Few would seriously argue that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is one of the seminal texts in popular culture, particularly in science fiction. Serling took TV sci fi out of the spaceships-fight-aliens-with-lasers cliche and brought it up to where some of the best short fiction of the 1950s had been, engaging with challenging and disturbing aspects of human sociology and psychology, probing the limits, philosophically, of what it meant to be human. And, no less importantly, doing so in a suspenseful episode of television. Its best episodes have never been bettered, but the British series Black Mirror, now available on Netflix this side of the Atlantic, comes close.
Helmed by the British satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror consists of two, three-episode series, a total of six one-hour slices of madness, tragedy and black humour. It’s the humour that makes it all work, although in the best episodes (such as season two’s “Be Right Back”), the show achieves emotional depth almost unparalleled in television. Each story is set in an unspecified near future, a wonderful tool for science fiction because it allows the show to include technology beyond what we have, but the characters and their lifestyles still feel close enough to us to be relatable. This is an anthology series, so each episode is an entirely fresh story, with a different cast and different director. What’s consistent, other than the excellent quality, is Brooker’s bleak, wry, and, if I may, very British sense of humour.
To describe what actually happens in these episodes would honestly be to spoil them (I know…). So, I’ll refrain from being too specific, but just to give a taste of what perverse and challenging treasures lie within, I will address each of the six specifically.
“The National Anthem” begins almost like an episode of Sherlock, with a random terrorist holding a member of the Royal Family hostage. But it takes a turn into dark psychosexual territory, finally, and with great subtlety, commenting on the difference between the public face of a powerful person’s marriage and the private reality.
“Fifteen Million Merits” starts out as a fairly conventional Brave New World-type dystopian vision (horrific in its relentless consumerism) and ends as an effective and disturbing homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network.
“The Entire History of You” also plays bait and switch, leading the viewer to believe in its early scenes that it will be some sort of corporate technological nightmare. But it turns into a story about jealousy and sex that would be at home in any Hitchcock film, particularly in the way it deconstructs notions of scopophilia, voyeurism and male sexual insecurity.
“Be Right Back”, quite possibly the strongest of all the episodes, is a more or less predictable but still devastating love story, refreshingly told from the female perspective. Sexual inadequacy is also a theme, but it is transcended by a tale that gets to the heart of what it means to love someone, in all of their aspects, good and bad. (And it also comments on how much of our personality is defined by our on-line presence.) Sort of like an earth-bound Solaris, a late scene on a cliff, mining the depths of the English literary subconscious and the Gothic romance, is unforgettable.
“White Bear” addresses themes of justice, shame and vengeance, and is possibly the most horrifying of all the episodes. As social allegory, it’s a tad on-the-nose and the audience that would stand to learn the most from its politics probably wouldn’t watch a show like this, but even the less strong episodes of this series tower above most television shows.
“The Waldo Moment” takes a seemingly improbable and laughable idea and spins it out into a commentary on the political system and its focus on personality rather than issues. It might seem an obvious and facile metaphor at first blush, but when one considers the Bush years and the damage an “all sizzle, no steak” Presidency can do to a nation, it acquires a darker lustre.
Black Mirror is, of course, in the end an entertainment show. Each of its episodes sports a brilliant cast (some of these actors I recognized from the Shakespearean stage), tasteful and well-realized production design, convincing special effects and superb direction. But it’s the dark, psychological hook that finally allows this show to haunt your dreams.
[Both seasons of the show are available on Netflix in the US. Just in case you’re interested, a new Black Mirror Christmas special starring Jon Hamm debuts next week, December 16th to be exact, on Channel 4 in the UK. I’m sure it will be worth a look.]