I’m writing this blog post on a black mirror. A few minutes ago, I reached into my pocket and pulled out another black mirror. When I look up, I see another black mirror up against the wall in my home. And there are nearly a dozen more elsewhere in my house right now. I spend many hours each day in front of black mirrors. And after watching the British anthology series Black Mirror, I’m not sure how to feel about that.
No show has ever made me more uncomfortable about my lifestyle choices than Black Mirror, which pushes my generation’s fascination with digital technology to its logical and dangerous extremes, then sits back and watches as humanity suffers. With an exciting anthology structure and rotating cast of terrific actors, Black Mirror distinguishes itself from the rest of television by calling into direct question the technological relationships its viewers have spent much, if not all, of their lives cultivating. Each episode takes place sometime in the near future – near enough that it’s easy to imagine the technology I’m using now evolving into the technology on the show. The mirror of the title might be black, but this show holds up a traditional reflective mirror to culture in 2014. What’s on the other side is disconcerting.
Each episode starts in media res – no title cards or expository monologues to catch us up. We’re immediately thrust into a future world that often looks and acts much like our own, albeit with its subtle atrocities rising to the surface. Sometimes the targets are obvious. In “The Entire History of You,” each person wears a small chip under his earlobe that allows him to view and project high-definition images of his entire collection of memories at a moment’s notice. In this world, people don’t watch TV – they watch televised performances of their pasts, and often, they don’t like what they see. The episode’s main character is a bitter, distant husband (Rory Kinnear) who suspects that his wife is cheating on him with a younger, sexier, more free-spirited man. It’s not hard to imagine a 2015 version of this man confronting his wife with incriminating Facebook posts or private Tumblr essays gone public.
Other times, the satire targets fundamental concepts rather than specific technologies. In “White Bear,” humans watch in delight as a convicted criminal blindly endures ritual torture for a month. In “National Anthem,” different humans with the same tendencies are transfixed at the sight of a prominent public figure debasing himself on live television. And in “15 Million Merits,” human labor is reduced to mindless slogging on a stationary bicycle, with the only respite coming from the superficial entertainment piped in from the powers that be. None of this satire is particularly subtle, and any attempts at comedy are as black as night, but it’s pointed and hits home. Even the irony of a television writer criticizing humanity for its fascination with television doesn’t rob these stories of their allegorical power. Brooker wisely keeps his character focus in each episode narrow, so that the satire emerges from more sympathetic voices.
The notion that the stories in Black Mirror could come to life – or worse, that they already have – makes watching Black Mirror a terrifying exercise in self-reflection. The title couldn’t be more apt.
I’ve watched five of the seven episodes so far. (Binge-watching would rob me of the opportunity to anticipate and theorize about what sick concoctions future episodes might have in store.) My favorite episode so far is “Be Right Back,” the first hour of the second season. In this installment, Hayley Atwell and Domnhall Gleason play a lovely young married couple who care about each other very much, even when Gleason’s gawky Ash spends more time looking at his phone than listening to his wife. But when Ash perishes in a mysterious accident, Martha is left only with Ash’s digital remains – his social media profiles, audio recordings, computer files and text message archives. That is, until she’s offered the opportunity to synthetically resurrect her husband using the archive he left behind. First Martha can talk to an approximation of her late husband on the phone, but things take a dark turn when a tangible synthetic sorta-Ash steps out of her bathtub. He’s too real, at once comforting and distancing. Some things, and all people, should expire.
I hope Black Mirror doesn’t, though. It’s a show that takes full advantage of its nimble format and reaches for thematic depth and visual grandeur more often than most series on the landscape right now. (For evidence, watch the positively vast spectrum of emotions that flit across Atwell’s face in “Be Right Back.” Even as her character falls helplessly into destructive habits, her grief warms the show’s typically cold aesthetic.) On the other hand, the show is no picnic to watch. It’s bleak, at times punishingly so. I find myself looking at my own technological products with a more cynical eye as a result of watching the show. And none of the episodes offer much in the way of resolution. Even “15 Million Merits,” which seems headed for a David-vs.-Goliath showdown, culminates in a twist that leaves its main character simultaneously liberated and helpless. Perhaps the only consoling element of Black Mirror is that using our black mirrors might allow us to discover a show as thought-provoking and emotionally involving as Black Mirror. Maybe that was the plan all along.
You can stream the first two seasons of Black Mirror for free on Netflix now. A 2014 Christmas special starring Jon Hamm is available on DirecTV.