Last week, a friend recommended Black Mirror – or rather, they expressed shock when they found out I hadn’t watched it yet. I finally got around to starting it a few days ago, armed only with the notion that it was some kind of modern-day British Twilight Zone.
The first episode of the first season, The National Anthem, had me hooked within minutes. “I’m not going to fuck a pig,” the Prime Minister declares, faced with a list of demands from terrorists who’ve kidnapped Britain’s sweetheart of a princess. While the premise of the first episode is set up quickly, the remainder of the hour-long show feels toothless. Objections to carrying through the terrorists’ demands center largely around whether the cost/benefit balances out, and the story tips dramatically once the kidnapper starts sending non-essential body parts to local news agencies. I know there’s a limit to what can be accomplished in an hour of anthology television, but focusing on the journalistic side of the ethical conundrum comes at the cost of really peeling back the layers of what it means for a human being to weigh ethics and choose to make the decision to engage in sex with a creature incapable of consent. The idea of a journalist willing to exploit her body and her connections for a story isn’t a new one, and the story doesn’t delve any deeper than that.
Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode, evokes Doctor Who’s Satellite Five, (“The Long Game,” “Bad Wolf,” “The Parting of the Ways”) in that it’s set in a world based around a reality-show model of civilization. Individuals go to a gym and pedal on stationary bikes all day (I admit, my attention wandered a little bit, here) and earn credits, which they spend on things like food – and avoiding erotic commercials. They watch a reality competition called Hot Shots, paying millions of credits to compete. Here, our protagonist (who’s conveniently inherited millions from his dead brother) falls for a girl whose singing talent, he thinks, is enough to get her a ticket out of their mundane existence. Ultimately, the corruption of the system swallows both of them whole.
So far (I’m now watching episode three, The Entire History of You), the show seems to set up intriguing premises without fully examining them. While ambiguity is the stock-in-trade of shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which, I’d argue, this show tracks with more closely), there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being noncommittal, and I would argue that so far Black Mirror is erring on the side of the latter. It’s less stylized than Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and while its creator, Charlie Brooker, is quoted as saying “Each episode…[is] all about the way we’re living now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy,” I’m not sure that the episodes so far are really being true to that vision.
Might a government official be coerced into an abhorrent sex act? Might we wind up living in pod hotels and generating electricity via stationary bicycle? Who knows. So far, the third episode seems the most realistic – and its conceit actually echos the basis of my story A Fixed Perspective, available in Short Frictions,
I’m not ready to say that Black Mirror is a miss, but so far, it hasn’t hit that sweet spot where, as an anthology show, it becomes more than a collection of brief conceptual exercises and morphs into something truly iconic.
Here’s hoping it hits that sweet spot soon.
Black Mirror is available via Netflix streaming service.
Edit: After writing this last night, I went on to start series 2; one episode into that and all I can say is, HOLY JUMP IN QUALITY, BATMAN! Looking forward to the rest of the second series, and hoping the quality keeps up!