Friday, January 9, 2015

Black Mirror

First appearance: a friend makes a brief throw-away comment about some new Twilight Zone show thing, except it’s British and on Netflix and I already don’t really care. But apparently it’s pretty good, I’m told. Okay. I’m not really looking for more TV right now. Still gotta finish Peaky Blinders.

Second appearance: a friend asks if I’ve heard about this Black Mirror show, the British Twilight Zone Netflix thing? Yeah, that sounds familiar. Well this friend of mine is incensed by it. Apparently everyone and their mother has been recommending it to him, and he finds it completely intolerable. They all say it’s good, but instead it’s, like, not good. “The worst part is that people keep telling me to watch it like it's some kind of secret. Just because it's dark doesn't mean it's good and just because it's British doesn't mean I haven't heard of it,” (~actual quote).

He tells me the first episode is about some terrorists who kidnap the princess and say they’ll kill her unless the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on national television. And it’s like… “Huh. Okay…”

I think to myself “Huh. Okay...”

Third appearance: Black Mirror gets recommended on Pop Culture Happy Hour, NPR’s pop culture podcast that I’m way too big a fan of. Glen Weldon talks about how it’s a smart show, takes on technological anxieties in a way that seems to understand technology, not in the way most TV does where it sounds like it was written by your aunt who doesn’t quite know what this whole “E”-mail thing is. Glen likes it a lot. It’s his happy thing of the week.

I admit to myself that this is a show I should probably be aware of.

Fourth appearance: It’s a couple days later. 11:00pm. Not much going on. I’ve been working all day editing various short films I care about less than I should, and I’m super tired. But being the idiot that I am, I’ve trained my body not to fall asleep before 1am at the earliest. Often I’ll waste away those two hours browsing reddit or twitter. Often it’s Prismata, which is a game you should be playing because damn, yo. But tonight I’m salty about losing at Prismata all day, and I’m trying to break myself of the reddit/twitter/facebook/feedly rut. Netflix is at least easier to justify to myself than social media. And Black Mirror feels like a low commitment kind of show since it’s got no continuity episode to episode.

First episode starts. The prime minister is awakened late at night by an urgent phone call. His top advisors sit him down to start viewing a hostage video featuring the princess. I think to myself “they’re gonna tell him he has to fuck a pig”.

The princess is on the video. She’s very distraught. She’s being forced to read some horrible message while bawling her eyes out. “Unless this one demand is met by 4pm today, I will be killed.” She can’t go on. She’s crying. She’s about to tell us the PM is going to have to fuck a pig.

The advisors stop the video. The PM asks why, says to keep playing. They confirm that the video is legitimate, that the princess has indeed been taken. “What do they want?” the PM asks. “There’s only one demand.” The demand is for the PM to fuck a pig on TV.

They press play. The princess, choking through tears, tells us that the PM must fuck a pig on TV.



Black Mirror is a show that thinks it’s soooo cool. But I’ve got news for it: it’s not.

Take this first episode. The premise sounds like a pitch from some friend of mine who I secretly don't really like coming to me while mildly intoxicated. He sits me down, smile cracking on his face. "Okay," he puts his hands out as if to brace me for the gravity of this idea: "What if... [pause for effect]... someone made the president fuck a pig on tv?" I sit back, mildly repulsed by my weird friend’s apparent belief that this idea is genius. I realize I haven’t responded, so I quickly smile wide and nod my head. “Ohh, interesting,” I say. “Yeah, what if?” If I don’t play along he's going to spend the rest of the night trying to convince me why it's such a great idea, and maybe this way he'll be quiet.

Because the truth is that this idea does grab you, right? What if? Huh. What if indeed? That’s a wild idea. What would be the implications of that? And the first episode of Black Mirror does a pretty good job of covering a lot of those implications - as the PM or one of his advisors, how would you try to get out of it? As a citizen, how would you react? What does the PM’s wife think?

But by taking this thing and slipping it into the costume of a high quality, intellectual tv show, you’re dressing it up as something much more than it is. Instead of a weird little idea to spitball with for 10 minutes at a party, you’ve got 50 minutes of Serious Drama about a major world leader fucking a pig.

The second episode is different. It’s in some future world where we never see the outdoors. Our protagonist lives in a cube with screens for walls a ceilings. As he wakes up and moves through his morning routine, his total net worth follows him around. He spends a few pennies on some toothpaste, another few to skip an ad that pops up in the mirror as he’s brushing his teeth. Then he heads downstairs to a room full of people riding stationary bikes. He hops on an empty one, starts pedaling, and we watch his net worth slowly increase. Oh mang, they’re generating power! They’re all slaaaaaaves to sooociiiiety!

This second one progresses through obvious allegories for / commentaries on the mindlessness of media (the programs they watch all day on their bikes), class immobility, and American Idol (apparently the only way to leave the world of the bikes is to get high marks from Simon Cowell and his rapey co-hosts). Also standards of beauty - the woman who’s due to go on American Idol but who never gets the chance to get out there because she’s pretty old. Also the desensitization of culture (ads for porn just play constantly). Also the evils of corporate advertising (if you don’t pay money to skip an ad, but close your eyes, it stops play, flashes a strobe light at you, and plays an obnoxious and painful high-pitched whine until you start watching again).

And it’s all very well done. The production values are good, the performances are solid. It’s not even that it’s necessarily wrong, right? Modern media consumers are pretty desensitized. The lack of class mobility in the first world is messed up. But the show feels like it’s trying to suggest all that subtly behind this veil of metaphor. Instead it’s beating me to death with a baseball bat made from those metaphors. My friend from the party raises up his hands defensively: “I’m not, like, saying anything, man. I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying.”

Even the name of the show just oozes this sense of high-minded, superior commentary. We’re gonna hold up a Mirror to society and show just how dark and unsettling it really is! Because we’re the only one smart enough to see the Truth!

I know a lot of this could be me reading into things. The condescending vibe I get from the show is maybe more in my head than in the actual text of the thing. After all, a lot of people clearly love what Black Mirror is doing and don’t feel like they’re being talked down to by it. And when it comes down to it, two days ago when I started writing this post, I stopped in the middle to watch another episode because that sounded like fun. And while I walked away without any of my convictions questioned, I did enjoy myself.

But that pig episode? The title of the episode is The National Anthem. I mean, come on.

So take all this for what you will. On one level, Black mirror is a bunch of hour long standalone sci-fi ideas. Maybe they’re a little thin for a full hour, but they’re intriguing. Even if they’re not worth the runtime, they’re worth the thought exercise. One level up from that, it’s a super condescending attempt at allegories for modern society that seems to relish overly simplifying things and telling its audience why it’s so much smarter than they are. But on a third level, it’s super fun to bash for that second level.

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