Monday, June 1, 2015

Recommended: BBC's Black Mirror

I never thought that there would be an anthology show that would actually compete with The Twilight Zone. It's not that I think tTZ was the greatest program ever - I haven't come close to seeing every episode, and doubt that I would ever own the box set (although it is a worthy purchase)... But the series was often exceptionally well-written, many eps display nearly flawless execution, and it's far more challenging, terrifying, and harsh than one would expect from a 1959 TV program.

Much more importantly, Twilight Zone was a paragon of genuine science fiction storytelling. I had this conversation with a co-worker last week: in Star Wars, it doesn't matter how their engines or weapons work, and the only purpose of their amazing technology is to move the plots forward. tTZ, however, used its weekly premise to tell a story about what happens to human beings when they abuse a watch that stops time, or someone phrases a wish poorly, or when a couple finds a fortune-telling machine that's always right.

So I was virtually shell-shocked after I saw the first episode of BBC's Black Mirror. Not only did it display fine writing and good execution of a solid story, but the spirit of sci-fi was clearly held in high esteem by the series' creators - and it only used existing technologies to make a strong statement about real, present-day society. "The National Anthem" is exactly the sort of thing Rod Serling and his team of writers would have loved.

Even more, this program delves into its sci-fi ideas with some thoroughness. Each installment explores the ramifications of its premise, demonstrating the social, moral, and practical results of these slight changes to the world we believe to be so familiar and so well-known to us...

And, rather than shying away from "dark" material, BM dives right into it. As I watched the closing minutes of season 1, I could only think, "wow. It wouldn't be out of place if each episode ended with a shot of planet Earth as a barren, lifeless rock, and a title card that reads 'THIS was the best possible outcome.'" More than most series I've ever seen, BM has a knack for putting me into a very reflective state of mind.

But anyone who saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture knows that intelligent stories full of sci-fi ideas can be dry, dull, or not engaging. It's fortunate, then, that this series is humorous, exciting, and sharp. Moreover, it finds numerous ways to connect the reader to the premise of any given episode. Mirror never just says "here's this weird future or odd technology" - it works those elements into the story in a way that directly ties back to the present time.

If you want a prime example of that last point, the first episode simultaneously disparages both the English nobility as well as its political governance. Not only are the royals portrayed as venal and useless, but the Prime Minister himself is stripped of all his professional power and personal dignity for the sake of a kidnapped Duchess (who's also a bit of a trollop). Even this, however, is a delightful distraction from the ep's main thrust: how uploading the ransom video to Youtube initiates a wave of media irresponsibility and an ever-shifting public reaction that forces the government's hand at every turn.

As harsh an attack as it is on the entire symbolic and practical leadership of the show's native nation, you shouldn't forget that the name given to the PM is "Prime Minister Callow." From Merriam-Webster's:
lacking adult sophistication. Used to describe a young person who does not have much experience and does not know how to behave the way adults behave.

What I'm trying to get across is that this episode employed master-class satire, and that it did so with style and verve.

I thought it was right there in the title: this show is a dark reflection of the world we live in and the problems we have - or may soon have, if we're not careful. Yet I underestimated series creator (and credited writer of most episodes) Charlie Brooker. The man with such a love of satire had a much more barbed, pointed inspiration:
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, my new drama series, is set. The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.

What I may love most here is that the program often employs the premise of an episode in a way that gives depth, as well as development, to its characters. It's a crucial strength, as this has the effect of letting the audience relate to the roles - which is all the more important because BM has no ongoing cast members that appear in each installment. When you have no connection to a role and the only development they get is over a 50-minute episode, you need incredibly strong writing to produce effective characters and stories. That the series can do it while also telling a clear and powerful tale is... well, it feels like a major accomplishment - or a minor miracle.

Only by focusing on the human element of these fantastical stories does the show become so moving and immersive and irresistible. A cranial implant that records everything you look at or hear - and can be uploaded to TV screens for group viewing - sounds both interesting and potentially problematic, but you see the havoc it can wreak once you know that some people steal others' implants to sell them on the black market. Even aside from that new, horrifying twist on identity theft, you also watch that gadget used to screen people at airports, which straight out of the classic concerns of dystopian fiction.

And then you witness a marriage fall apart - one spouse's bad day at the office turns into obsessive insecurity. He scans through his past constantly to shore up his suspicions, while the other spouse spins lies - spins lies despite the device, which inexorably lays everything bare. It's this aspect of the story that's most harrowing, and most touching. When human nightmares are realized, you get a brief, terrified glimpse into the very heart of our worries and fears.

Obviously, it's up to you to decide whether you'll give this series a chance. Each season has three 44-minute episodes. The UK ran the first batch in 2011, and the second in 2013; a third season is on the way sometime this year. It's easy enough to find in the US, as seasons one and two are now available to stream on Netflix - the online service lacks only the special Christmas 2014 episode, which featured Mad Men star (and Black Mirror fan) John Hamm. Catching up, then, will require five and a quarter hours - a small investment of your time, especially considering that it provides food for thought that could take days to go through.

I can't recommend Black Mirror strongly enough. Despite the fine cinematography and the excellent soundtracks that it employs, the program often makes for uncomfortable viewing... and that's not a bad thing at all, as it does so in service of inspired, thoughtful stories and heady, chilling concepts. Smart TV is just about the rarest thing out there, as television and film is frequently conceived as nothing more than entertainment, something to excite or titillate the viewer. I, for one, feel somewhat annoyed when these legitimate art-forms are hijacked to create thoroughly-empty distractions, ones that fail to possess any real ideas or emotion, much less quality writing or characterization. By this measure, Charlie Brooker has given an unadulterated gift to viewers everywhere.

Honestly, here's the best mark of how good this series is, how well it does what it does, and how it is so fine a follow-up to The Twilight Zone: whenever I start to play an episode, I have this sense of unease, bracing myself to see something that is emotionally and intellectually painful or distressing. I feel this way every time, and yet I still actively want to watch the show. So much media is dedicated to being simplistic and unchallenging, but here is something for those of us who actually enjoy thinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!