Black Mirror Season 3 Review
Charlie Brooker began his mass televised experiment on December 4th, 2011. When the first episode of his sci-fi anthology Black Mirror aired domestically in the United Kingdom, it was met with acclaim from UK publications like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Now in its third season, with a projected fourth in pre-production, the show has eclipsed its national status and claimed international recognition. Black Mirror: Season 3 has been met with general acclaim, but a few critics have pointed out the faults present in the anthology's six new episodes.
"Generally speaking, I think, a lot of shows, most shows exist to reassure people. And I kind of wanted to do something that would actively unsettle people, because I kind of felt that was missing," said Brooker in regard to seasons one and two. Season three of Black Mirror continues this mission but incorporates a diverse range of selections, making use of its new streaming format.
Black Mirror's most recent season was commissioned by Netflix back in Sept. 2015. A departure from the show’s original live TV appearances, the streaming network’s format (which is usually advantageous for narrative TV shows) disadvantages an anthology series like Black Mirror. When each narrative is independent from the next, the binge-watching culture promoted by the streaming network can dilute the impact of ideas layered throughout each episode. Additionally, the show’s newest season features six full-length episodes, double the amount of previous seasons. Netflix initially planned for a 12-episode season, which was later cut into two six-episode seasons. With the increase in episodes and the option of continuous streaming, the third season suffers from a couple of weaknesses absent from its previous seasons. Primarily, as already noted, the streaming service offered by Netflix does more harm than good to the show's functionality. While shows like Daredevil benefit immensely from the one season release format of Netflix, the same format applied to Black Mirror belies at least a fragment of ideological irony. Although some users choose not to binge, Netflix undeniably embodies and even encourages the habit.
In this way Black Mirror's title plays into the implications of a Netflix partnership and the culture the company promotes. It refers to the ubiquitous LCD screens on most flat-screen TVs, smartphones and computer monitors. It is the thing viewers all stare at when the screen fades to black. It's the reflection of viewers, simultaneously indictment and invitation. For most it's what's left when one powers down and leaves the virtual for the analog. For some it's accompanied with disappointment, but for all it's a cross-over. With two words the title articulates the anthology's intent before a single frame is shown, suggesting a world represented that is the same as ours, only different. By streaming with Netflix, Black Mirror develops an ulterior medium of probable contemplation for viewers that in part counterbalances the shortcomings of the format.
Furthermore, with a Netflix commission, Black Mirror no longer has the time constraints of traditional TV network show times. The episodes in season three are on average around 10 minutes longer than their predecessors, leaving some stories feeling loose with extraneous run-time. Finally, just on the value of their overall quality, some episodes of the six-part season lack in comparison with their counterparts. Standouts include episode four, “San Junipero,” and episode two “Playtest”.
Although the show is socially critical, Black Mirror never risks pedagogical sanctimony because of its core construct, that is, the belief that technology is never the villain, just the abuse of man. Rather than wholesale indicting people for their overuse of technology, the show extricates the fundamental vices of humanity and displays them and their consequences in grotesque fashion for the world to see. In the first episode of the series, "Nosedive," people inhabit a near-future world where social interactions are rated on a five-star basis similar to how Uber drivers are rated today. Aggregate ratings open (or close) doors for people in life, allowing people to live in nicer apartments or be fired dishonorably from their jobs. As the main protagonist (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers, social stratification isn't so fun as her rating spirals from an acceptable 4.2 to >1 in a fantastically disastrous 24 hours. Although the systems of social control in reality aren't so explicit as a human rating system, social media has been utilized as a means of blind destruction before. In "Nosedive," the characters utilize a medium that at its best unites the world and can, at its worst, destroy a person. This idea is taken literally in the last episode of the series, "Hated in the Nation," when a hacker terrorist weaponizes the social media hashtag #Deathto. Utilizing a robotic system of bees developed after the colony collapse disorder (CCD) becomes irreversible, the terrorist directs the tiny bee drones to target and kill whichever person polls highest each day with the #Deathto signature on social media. Here Black Mirror reiterates the vices of human nature and the potential for technology-based destruction, conflating an engine of productivity and sustenance to horrific standards. Like most in Black Mirror, the episode ends with a sobering twist.
Many Black Mirror episodes can leave one feeling devastated, hollow and a bit depressed. But it's not a completely masochistic practice in depressive television! For that try The Leftovers, developed by Lost's Damon Lindelof and full of existential questions and little comfort. Black Mirror is a tad more balanced, with somewhat optimistic episodes like "San Junipero" that mollify the sheer visceral terror of episodes like "Playtest," which plays out like a psychological horror trip through Hell – a terribly effective mix of Inception and Dante's Inferno. The third season's increased number of episodes works well in this case, allowing viewers to experience the vast variability of the series' offerings. Some episodes take place in the distant future, some are placed in the near-future, and some episodes' events would be probable today. Indeed, events similar to those portrayed in season three's third episode, "Shut Up and Dance," have already happened. Others, like the penultimate, “Men Against Fire,” deal with modern problems in a futuristic setting, as do most Black Mirror episodes.
In terms of genre diversity, "San Junipero" and "Playtest" exemplify excellently the individual command of each episode. Even so, "San Junipero" is perhaps the only episode that doesn't forthright dismay audiences. Instead, it renews your hope in humanity amid the ruins of its companion episodes’ comparably more acerbic commentaries. The story comes from Brooker's process of finding a way to tell a story set in the past with a show based in the future. Placed in the late '80s, the episode revolves around a coming-of-age love story between two women that gradually reveals its Black Mirror undercurrent as the episode progresses, painting a heartwarming story of love, consciousness and life after death. “Playtest,” on the other hand, throws viewers into a disarmingly innocuous beginning that gradually becomes disarming in an entirely different sense. The episode follows an endearing adventurer (Wyatt Russell) who agrees to take part in an experimental VR experience developed by world-famous gaming company SaitoGemo and its head – genius game designer Shou (Ken Yamamura). The gaming headquarters are located in a provincial English mansion, where all good things happen (see The Awakening and The Others for reference). The game begins and as reality and virtual reality begin blending together, the viewer is sucked into a rabbit hole of bewildering awfulness where nothing is certain until the last nested doll layer is removed.
Brooker states in the same 2014 interview, "[the show is] more worried than it is attempting to warn anyone." Complex, foreboding and singularly perceptive, The Twilight Zone of today highlights a world bereft with existential uncertainty. As Brooker notes, "It's a worried show. It's a show worried about today."
Season 3 of Black Mirror is now streaming on Netflix.