Black Mirror was built on chilling “what if” scenarios. In the first two seasons of the sci-fi anthology, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK, creator Charlie Brooker applied the question to a series of tech-dystopia nightmares: What if tiny devices implanted in everyone’s head recorded all of our experiences, and we could replay them on demand? What if A.I. allowed us to live with virtual facsimiles of our dead partners? What if the future of human labor entailed running endlessly on a treadmill, and the only possible escape was a hard-earned chance to compete on a sexed-up version of American Idol?
A lot has changed since Black Mirror‘s 2011 series premiere shamed viewers for our addictions to various screens. The iPhone was only four years old at the time. Instagram had just celebrated its first birthday. It would’ve been quite surprising at the time to hear that Black Mirror would soon expand its budget, audience and output by moving to Netflix—which isn’t exactly blameless in the screen-addiction pandemic—after season 2. Brooker used the lengthened seasons to vary his preachy tone a bit, making room for less relentlessly bleak speculative fictions like the lesbian afterlife fantasy “San Junipero” and the virtual-reality Star Trek pastiche “U.S.S. Callister.” Last year, the show debuted a choose-your-own-adventure film, Bandersnatch; in another great Black Mirror irony, Netflix recorded every decision viewers made.
But by far the biggest difference between the show’s early years and now is viewers’ increased awareness of the perils of technology. The NSA spying scandal didn’t make news until 2013. Gamergate went mainstream a year later. And even Brooker never dreamed up with a “what if” to rival the catastrophic confluence of Facebook, Russia and Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 election. Details that have come to light since Black Mirror‘s fourth season appeared, 17 months ago, have made the social media giant’s unchecked power a topic of daily conversation. Now, we’re reckoning with a very real tech dystopia of our own. That puts the show in a strange position for its fifth season, which comes to Netflix on June 5.
It’s possible that Brooker—who has scripted almost every episode of the show, occasionally with a co-writer—is running out of “what if” potent enough to strike fear into the heart of the typical Twitter junkie. While previous Netflix seasons have spanned six episodes, the new one runs only three. And instead of keeping viewers up at night with political hellscapes and other horror-movie scenarios, season 5 rarely departs in a meaningful way from what’s possible now.
In an episode titled “Smithereens” that barely qualifies as science fiction, an unhinged rideshare driver (played by Fleabag‘s Hot Priest Andrew Scott) kidnaps an intern (Damson Idris of Snowfall) at a social-media monolith in hopes of forcing the company’s founder (Topher Grace) into a one-on-one phone conversation. Despite strong performances from all three actors, the banality of the premise, the sketchiness of the characterizations, and the predictability of the resolution detract from the impact of what should be a heart-pounding thriller. Brooker’s depiction of Grace’s man-bunned, meditating tech genius as a victim of his own greedy underlings made me laugh out loud. Combined with the fact that the worst blunders in the episode are perpetrated by less powerful women, “Smithereens” mostly resonates as a failure to read the room.
Thanks in part to such baffling choices, Black Mirror doesn’t feel more realistic just because the times have caught up with it. Instead of manipulating our anxiety about technology—something Brooker often accomplished simply by activating viewers’ visceral disgust—the new episodes revel in the ridiculousness of our predicament, achieving a level of detachment that makes the show campy in the same way so many out-of-touch spectacles are campy. At least there’s some fun in that. (“When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant,” Susan Sontag wrote in “Notes on Camp,” summing up my most common reaction to early Black Mirror episodes. “Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.”)
That effect seems unintentional in “Smithereens,” which includes over-the-top emotional outbursts like Scott howling over how young tech employees are, and the marginally superior “Striking Vipers.” Named for a video game in the Street Fighter mold, the episode stars Anthony Mackie as a married suburban dad who can’t shake his wistfulness for the life of clubbing and gaming he shared with his college roommate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). When the two pals are reunited as one male and one female martial arts pro in an extremely realistic VR version of Striking Vipers, their relationship takes an unexpected turn. I think the episode is supposed to raise questions about nostalgia as well as sexuality in virtual space. But the characters are so thinly written that it devolves into an extreme version of AOL-era hysteria about teens having cybersex with smelly middle-aged creeps.
Most emblematic of the season as a whole is “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” which takes Brooker farther than usual from his sweet spot of surveillance, video games and dark, tech-damaged romance. In a bit of inspired stunt casting, Miley Cyrus plays Ashley O, a pop star whose girl-power rhetoric conceals depression exacerbated by her handlers’ chokehold on her music and persona; the resemblance to Britney Spears doesn’t seem coincidental. When she releases a half-doll, half-Alexa “intelligent companion” called Ashley Too, a young fan named Rachel (Angourie Rice) who’s still grieving her mother finds a new best friend in the robot. Inevitably, the storylines converge in a soapy caper that dives into the uncanny valley of holographic pop idols, probes the loneliness of star/fan relationships and rails against the deceptions of celebrity culture. Some of the episode’s campy elements are clearly intentional: Brooker’s funniest choice of the season is to set Ashley’s vapid hits to recognizable Nine Inch Nails melodies, so that the industrial onslaught of “Head Like a Hole” gets flattened into an upbeat trifle about “achieving my goals.” By contrast, the fact that we’re told Rachel is 15 but she fawns over Ashley with all the prepubescent naïveté of a Taylor-Swift-crazy tween just comes off as clueless writing.
Such dissonance underscores the impression, supported by the occasional but conspicuous Britishisms that issue from the mouths of American characters in the Netflix seasons, that Brooker isn’t getting (or isn’t taking to heart) enough feedback on his scripts. One benefit of the anthology format—going back to Black Mirror‘s classic forerunner, The Twilight Zone—is how well it serves TV’s distributed writing process, giving individual writers the opportunity to tell complete stories. Black Mirror may have already outlived its relevance. But if Brooker plans to keep it going beyond 2019, he’d do well to abandon the auteurist approach and incorporate some paranoid voices from outside his own brain.
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