Through the glass, darkly.
Screengrab: Black Mirror
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
With the holiday season ending and the bleak stretch of seemingly endless winter and work ahead, do yourself a favor and start watching Black Mirror on Netflix if you haven't already. Yes, as the title indicates, it's a dark and creepy and often brutal series. But it's also beautiful and hilarious and timely and one of the best shows to come out of current golden age of television.
A critically acclaimed British anthology sci-fi series that began in 2011 on the UK's Channel 4 but which only recently came to a mass US audience legally via Netflix, Black Mirror has been described by various reviewers as kind of like Twilight Zone for the information age. Each self-contained episode (there have been seven so far, including a just-aired Christmas special sadly not available on Netflix quite yet) features a completely different story and cast.
All of the episodes are loosely related in that they're set in a very near future quite similar to our own, except with various new technologies that are spookily plausible, like a memory chip that records every second of your life for playback later on. While these new technologies often serve as the catalyst for the stories, what makes Black Mirror so fantastic is that it doesn't treat them as particularly exceptional. They're just another tool for the characters to use, seamlessly appearing alongside more recognizable items from our present like smartphones, laptops, cars, and toasters. The world of Black Mirror shows people as they've always been: lonely, capricious, selfish, but also funny and weird and capable of surprises great and terrible. The technology they use changes them in unexpected and often troubling ways, but it's always up to the people how to use it, for good or, more often than not, for ill.
After binge-watching all seven episodes this week — two seasons of three 45-minute episodes on Netflix, plus the special Black Mirror: White Christmas episode that aired in the US on DirecTV's Audience channel last night — I observed a few big themes that Black Mirror tackles that are extremely relevant to our own age. Spoilers ahead.
It shows how screens have become the new reality
In case you didn't quite catch the reference, the title of the series itself, "Black Mirror" refers to the numerous black-screened devices we surrounded ourselves with now: smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, etc. While the show introduces several new technologies that don't require the use of screens, like the aforementioned memory chip, screens factor heavily into every single narrative of the show.
In fact, a good chunk of the entire run of Black Mirror is spent watching characters watching videos within the world of each episode. This is most obvious in the premiere, The National Anthem, which is basically all a "will he?" or "won't he?" crescendo of the entire English speaking world waiting around their TVs with bated breaths to see if the UK Prime Minister will give into the demands of anonymous kidnappers of a Royal Family member and fuck a pig live on national television.
But screens feature prominently throughout subsequent episodes as well, often impacting the narrative in powerful ways. In The Entire History of You, the episode with the memory chip, characters watch one another's memories on slick transparent TV screens throughout their homes. Later, when the main character in the episode replays his own memories, he zooms in on the screens and finds damning evidence from the memories of other people.
The point isn't necessarily to show how screen-addicted modern society has become — although there are a few moments in several episodes that briefly and savagely mock our growing dependency on smartphones, namely in Be Right Back and White Bear. More importantly, Black Mirror subtly shows how much of lives we live through screens now. They're not just for our communications or our passive viewing and entertainment anymore, but also how we form our impressions of one another, as well as how we make vital decisions and memories.
It's honest about sex and intimacy
Black Mirror isn't nearly as sexually explicit or concerned with relationships as, say, Girls, but it does look at how modern sexual relationships can be changed by time and technology, often for the worse. One particularly haunting and funny scene from The Entire History of You shows the main character and his wife having wild, passionate sex in their bed, only to cut to a scene that shows them mechanically spooning instead, their eyes flickering as they replay that earlier memory in their heads to get off. Lots of people fantasize about other moments or situations while they're having sex, but this very literal interpretation is both clever and incisive.
My favorite episode, Be Right Back, features a woman who tries to bring her boyfriend back from the dead, initially with a program that scans and mimics the language of his social media posts. She later purchases a full body replica of him made out of synthetic tissue (presumably 3D printed, though we don't see that). Her initial skepticism toward the idea gradually turns into enthusiasm and then into full on desire. But after a hot drunken hookup with his body double, she grows wary, then resentful of him and the uncanny valley that separates him from her real dead lover. For anyone who's ever hooked up with an ex knowing it was a bad idea, the situation will sound familiar. Few partners can live up to the idealized versions of them we have in our heads.
The special episode, Black Mirror: White Christmas, satirizes pickup artists and pickup culture in a particularly effective way, with Mad Men's Jon Hamm playing the role of Matt Trent, a skeezeball dating coach to a hapless dork, who sees through his client's eyes. When things go awry, as with many a wingman, Hamm's character cuts and runs.
Another great thing about Black Mirror is that it doesn't take the easy route of demonizing pornography or how accessible it is thanks to the internet. Porn factors heavily into one storyline, the underrated Fifteen Million Merits, and while it does criticize the apparent exploitation of some porn stars, porn is ultimately portrayed as just one of many types of media that people use to distract themselves from the crushing monotony of their oppressive daily routines and overall powerlessness in the face of huge corporate interests.
It's damningly critical of how people objectify one another
Saying Black Mirror is like a modern day Twilight Zone is a decent comparison, but in many ways I think it's more like Clockwork Orange. This is especially true in a few episodes showing the criminal justice system run amok, White Bear and White Christmas, where new technology is used to punish offenders so savagely that us viewers can't but help feel some sympathy for them.
In the case of White Bear, the main character awakens with amnesia and is inexplicably hunted by masked killers through a suburban neighborhood, only to later discover the entire event is an endlessly repeating stageplay designed to psychologically torture her, all for the benefit of a bloodthirsty populace. In White Christmas, Hamm's character tortures the disembodied consciousness of several people by speeding up time for them in an electronic purgatory. "She's only a bit of code, she's not real, fuck her," is how Hamm's character justifies it in the case of one person.
Those episodes in particular speak to how people can defend treating their fellow men and women horribly: by objectifying one another. More broadly, Black Mirror shows us that as technology becomes more and more human, with computer programs anticipating our needs, playing friend and caretaker and servant to our whims, there's a risk of people using that technology to treat each other less humanely. That's a great parable for the information age, and for whatever the future holds.