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Josh Reviews Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

January 16th, 2019
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I adored “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a kid.  I was totally hooked on them, reading them over and over.  In this seemingly endless series (many of which were written by R. A. Montgomery), every few pages you, the reader, would be presented with a choice as to what the main character (you) should do, and then you’d be directed to the page to turn to based on which choice you made.  As a result, there were many different ways the stories could play out.  Many of the endings resulted in the main character meeting an unfortunate end.  But perhaps, if you kept trying, you’d find a way to survive and make it through to a happy ending.

I’d never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible, but somehow, Black Mirror has found a way to replicate the feel of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a TV show, with the special, feature-length episode “Bandersnatch.”

Black Mirror is, of course, the spectacular anthology series created and run by Charlie Brooker.  It’s a modern-day Twilight Zone, with a focus on stories that explore how technology unchained can lead to tragic results.  (Click here for my review of the two original British seasons, and click here for my review of Netflix’s third season.  I actually still haven’t finished watching the fourth Netflix season, which was released about a year ago — life has gotten in the way!! — but when “Bandersnatch” came out, I jumped into watching it right away.)

“Bandersnatch” was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade.  Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” tells the story of a young man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, who was the lead in Dunkirk), who is working on his own to create a Choose Your Own Adventure style computer game, based on a book he loved called Bandersnatch.  He brings the idea to a computer game company called Tuckersoft, where he meets the head of the company Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) as well as his idol, the famous video-game creator Colin (Will Poulter, from Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Revenant). 

Incredibly, this entire special Black Mirror episode plays out as an interactive experience for the viewer.  Every few minutes (and even more frequently at times), you are prompted on screen to make a decision as to what Stefan should do.  You make your choice via your remote control, and then the film unfolds based upon that choice.  Just like in a real Choose Your Own Adventure book, sometimes those choices take you out of the story quickly, as things unfold poorly for poor … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Three!

My list of my Twenty Favorite Episodes of TV in 2016 continues!  Click here for the beginning of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for part two, numbers fifteen through ten.

Let’s continue as we enter my Top Ten!

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10. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (season one, episode six, aired on 3/8/16) – I vividly remember the events of the O.J. trial, and at first the idea of a TV dramatization of those events didn’t hold much appeal for me, but like everyone else I was blown away by the riveting ten-episode The People v. O.J. Simpson.  I was incredibly impressed with the way the show humanized so many of the men and women involved in the trial, even those who at the time I saw as villains or cartoons.  The show’s greatest triumph was its complete redemption of losing prosecutor Marcia Clarke, who was brutalized by the media and much of the public at the time.  This incredible episode of the show shines a spotlight on this particular issue, showing the many ways in which Ms. Clarke was run through the public ringer as she attempted to prosecute the case.  The show, and this episode, hold out Ms. Clarke as a hero, someone attempting to navigate the impossible collision of prosecuting a hugely public case while also attempting to maintain a private life and be a mom to her kids, all the while going through a nasty divorce (and the way that divorce was thrust into the public eye), as well as incredible sexism and judgments about her appearance (her outfits, her hairstyle) made by the general public and colleagues alike.  We see Ms. Clarke forced to grin and bear snide comments not only from Judge Lance Ito but even a nameless check-out clerk when she’s buying tampons.  It’s heartbreaking.  This performance was a triumph by Sarah Paulson, who was able to bring Ms. Clarke to life with enormous dignity and grace, and who with just a tiny movement or look could bring the audience right into Ms. Clarke’s heart and mind.

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9. Black Mirror: “San Junipero” (season three, episode four, released on 10/21/16) – I rejoiced that Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s marvelous British anthology series exploring the dangers of technology, was resurrected by Netflix for a third season.  This new season didn’t wind up matching the greatness of the first two seasons, but one standout was this episode, “San Junipero.”  In the 1980′s, we follow the gentle story of the flowering relationship between Yorkie (The Martians Mackenzie Davis), a tentative young woman first taking ownership of the idea that she is a lesbian, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Season Three of Black Mirror!

I adored the original six episodes made of the British TV show Black Mirror.  Series creator Charlie Brooker had made a riveting modern/day Twilight Zone, with each episode a completely stand-alone installment presenting a look at the ways that technology has the potential to be terribly destructive to our lives. Those first six episodes, made between 2011-13, are brilliant, and if you haven’t yet seen them I implore you to drop everything and go check them out — they are available to stream on Netflix.

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I was very excited when I read that Netflix would be resurrecting the show, allowing Mr. Brooker to create six new episodes. I took my time watching the new episodes, both because I didn’t want them to be over too quickly and also because these episodes are very intense and I couldn’t handle too many too quickly! But now I have completed the new season and am eager to share my thoughts.

While there is nothing here in season three that equals the best of the original six episodes, I enjoyed most of these new episodes very much. Mr. Brooker has brought in some talented people to help create this new season, and it’s interesting to see the resulting slightly-different spins on the show.  (Though, rest assured, these new episodes all thoroughly feel like Black Mirror.) None of these new episodes reach the genius level that so many of the original six episodes did, and a few are weakened by some flaws I’d have preferred to have seen corrected along the way. But all six episodes are interesting and have a lot to enjoy. While this third season might just be “very good” rather than “genius,” that is still something for us to be thankful for. I am very glad that six more episodes of Black Mirror now exist! (With the possibility of more on the way!)

