performances where, if you’ve never seen him in anything before, you’ll be scrambling for more of his work at the end.  The payoff of the story — the kidnapper’s MO — is another bit of modern commentary in and of itself.

While this was a heartbreaker, the second story — “15 Million Merits” — is an hour-long gut-punch.  Brooker uses it as a combo move on social gaming, streaming entertainment, and reality TV, setting it in a near-future where citizens do mindless grudge work while distracting themselves with inane videos and even inaner games.  Your only way out?  Cash in the currency you earn pedaling stationary bikes to make your way onto a televised talent search.  Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) pays the way for a girl he fancies, but as this is written by Charlie Brooker, things do not go as planned.  It serves as the setting for a diatribe against (let’s not pretend here) Facebook dependency, with a little bit of Network thrown in.  This story more than either of the other two gives us a few nice, warm glimpses of kindness and humanity — all the better to break your heart with.

“Peep Show” and “The Thick of It” writer Jesse Armstrong took over for the third installment, “The Entire History of You.”  This hits on that ever-popular “Before long we’ll all have chips implanted in our heads” scare, but couches it in a sort of benign slick iPhone-ified future.  Everyone (well, everyone who matters) has “grains” implanted behind their ears, recording everything they see for playback.  And not just personal playback: big-screen dinner-party conversation-piece playback.  Unfortunately, this sort of technology does not blend well with a jealous husband (Toby Kebbell), and the story becomes an exercise in extreme paranoia blended with some very Heavy Rain-esque imagery.  The protagonist manages to be uncomfortably unsympathetic — or, rather, sympathetic in such a way that we feel kind of uncomfortable as we sympathize.

While Black Mirror does not contain bad material, “15 Million Merits” really does feel like it’s head and shoulders above the other two.  The tweaked setting is like a narrative slow-release capsule, with the uncomfortable similarities between it and the here-and-now unfolding bit by bit until by the end it’s more than a little distressing.  And there’s the simplicity and accessibility of the main character — he’s not a politician, he can’t afford the finer things; he’s just a guy.  Could I go over to a friend’s place with just that episode?  Like I said, the three stories in Black Mirror need each other to create an entire image.  Could you watch it alone? Sure.  Should you?  By no means.

The “black mirror” of the title, according to Brooker, refers to “the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”  It’s a bleak, dismal show.  It does not offer hope.  It’s not a loving look at technology (Brooker offers that elsewhere).  It’s worrying, unnerving, and in a few years people will be calling it “prophetic.”  It is also cleverly written, well acted, and overall solid.  Watch it?  Yes.  Just be in a good mood first.

There’s no word yet on a R1 release for Black Mirror. But rest assured I will be glued to every available social site waiting for news.  Nothing bad will happen if I just play a little FarmVille while I wait, right?