Smartphones and twilight zones: Is Black Mirror worth looking into?
I’d like to pretend that I’m a seasoned television critic, capable of discerning ‘good drama’ from that more likely to have been pitched as dreaded ‘entertainment’. But I don’t really […]
I’d like to pretend that I’m a seasoned television critic, capable of discerning ‘good drama’ from that more likely to have been pitched as dreaded ‘entertainment’. But I don’t really deserve such a qualification: I love bad American serials with overly-vague-yet-oh-so-emotional voice overs (I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy), and I enjoy a bit-too-convoluted-but-probably-more-socially-acceptable BBC creation. I seemed to stumble upon Black Mirror by blind luck, “this’ll do”. But I had to take notice because it certainly didn’t instill the relaxation I find in the mentally untaxing dramas I so adore. It’s a challenge.
Each series (the last instalment of series 2 has just been broadcast and all are available on 4OD) consists of 3 unrelated episodes, all concerning the role of technology in the modern world—and its implications for human interaction. As Charlie Brooker (actually a seasoned, and acclaimed, television critic – and the writer of the series) explained it to The Guardian: “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.”
Brooker focuses on reality: its construction in a world concentrated on the individual, and its presentation as defined by that individual. What’s most disturbing about his writing is how tangible this horrible reality is – he has exaggerated technological and social trends in a way which is both believable and incredibly disconcerting. In some episodes he blends existing stories: there are aspects of Frankenstein and moralistic fables like The Monkey’s Paw. But equally, Brooker deploys elements clearly derived from recent news stories, referencing topical issues such as social justice and political control.
The episode I found most affecting deals with how much of ourselves we put online – but combines it with the concept of chatterbots (remember that creepy SmarterChild thing on msn?) in the context of a grief-torn widow. She is informed that her husband is a ‘good candidate’ for a post-mortem chatterbot programme, because of his status as a ‘heavy user’. His Facebook and Twitter updates allow an artificial intelligence to produce impersonations that create a decidedly uncomfortable and inappropriate artificial relationship, raising questions about the construction of ‘ourselves’ online.
Brooker’s Black Mirror is not a series you can watch in one night while cooking dinner or attempting to finish reading for a tutorial. It’s concentrated and it shocks you – without ensuring the happily-ever-after so prevalent in most drama series and so crucial to absent-minded enjoyment.
I wish I could claim that I ‘know’ what good TV is. To me, good television is television that stays with you. For what it’s worth, Black Mirror still gives me chills after a year.