Welcome to “Progress Report,” a spin on my standard review format, in which I observe TV and internet shows that are still a work in progress. Today’s candidate is Black Mirror, a sci-fi compilation series (similar to The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt) centered around the nearly limitless possibilities of technology, and the horrendously bleak future that lies ahead. The first and second seasons are only 3 and 4 episodes respectively, and aired originally on “Channel 4” in Britain before the entire series relocated to Netflix and expanded with two more 6-episode seasons. Episodes can be watched in any order without disrupting continuity (although there are a few easter eggs floating around in the later seasons). They average 45-50 minutes each, with a couple stretching out to feature length at 90 minutes.
Now that the facts are out of the way, let’s talk modern trends in technology. There’s one in particular I want to focus on because it might be the key driving force behind many of Black Mirror’s stories: The trend of immediacy. With the advent of smartphones, social media, and nearly endless online content, we’ve entered a world of instant access and immediate satisfaction. Information and knowledge are more accessible than ever, and so too is the ability to share our lives and thoughts with the rest of the world. On the other hand, we’re getting so good at finding answers that we often forgo the process of entertaining a question or the value of internalization. That’s the curse of immediacy: we know more, but retain less.
Black Mirror is writer/creator Charlie Brooker’s attempt to show where technology might take us, almost as an endpoint, with a sub-theme of immediacy. There are so many episodes in which the technology of the time creates solutions to its characters’ problems without them considering the problems it will create tomorrow. These clever stories focus on character routines that either engage with technology specifically or with the world as shaped by it, before breaking the protagonists with that technology – either nefariously or otherwise. I equate the experience to watching a string of transactions with Mephistopheles. The goal of these stories is to show how easily our lives can be taken over by the acceptance of seemingly simple solutions that tend to come with just as many, if not more, potential problems, almost like a drug cocktail. In fact, Brooker describes the show in a similar vein: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror is set.”
Uniquely, Black Mirror also bizarrely omits something we’ve clearly gotten all too accustomed to in modern day storytelling: catharsis. Normally, we see characters undergo terrible struggles and tragedies, and if the story is good we empathize with them. We’re sad when they’re sad, because on some level we relate to their emotional states, and that connection is often the biggest advantage to stories about people (or some living thing that acts like a person). With most stories, that emotional low is essential because it gives the character something to overcome in a crucial moment called the climax. Characters walk through that gate broken and come out ahead in some way: maybe they’ve overcome a trial, or found acceptance in something harsh, or come to a difficult but necessary understanding. This victory acts as an emotional release for the characters, but also for the audience, and it’s here in the stage of cathartic release that Black Mirror departs. The characters on screen rarely ever receive closure, and when they do it’s often at a much greater cost than they ever wanted. I can recall about a thimble’s weight worth of moments where justice was served or characters were left better off; even the victories offered always felt caustic on some level. And yet, what makes Black Mirror intense and fascinating is this compulsion to watch it anyway. Black Mirror is an often cynical brutal experience, but for all that pain it’s also one of the most honest viewing experiences I’ve ever had. There is no emotional release, no catharsis. Instead, what we have is something awfully compelling and thought-provoking.
As much as I’d love to get into the nitty gritty (and there is plenty of grit in Black Mirror), I feel the conceptual parade of ideas is better left a surprise. Instead, I thought I’d briefly mention the show’s progression. Because of the hit and miss nature of this kind of show, it’s more worthwhile to judge it by individual episodes than by entire seasons – but for what it’s worth the show has improved over time, albeit lethargically. Season 1 performed with reasonable strength, and each season has had overall better episodes than the last. But not a single season has been flawless. If I were to pick out my top five episodes, I think I’d have at least one episode from every season – but the same would be true if asked for my five least favorite (maybe Season 4 would dodge that bullet...maybe). I say this only to convey that Black Mirror is a show of ups and downs (along with emotional cliff vaults) that will present varying levels of narrative satisfaction for different people...but that’s also one of its massive strengths.
I often refer to a show like Black Mirror as an “idea generator:” a format made with the intent of rapidly exploring various ideas in short bursts of creativity. In this show’s case, most every episode is built off a simple question: “What if Social Media ran our lives?” (S3.1 - Nosedive); “What if it were possible to record everything you experience?” (S1.3 - The Entire History of You); “How far would you go to keep your privacy?” (S3.3 - Shut Up and Dance). Over the course of about an hour (and a half, occasionally) you can see the fullness of a question entertained, a new story born into the digital aether. I unabashedly love shows like this because of the sheer advantage they offer in variety. Among the 19 episodes available now, it’s nearly guaranteed that at least a couple will alter your perception and most others will impress or impact on some level. Even if the occasional story doesn’t stick (I love the show, but there are a couple big misses), its lack of luster is isolated to a single episode, allowing the next to start from scratch. I’ve already mentioned the value of exposure to the aspiring creator, and Black Mirror is a show I’d recommend for that value alone. Beyond that, there’s so much to intake and interpret it might make your head spin. It’s a show that, no matter how brutal or devastating, dares you to watch every soul-crushing minute...and you will.