Here is my episode-by-episode rundown. I’ll avoid major SPOILERS but, still, I highly advise stopping here if you haven’t yet seen these episodes.

Nosedive — the new season gets off to a somewhat shaky start with this first installment.  “Nosedive” has a brilliant, terrifying-in-its-possibility premise, but it suffers somewhat in execution. In the not-too-distant future, everyone can use their cell-phones to rate their interactions with every person they meet, and those scores accumulate into a person’s average score that is constantly visible (because of special contact lenses that everyone wears) whenever you see anyone else.  Bryce Dallas Howard is spectacular as a young woman, Lacie, trying to nudge up her personal score. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that these scores classify each individual into a certain social class. (The story is instigated because Lacie wants … [continued]

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The Top 15 Episodes of TV in 2014 — Part Two!

I have expanded my usual end-of-the-year list of the Top Ten Episodes of TV to a Top Fifteen list for 2014!  Yesterday I wrote about numbers fifteen through eleven, discussing stellar episodes of Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Fargo, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Black Mirror.

And now, let’s continue!

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10. Family Guy: “The Simpsons Guy” (season 13, episode 1, aired on 9/28/14) — In this hour-long special, the Griffins leave Quahog and travel to Springfield, where cartoon universes collide.  I never ever thought that a) I would actually see a Simpsons/Family Guy crossover, or that b) it would be made with such obvious love for both shows.  This crossover was made by the Family Guy team, and the first few minutes (in which Peter gets into trouble for his controversial political cartoons) are pure Family Guy.  But once the show heads to Springfield, I was delighted by the clear love and respect on display for The Simpsons, and also by the depth of attention which the Family Guy creators brought to their exploration of the Simpsons universe.  There are obvious pairings that are mined for a lot of fun (seeing Homer and Peter drinking together, and comparing Duff Beer to Pawtucket Patriot Ale, is of course a hoot), but we also get to dig deeper into both cartoon universes as, for example, Carl meets Cleveland and Mayor Quimby meets Mayor Adam West, and the Simpsons version of James Woods meets the Family Guy version of James Woods.  Is the epic Homer/Peter Chicken Fight way longer and more violent than it needs to be?  I suppose it is, but that’s part of the joke, isn’t it?  It certainly worked for me.  Throw in Kang and Kodos in a rare non-Halloween episode appearance and a callback to Homer’s skateboarding over the Springfield Gorge (a classic early Simpsons gag) and you have a terrific love-letter to both of these animated shows.  (Click here for my original review of “The Simpsons Guy.”)

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9. Mad Men: “Waterloo” (season 7, episode 7, aired on 5/25/14) — What a powerhouse of an episode.  The political machinations in the office run thick as Don receives a letter stating he is being fired for breach of contract, only for Don to call a meeting that turns the tables on Jim Cutler and Lou Avery.  Roger then negotiates with another agency, McCann Erickson, to buy SC&P as an independent subsidiary of McCann, but has to get Don and an increasingly depressed Ted Chaough to agree.  The show finally arrives at the dramatic events of July 20th, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walks on the moon.  At the last minute, Don decides that Peggy should give the … [continued]

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The Top 15 Episodes of TV in 2014 — Part One!

A few years ago, I had a hard time writing my list of the Ten Best Episodes of TV for that year.  I felt I had a hard time coming up with ten truly great episodes, and I was also discouraged because I was way behind on much of the TV that everyone else seemed excited about that year.  Well, this year I still feel like there is so much great television that I have not had a chance to watch.  I still haven’t finished Breaking Bad (my wife and I are currently in the middle of season three), and I haven’t had a chance to watch any of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, The Americans, Hannibal, and several other shows that sound amazing.

But, for all the probably-great TV that I HAVEN’T had a chance to watch this year, there is so much great stuff that I DID have a chance to see.  So much so that, just as I felt the need to expand my usual Top 15 Movies list to a Top 20 this year, I have expanded my usual TV Top Ten list to a Top Fifteen.

And so, without further delay, here is my list of the Top Fifteen Episodes of TV of 2014!

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15. Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper” (season 4, episode 8, aired on 6/1/14) — I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to slow down or to loose some of the intensity that was so intoxicating when the show began, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Thank goodness!  Season four was incredibly strong, and almost any episode could have made this list.  There are a lot of great moments in “The Mountain and The Viper.”  Arya’s explosion of disbelieving, cathartic laughter when she and the Hound arrive at the Eyrie only to discover that her aunt, Lysa, has just perished, is amazing.  I loved Tyrion’s conversation with his brother Jamie about their slow-witted cousin.  It was incredible to, FINALLY, see Sansa Stark take control of her destiny for the first time on the show, as she puts on a magnificent act in front of the ruling council of the Eyrie in order to convince them that Littlefinger, who murdered Lysa, is in fact innocent of the crime.  But the reason this episode is on my list is because of this episode’s crazy cliffhanger, a standout even for this show that excels for its crazy cliffhangers.  After a season of build-up, Tyrion’s trial by combat begins as Oberyn Martell and the Mountain do battle.  It is an incredible action sequence, one that had me on the edge of my seat as I wondered just what the heck would happen.  I … [continued]

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Josh Steps Into the Black Mirror

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 … [continued]