Black Mirror [review]

I’ve been thinking lately about the difficulty of writing political fiction, especially speculative political fiction. The main pitfall of political fiction is highlighted by Anthony Burgess in his foreword to A Clockwork Orange: “too didactic to be artistic.” I disagree with Burgess that A Clockwork Orange suffers from that problem, but I’ll leave that entire conundrum for another time. Watching the British TV show Black Mirror drew me to another issue: political realism. This is actually the primary problem I have with most YA dystopias – I just don’t believe that this terrible, unequal, totalitarian society could possibly exist or function long enough for a revolution to need to take place. As Ben “Greasnin'” Platt on Something Awful once said, “I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty huge willingness to suspend disbelief. Hell, I watched Dragon Ball Z for years and enjoyed the fuck out of it. But somehow this just asked too much of me.” Yes, there is North Korea… but that’s the exception that proves the rule. There are many, many more examples of “soft authoritarian” regimes that provide room for rich and fantastic stories – I grew up in one.

Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series exploring near-future technological/social media horror scenarios created by Charlie Brooker. Netflix put up the first six episodes and the American digital media got very excited about “the best show you’ve never seen,” so I decided to check them out. It’s a very well-acted and well-directed series, generally sleek and elegant and nuanced. I was also surprised by how blatantly political the show is – out of six episodes, four revolve around politicians or the power structure as a whole.

The National Anthem

“The National Anthem”: The royal princess is kidnapped, and the ransom video goes up on YouTube – either the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live TV, or the princess dies. It’s a tense and interesting exploration of how a completely democratic society – at least, a government that is completely kowtowed to public opinion – would deal with this situation, and I appreciated the very sympathetic portrayal it gave to the Prime Minister. However, I cannot imagine a society in which such a ransom demand would be entertained. Perhaps I say this because I have never lived in a monarchy? I also can’t imagine a society in which the decision would be determined solely by public approval ratings. Polls matter, yeah, but a nation is more than the sum of its parts. And a state is way more.

15 Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits”: Strong “statement” episode, if you buy the premise that the outdoors have been destroyed and the only way to power the remaining sad claustrophobic world is through pedaling bikes all day. This is the only episode that focuses squarely on that least sexy of social topics – economics: you must pay to skip the advertisements that enclose you in your little shiny prison cell, you spend your “merits” buying useless digital accessories for your useless digital persona. And at night, when you’re not jerking off to pay-for-porn, you’re watching an X-Factor type show where your fellow bike-riders try to sing their way off the bikes. Very grim, very bitter (I almost want to say hateful), and a little overly-telegraphed (didactic?), but it gets points for elaborate and punchy world-building. This is the kind of story that would get nominated for Hugos if it was written down, but wouldn’t work nearly as well without visuals.

The Entire History of You

“The Entire History of You”: Episode 1 that has nothing to do with politics. No qualms on the political realism spectrum here – this is basically life now, except with embedded “grains” that let you play back everything you see. The whole marital angst over infidelity thing isn’t really my cup of tea, and I can see why Robert Downey Jr. feels he can sell this to Hollywood, but characters and dialogue are convincing in their banal flaws and weaknesses. To be honest, if there’s an episode that I felt didn’t belong in Black Mirror, though, it’s this one.

Be Right Back

“Be Right Back”: Episode 2 that has nothing to do with politics, and by far, this is the stand-out episode of Black Mirror for me – admittedly, this hit me right in the nerve. Lead actress Hayley Atwell, aka Agent Peggy Carter, is extraordinary as a woman overcome by grief when her partner dies in a sudden crash. Because her partner was a social media addict, however, he has left behind enough bread crumbs for software to create an alter version of him who can talk to her, responding as the software thinks he would. This reminded me very much of Her, which I thought was great (but “Be Right Back” is better), as well as the Rachel Swirsky story “Eros, Philia, Agape.” Uncliched, very realistic, harrowing as hell. I straight-up cried several times.

White Bear

“White Bear”: If only they had hired a different main actress, I would have loved “White Bear.” But I hate watching hysteria, and the main actress is very much of the scream/cry school of dramatic acting. That aside, “White Bear” is a very clever little episode-within-an-episode about voyeurism and by-stander rubbernecking. The critique of the “angry mob, hungry for justice” is solid. I actually even liked the internal episode, but that may be because I really enjoy the techno-transmitted zombie-ism featured in indie horror movies Pontypool and The Signal. This is where I realized that Brooker’s overall statement about the hazards of technology is this: while empowering “the masses,” it turns people into sheeple, and sheeple into… well, carnivorous, brutish, and surprisingly easily amused sheeple.

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

“The Waldo Moment”: If there were any doubts about Brooker’s aforementioned statement, “The Waldo Moment” bludgeons them to death with a hammer. This is a downright Burke-ian episode about a cartoon bear that starts off as a talk show gag and ends up a joke candidate running for office, beloved for his profanity and apolitical irreverence. I actually had to wonder if this was a jab at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (a pretty poor one, if so). Despite some good moments about the role of corporate funding in political campaigns, the episode was disjointed and not particularly interesting. The “apocalypse” ending was laughable in its un-reality, and judging by the rest of the episode, I don’t think there would have been a satisfactory explanation for this turn of events.

So in sum, in Brooker’s world, people are incredibly stupid (especially in crowds), technology will make them dumber, and politicians will either find themselves utterly hamstrung by the whim of the mob or will find a way to channel that mob’s demand for entertainment into something useful. Not the most radical message, and fairly curmudgeonly for my taste – I unabashedly love the Joker’s social experiment on the ferries in The Dark Knight (“what were you trying to prove, that deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?”), and hated that this sentiment was overwritten in The Dark Knight Rises. But Black Mirror deserves credit for complicating the message with astute depictions of consumerism and corporate financing, and keeping its characters very well-rounded. I would simply question whether people are as ugly – or as influential – as Brooker thinks.

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