Charlie Brooker is a comic that polarises opinion. One tends either to love or to hate his pithy putdowns of famous figures, and there are those who accuse him of self-righteousness, particularly when delivering a diatribe of often-pretentious gags in his Wipe series for the BBC. But one thing’s for sure: he’s not afraid to go a step further, to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable.
Black Mirror burst onto UK screens back in 2011 with ‘The National Anthem’, a mordant satire that featured the kidnapping of the Duchess of Beaumont (Lydia Wilson), and the subsequent blackmailing of Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) into having sex, live on television, with a pig. Whilst other shows would have held back at the final moment, calling ‘cut’ before the intercourse took place (perhaps following the aide’s suggestion to have a porn star perform the act and for Photoshop to work its magic in the editing room), Black Mirror began with a bang (ahem) – and a very (allegedly) prescient one at that!
Season 3, now streaming on Netflix, offers six stand-alone episodes much in the same – although, thankfully, rather less porcine – vein. Just as another great of the sci-fi genre, The Truman Show (1998), magnificently navigated that uneasy territory between what could and what could not happen, the first of these, ‘Nosedive’, creates a world that feels at once both comfortably farfetched and unnervingly imminent.
It is perhaps frightening to think that right now, in 2016, the taxi service Uber employs a rating system for both drivers and passengers. Falling below a certain ‘level’ renders you unfit to provide or use the facility. But imagine a world, not so very far removed from our own, in which everything and everyone was rated in a similar fashion, and in which every single interaction with a fellow human being was scored out of five. This is the central premise of ‘Nosedive’, as Lacie Pound (brilliantly played by Bryce Dallas Howard), practices her plastic, winning smile in the mirror and ensures that all contact with other humans is mawkishly encouraging and hollowly buoyant.
Every single hint at authenticity is subverted at the very moment it threatens to surface. In one discomforting scene, Lacie looks straight at the camera and declares, in a dramatic shift of tone, that “We’re all so caught up in our own heads. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s real, what matters.” At last, we dare to hope, she has grasped a morsel of reality in this saccharine world of disguise. And yet, in a cruel twist so very characteristic of the series as a whole, a reverse-angle shot suddenly reveals the deception: Lacie’s brother is sitting on the sofa, listening as she rehearses a script. Replete with platitudes, this is her attempt to pen the perfect maid-of-honour speech for a sham, extravagant wedding. “Is the tear too much?” she asks. In a delicious case of life imitating art, Netflix immediately requested that I rate the episode – yep, you guessed it – out of 5.
Another highlight of the season is ‘Playtest’, which features Cooper (Wyatt Russell), an American backpacker who takes a guinea-pig job at a large video-game company. Once a chip is inserted into his neck, he begins to play an augmented-reality horror story that, having gained access to his own phobias, brings to life precisely that which he finds most frightening. The result is a bloodcurdling examination of fear: is Cooper playing the game, or is the game playing Cooper? As the virtual reality infiltrates his mind, his earlier eagerness to get stuck in (“I’m game, I’m game”) takes on a creepy double meaning.
To be perfectly frank, however, much of season 3 will be familiar to fans of the show, and some ideas feel out-dated. Despite the brilliance of ‘Nosedive’, it felt rather derivative of the episode ‘App Developments and Condiments’ in Dan Harmon’s show Community, which had already tackled a world of constant, unceremonious rating through the creation of the ‘MeowMeowBeenz’ app, which also scored people out of 5 stars. As the Principal of that show notes: “Fives have lives, fours have chores, threes have fleas, twos have blues, and ones don’t get a rhyme because they’re garbage.” Likewise, the underrated, real-time thriller Cyberbully (2015), starring a heart-rending Maisie Williams, does a better job than Black Mirror’s ‘Shut Up And Dance’ at conveying how a hacker may take control over a user’s devices, and is more gripping to boot by maintaining the unity of action in the victim’s bedroom.
Be that as it may, there is enough here to warrant a binge. Ultimately, Black Mirror is a show about what happens to humanity when left to its own devices, and it excels when it evades the ambitious and the epic – inevitable, of course, with the injection of funds that the switch to Netflix provides – and reverts its gaze back onto the individual. Much science fiction features the lexicon of fire and brimstone, as the inevitable uprising of the machines leads to the explosive annihilation of everything humanity holds dear. Season 3 adopts this approach at times (particularly in the feature-length finale ‘Hated in the Nation’), but, at its very best, it takes a more nuanced approach, suggesting something altogether more profound: that technology might break our hearts. Steve Jobs famously promised that computers would be a ‘bicycle for the mind’, but in Brooker’s misshapen universe, the brakes are off and atomised humanity has veered wildly off course.
The third series of ‘Black Mirror’ can be streamed on Netflix.
Photograph: Mikhail Evstafiev