Black Mirror’s Frightening Excellence

Photo: Channel4

Black Mirror, a dystopian anthology miniseries, premiered in the U.K. in 2011; it made its way to some American households on DirecTV last year and is now available to stream on Netflix. The six one-hour episodes, spread over two seasons, are cynical, searing, shockingly good — and often disturbing. Watch this show, but don't binge-watch this show.

It's hard to imagine any American broadcast or cable or even streaming network making a show this aggressively political, so critical and withering is its take on Western society. Most episodes ridicule technophilia, with some kind of just sliiiiightly more advanced computing encroaching on our selfhood. There's plenty of ire for reality television, too, and for the government, and for people's generalized complacency. Most of us are lazily complicit in the systems that degrade and humiliate our fellow plebes, the show says, like the person at a party who says, "I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist." They're right, right? The world is often extremely terrible, and the vast majority of people are corrupt, trash, and corrupt trash. But what are you supposed to do with that rightness? Mirror's would-be heroes might have their ideals, but those ideals are either coerced or beaten out of them at some point, or they're met with general disdain. How can you not fight against a dehumanizing system? the show asks. Oh, by the way, fighting is totally futile.

Every episode of Black Mirror is different: The first episode, "The National Anthem," finds the British prime minister in crisis when the beloved princess is kidnapped, and her captors say they'll only release her if the PM has sex with a pig on TV. Somehow the episode makes this seem terrifying and credible. "Fifteen Million Merits" is set in a world powered by humans on sleek exercise bicycles, constantly earning — and spending — meaningless points while being forced to watch either anti-obesity propaganda, trashy pornography, or their society's equivalent of American Idol. It's a story that would be perfectly at home in Welcome to the Monkey House. One of the very few recurring elements on the episodes starts in "Merits," and it's the gesture control for the elaborate video screens: The "yes" gesture is a palm up c'mere gesture with all four fingers. It's both totally recognizable and a little off, and it reflects the profound loneliness and isolation that permeates the entire series. Come here, yes, this way, toward me.

Other episodes imagine a world where everyone is constantly recording their lives and can play back any moment, over and over, sometimes for joy but just as often for torment. Another finds a young widow trying to accept a sort of AI replica replacement of her husband. (It doesn't go that well!) The most jarring episode, season two's "White Bear," follows a women seemingly suffering from some kind of amnesia, being chased through a town by a ski-masked man firing a shotgun. The town's residents simply gather around pointing their cell-phone cameras at her as she screams and screams for help. It's as arresting as The Lottery and as disquieting as The Purge, thanks to some freaky masks and a sensation of "you know, it's not that different." The season-two finale, "The Waldo Moment," is about a disgruntled low-level comedian who finds sudden but anonymous power as the live voice of a cartoon bear named Waldo, whose main focus is harassing politicians. Waldo's contrarianism almost seems like progress, except of course that being against everything isn't quite as noble as being for something, even if it's more entertaining. Black Mirror is deeply skeptical of performance: Are we achieving justice, or are we just performing what looks like justice? Is the performance of intimacy the same thing as true intimacy? Can a revolutionary speech be immediately disarmed by treating it as merely show?

Amid its deep bleakness, though, Mirror emphasizes repeatedly that the characters in each episode really are human beings by featuring their corporeality: There's a lot of throwing up, several scenes of people brushing their teeth, and a decent amount of sex. They have more elaborate phones and perhaps less faith in democracy, but these are still meat sacks just like us. There's an accidental underscoring of this thanks to the familiar faces (at least, familiar now) from Downton Abbey and Outlander, among other places.

Black Mirror says more in six episodes than most shows will even bother trying to depict or articulate in dozens. It's exciting and ambitious, and the fact that Jon Hamm will be starring in the Christmas special is another notch in the plus column. It's the modern incarnation of The Twilight Zone, except there's an important inversion: The Twilight Zone was in many ways about why Americans' drummed-up xenophobia and fears about Communism were dangerous and misplaced. Black Mirror, though, says our complacency is misplaced. It's an even scarier take, the show that's artfully asking you: Why aren't you more afraid?