The British TV series available for streaming on Netflix is set in the near future and each episode features a new story with a different cast and deals with the impact of technology on people’s lives, especially miniaturized communication technology that does not yet exist but seems tantalizingly possible, such as tiny chips embedded in our brains that record every aspect of our lives and can be played back at will or software that, by accessing as much information that exists about a person, can re-create a replica that is indistinguishable from a person who died, or immersive virtual reality worlds that are indistinguishable from the physical one.
The series is thought provoking, especially in the way that each technology feature seems to be at first beneficial but in fact has a dark side. It makes one ask questions such as: Do we really want to have the ability to recall everything at will in great detail? Would we miss a dead person so much that we would want to have a relationship with a facsimile, however faithful it is to the original in the way it looks and talks?
The series takes a dark view of politics and the media, which is not surprising since the series was created and the episodes mostly written by Charlie Brooker, whose sardonic commentaries on the sorry state of both I have linked to before. In one second season episode called The Waldo Moment, an insult spewing, cartoon blue bear voiced and animated by a politically ignorant, failed, and frustrated comedian suddenly becomes a political force when the producers of his TV show decide as a lark to run him for office in a by-election to the British parliament. While watching it last week, I became convinced that Brooker had taken his inspiration from Donald Trump but when I looked it up, this episode aired in February 2013, so the episode was prescient rather than derivative.
Reviewers have compared Black Mirror the old American TV series The Twilight Zone but I am in no position to judge since I never saw that. These stories are often disturbing and even on occasion arouse a sense of disgust, such as in the very first episode of the first season titled The National Anthem. Very few decent people are portrayed and almost everyone is using other people for their own ends. But perhaps Brooker’s sharpest barbs are reserved for us, the viewers, people who are passive, obsessed by media, and have become essentially voyeurs, losing our humanity and living in a world where other people become objects for our use and entertainment.
For example, Nosedive, the first episode of the third season, is the story of a society where social media encourages people to rank everyone they meet, however casually, on a scale of 1 to 5, and people are obsessed with raising their average ratings because high ratings bring with it social prestige and desirability and all manner of privileges while low ratings make you an outcast. One might think that this would encourage people to behave better towards one another in order to get good ratings from them, but like all the other potentially positive aspects of technology portrayed in this series, it doesn’t quite work out that way, and the darker side wins out. People suck up to those with high ratings but once someone slips and is seen as a loser and not worth cultivating because their opinions have ceased to matter, people pile on, driving them further into the ground, a more extreme form of the public shaming that occurs now.
This is not feel-good TV, though it is well worth watching. For all its darkness, the episodes are gripping because of the sharp writing and directing. One never knows where one is being taken. In such types of stories, it is often hard to find an ending that is not anti-climactic, absurd, or deflating but this show manages to do most of them well. I have seen the first two series (consisting of seven episodes in all) and am in the midst of watching the third consisting of another six, so please don’t reveal any spoilers!
Here’s the trailer for the first season.
Here is an old clip by Brooker where he himself appears so that you get a sense of the person behind the series.
Here’s an older clip where he compares British and US news that still holds up.