UK TV critic and writer Charlie Brooker is best known as an acerbic columnist for The Guardian newspaper, but his own ventures into television have always been met with critical approval. From his Screenwipe and Newswipe series to the zombie mini-series Dead Set and even the erratic Nathan Barley, Brooker has been able to air his blackly comic, cynical worldview. But none of them met with the acclaim – and the Emmy – that the anthology series Black Mirror has obtained so far.
Comprising two seasons to date, each three episodes long, Black Mirror is a Twlight Zone-esque set of ‘what if’ stories based around technology and social media and their effects on modern society. These are subjects close to the heart of Brooker, himself an avid Tweeter.
This collection actually has only five of the six episodes due to music rights issues around the second episode of the first season, an on-the-nose futuristic satire called, 15 Million Credits. It is disappointing – as this is arguably the best episode of all – but fortunately the quality of the remaining episodes included more than enough to make up for its omission.
The first season opens with The National Anthem, which paints a scenario where a beloved member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and the kidnapper’s demand for her release is simple: that the Prime Minister of Great Britain have sex with a pig on live TV. When every attempt to find the kidnapper, fake footage or otherwise get out of it fail, the clock ticks on and the PM must make a terrible decision.
It is jet black humour, to be sure, but the comedy aspect of the opener makes it actually lighter than most of the other episodes. Like the rest of the stories, though, it is primarily a “what if” exercise to make acerbic points – in this case on the media and the public’s desire for salacious news stories.
Season One’s closer is The Entire History of You, where the enabling conceit is that most people sign up for a medical implant that allows them to record and playback all of the events in their lives. When a disaffected man suspects his wife of cheating on him, his microscopic analysis of past footage threatens to destroy their relationship.
While a powerful statement on the nature of memory and the modern urge to constantly preserve it with photos and videos, The Entire History of You suffers from unlikeable characters and a generally oppressive atmosphere. It’s downward spiral is as inevitable as it is bleak.
Season Two begins with a similar technological idea in a domestic situation – in this case, a service that uses all of the online posts and photos and comments of a deceased loved one to create an imaginary version of them to assist in the grieving process.
What starts as a commentary on how we represent ourselves to the outside world and the nature of grief (anchored by a fantastic performance by Hayley Atwell) takes a turn for the Cronenbergian when widow Martha (Atwell) purchases a synthetic body that the service uses to create a clone of her dead husband (Domhnall Gleeson – son of Brendan Gleeson). In a superbly shot and written piece, the uncanny valley of this emotionless simulacrum damages Martha irrevocably…
White Bear is a stylistically different episode as it is somewhat less grounded in reality. Here, a woman awakes with no memory to find herself in a world populated by three types of people: those like herself, the rare minority, who are ‘normal’. Then there are those who have been exposed to a signal transmitted via mobile phones who are now simple observers, mute and obsessed solely with videoing all things around them with their phones.
The third type of person is those who realised that, with the majority of the populace now effectively impotent, they can do whatever they like. And what they like to do is hunt and kill the ‘normals’.
White Bear is a messy episode, but not without a shrewd twist of events and more caustic attacks on society – this time on pack mentality and the communal need for lynch mob justice. Although in this case, the satire is a bit too blunt, a bit too overt, to have the punch of other episodes.
Finally, Season Two closer is an idea originally formulated for Nathan Barley. In this episode, entitled The Waldo Moment, a cartoon character from a TV comedy series gets the ire of a Conservative politician. The TV executives decide the best thing for ratings would be to have the character, a blue motion-controlled CG bear named Waldo, run for parliament against the heavily-favoured Conservative politician and the first-time Labour candidate running against him.
When the bear’s operator and voice, a comedian named Jamie (Daniel Rigby), sees his creation gaining more and more popularity on a simple nihilistic platform of being anti-everything, he tries to rebel…only to find the plans for Waldo go much higher than a mere local by-election.
This episode feels the most telling for Brooker. Here, it seems, he turns the microscope on himself. As someone who has forged their career on mocking television and politicians, Jamie’s breakdown as he sees himself as somebody who only criticises, only destroys and never contributes, feels like Brooker laying his insecurities bare.
With the cutting brilliance of Black Mirror, surely one of the most aggressively socially aware programmes of the modern age, Brooker need no longer fear that is the case for him. Or perhaps it is? For most of Black Mirror, it is concerned like Waldo, with pointing out the problems…without offering solutions. Because they are not easy or maybe – just maybe – there aren’t any. And that is the darkest suggestion of all.
Thought-provoking, powerful, this is an inventive series laden with ideas that, whilst not always executed in the most entertaining of fashion, are always deadly accurate. Essential viewing.