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Josh Steps Into the Black Mirror

January 2nd, 2015
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So a few weeks ago, within a few days of one another, I suddenly heard from several friends who each told me that I must, underline must, watch this new show called Black Mirror.  I was struck by this confluence of recommendations, so I felt it was my duty to track down the show’s six episodes that are now streaming on Netflix.  (A seventh installment, a Christmas Special, is as of now only available on Direct TV.)  Holy cow.  My jaw is still on the floor.

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Black Mirror is a British anthology show in the vein of The Twilight Zone.  The first series of three episodes were broadcast in the U.K. back in 2011, and the second series of three episodes appeared in 2013.  The show began streaming here in the States on Netflix last month.

Each episode of Black Mirror stands alone.  There is no continuity between episodes, and each episode features an entirely different setting and cast.  Each episode presents a scary picture of a world that has been changed in some way by technology.  Not for the better.  The Black Mirror of the show’s title makes me think of stepping through the looking glass into a world not like our own but terrifyingly possible.  Series creator Charlie Brooker has also described the Black Mirror as that on all the screens that increasingly surround our lives: our computers, our ipads, our phones, etc.

Each episode of the show is a unique, gorgeous, terrifying mini-movie.  Of the six episodes, I truly don’t think there is a weak link.  Each episode is a parable for the dangerous ways in which technology that might at first seem beneficial can have the power to have a significant negative effect on our lives and our society.  Some episodes take place in a world that is almost identical to our own.  (The very first episode, “The National Anthem,” feels like the closest to our own.  There is no notable technological difference to this society — it’s our world, we just see someone use the technology that we have in a horrifying new way.)   Some episodes take place in a world similar to our own but where a certain technological advance has changed society, which is then explored in that episode.  One episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” takes place in a more futuristic setting.  Each episode presents a fully-realized world, one in which a very specific idea is being explored in the story.

That first episode, “The National Anthem,” absolutely blew my mind.  It was quite horrifying to watch.  Not because we saw anything gruesome on screen, but because of the screw-tightening intensity of the story.  As the episode unfolds, you witness an insane but also  frighteningly plausible scenario unfold, and the show is merciless in the way it follows that idea through to the end.  I have read some suggestions online that new viewers NOT start with the first episode, because it’s different in tone than the other episodes of the series.  Having now seen all six episodes, I can see that perspective.  But I am not wired to watch anything out of order, and I think I am glad I started with that first episode.  It is probably the most stomach-churningly unpleasant of the six episodes, but on the other hand it is a commanding announcement of the series’ take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.  (You’ll notice I am avoiding any description of the episode’s plot.  You’re really best off going in entirely cold.  I don’t want to spoil a single detail.)  This first episode is one of the most memorable hours of television I have seen in years.

The series’ third episode, “The Entire History of You,” is probably my favorite of the six.  This episode presents the most intriguing of the series’ sci-fi concepts (again, I really want to avoid spilling any details here) that ties into a devastating personal drama.  The sci-fi hook is really delicious, and terrifyingly conceivable.  And that ending.  Hoo-ah!

But it’s hard for me to pick a favorite episode.  These episodes all haunt my mind after having watched them!!

The series features a tremendous cast, top to bottom.  Individual episodes feature: Rory Kinnear (who has been popping up in the Daniel Craig Bond films), Hayley Atwell (Sharon Carter from the Captain America films and her upcoming TV show), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley from the Harry Potter films; About Time), Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block), Toby Kebbell (he played Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Donald Sumpter (Maester of Winterfell from Game of Thrones!) and many other amazing actors.

When describing the show’s first episode, above, I wrote that it was merciless, and I think that is something that is true of every one of the episodes.  It’s a hallmark of this show.  Black Mirror does not flinch in following through each idea, each scenario, through to its logical conclusion.  This is the power of the show, and the power of speculative fiction at its very best.  In my opening, I compared this show to The Twilight Zone, and as I have read more about the show I have read that comparison made repeatedly.  It’s a huge compliment to Mr. Brooker and his collaborators.  Here finally is a show that feels like a true heir to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  This is bold, confident story-telling with a distinct worldview and a chip on its shoulder.  I love Black Mirror for that.

But make no mistake, Black Mirror is unique and very much of our time.  This show feel fearsomely prescient.  I just hope we can manage to avoid these six nightmare scenarios the show has painted so far.

This is genius level television, my friends.  Black Mirror will keep you up at night, but this is a show that demands to be seen.  Don’t miss it.

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