Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, invites viewers to glimpse into its titular mirror at a not-too-distant future in which our worst impulses have been realized. The excellent show, which was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK for the first two seasons and Netflix for the current third season, is incredibly dark, but also profoundly sad. The series’ anthology structure allows it to make finely-crafted episodes that play more like mini-movies than serialized television.
The title refers to the now ubiquitous screens of mobile phones, computers, and televisions. Every episode of the anthology series presents a new technological dilemma, all of them created by humans. It’s important to note that all of these technologies were originally created to make life better in some way, even if they ultimately lead to future disasters.
In the series pilot, “National Anthem,” Rory Kinnear plays fictional UK Prime Minister Michael Callow. A popular duchess has been kidnapped and threatened with execution unless Callow agrees to have intercourse with a pig on a nationally televised broadcast. Callow and his ministers do everything in their power to find the duchess before the allotted time of his sex act, with little success.
The episode was surprisingly prescient, as real-life Prime Minister David Cameron was the victim of a rumor that he had put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth during an initiation ritual at Oxford. Black Mirror’s pilot aired four years before this rumor was reported on, so it’s possible that it was merely created after the fact to embarrass Cameron by someone who had seen the episode.
Because each episode is a completely different story with a different cast, Black Mirror can get the best British (and now American) talent without having to worry about any long-term commitments. Kinnear manages to find the difficult balance between a politician whose success depends on his even headedness, and a man who fears sacrificing his dignity and family in a single act.
Director Otto Bathurst and Brooker spend a significant portion of the episode focusing on the British citizens who can’t wait to possibly see their leader have sex with a pig. Even darker than the chance of the porcine tryst is the delight they take in someone’s degradation. For them, the act would be better than the most depraved reality television. Brooker isn’t kind to news organizations either—they’re presented as blood-sucking leeches desperate for any story, no matter the consequences. It’s not too far off from the scandals that have roiled the British press in the past few decades.
Compared to the darkness of “National Anthem,” season three’s “San Junipero” is a rare beacon of light. Mackenzie Davis plays Yorkie, a woman struggling to accept her sexuality. She visits the seaside party town of San Junipero on a Saturday night, where she meets Kelly (the vivacious Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Yorkie is instantly fascinated by Kelly, and they start up a short-lived romance, but Kelly is nowhere to be found the next Saturday night.
Unlike The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, classic anthology series of the past, the darkness of Black Mirror is complemented with a healthy dose of sadness. The show explores the degradation of Prime Minister Callow’s marriage effectively, but in “San Junipero,” we’re given the possibility of something resembling a happy ending.
As effective as many Black Mirror episodes, the anthology structure also lets it fall victim to the occasionally lackluster episode. In “Men Against Fire,” also from the third season, Stripe (Malachi Kirby) is part of a military force that seeks out and executes “roaches,” humans who have been mutated by a blood-borne illness into ravenous creatures. But the roaches aren’t actually as different as they appear, and the episode becomes a heavy-handed allegory about bigotry and anti-immigrant resentments. It’s a worthwhile episode in the time of Brexit and Trump, but one of the most ham-fisted of the series.
Michael Kelly, whose oily charms is one of the few redeeming qualities on Netflix’s House of Cards, plays army psychiatrist Arquette. His skill at manipulating soldiers is masterful, but the other actors seem lackluster in comparison. We never really get to know them, so it’s impossible to sympathize with their situation.
Every episode of Black Mirror involves some kind of technology that enable humanity to destroy itself, but Brooker isn’t a Luddite. Instead, he realizes that people create technology, and they invest their own weaknesses in their creations. Technology doesn’t make us hateful or voyeuristic; it enables those impulses that have always existed within us. When technology makes it so easy to pursue our basest desires, it’s nearly impossible to stop ourselves.
As dark as Black Mirror can be, there’s always a sense of hope in each episode. Even when the stories end on a downbeat note, Brooker also gives us a glimpse of people fighting for a better future and against the worst aspects of humanity. Black Mirror often presents us in our worst possible future, but there’s at least the hope that we’ll do better.