In the first episode of season one of Black Mirror, internet pranksters kidnap a princess and con Britain’s prime minister into having sex with a pig on live television. The particulars are a little more complicated, but that’s the gist.
Seeing the show for the first time, I couldn’t believe what I’d just witnessed. It felt like the most dynamic and disturbing television the world had ever known. They should have been talking about it on the news—people were grossly underreacting to this astounding piece of TV cinema.
Black Mirror is created and primarily written by Charlie Brooker, who was previously famous in the UK for satirical television (think Jon Stewart, but with more edge). The show started on Britain’s Channel 4 and is now produced by Netflix. Episodes run about an hour or longer, each with its own stand-alone
storyline, characters and tone. Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone for the digital era, in which technological advances lead to horrifying and nightmarishly plausible social consequences.
Season 3 premiered in October with six new episodes (six more are expected for release in 2017). A few of the storylines have ventured to America and taken on a certain Hollywood polish, but the darkness and quality of the storytelling remain uncompromised.
In season 3’s first episode, “Nosedive,” Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) lives in a near-future when social media clout has become literal currency. Imagine if every human was rated on Yelp. In this world, when your rating dips too low you’re made to wait in longer lines, your keys no longer open doors and people shun you in the street. It’s not too far off from how we do things now. The characters in “Nosedive” are shallow and empty on the inside, but the episode has a pastel palette that makes it seem almost cheery compared to some of the season’s bleaker stories.
The show reaches perhaps its darkest point in Episode 3, “Shut Up and Dance,” when internet perverts and adulterers are discovered by an anonymous hack and blackmailed to do horrendous things to keep their secrets. The episode puts viewers in the awkward position of sympathizing with bad people. And if American network programming has you accustomed to being coddled in the final act, you’re in for a healthful shock.
Not just effective science fiction entertainment, these are heavy-handed morality tales with pertinent lessons to teach. And though the episodes stand alone, certain technologies make repeat appearances in unexpected ways. Implants that allowed social media users to see a person’s score in “Nosedive” reoccur with a different purpose in Episode 5, “Men Against Fire,” where soldiers’ senses are enhanced and manipulated to achieve violent ends. Finally, Episode 6, “Hated in the Nation,” delivers a poignant lesson about internet bullying and groupthink that everyone with ears and eyes should pay attention to.
When people say that we’re living in a “golden era of television” and that TV shows are now better than movies, I mostly don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. All these soap opera melodramas sprawling in vague directions with built-in commercial pauses and actors whose faces looked like forged paintings—who needs them? Black Mirror is the only television show that matters.
Nevertheless, resist the urge to binge-watch this show. Marketers want us to be gluttons with our media, as if this is a good and harmless thing. It’s not. A breather between episodes will help you digest. These are fascinating stories told with imagination and guts, and they demand and reward careful attention.