The Case Against Black Mirror

By
Daniel Rigby in season two's "The Waldo Moment." Photo: Channel 4

I do not like Black Mirror. I’m going to lay out some reasons why that is, and try to give a deeper explanation for exactly why it turns me off so aggressively, but ultimately my dislike comes down to a point of taste. It’s a show rooted in a specific, intensely cynical perspective, it tends to use surprise like a cudgel, and it seems to delight in combining those two things. “Aha!” Black Mirror is constantly saying. “I got you! Humanity is actually much worse than you thought!” And really, either you enjoy that experience, or you don’t.

There are lots of reasons to love the series, which returns for a third season on Netflix today, chief among them being that it is really good at what it sets out to do. The world it imagines in each Twilight Zone–style stand-alone episode always begins with one set of rules, and then slowly peels away the resulting implications for humanity, layer by depressing layer. It operates on horrifying, too-plausible nightmare logic, tending to lean on literalizations of some strange minor quirk of a science-fiction premise, and following that quirk through inevitable, ghastly escalations. The resulting twists are simultaneously shocking and immediately recognizable. Of course she would then order the zombie body to go along with the social-media re-creation of her dead boyfriend. Of course the prime minister is going to end up actually committing bestiality with a pig.

The thing is, for all its conceptual complexity — for all of the surprise twists and third-act reversals, for all of the high-concept premises and alarming escalations, Black Mirror’s messages are usually pretty simple. Cell phones? Bad. Reality shows? Bad. Social media? Really bad. Politics as entertainment? Definitely bad, but not ultimately as disturbing as entertainment-style justice. Oh, sure, the setup and the execution of those ideas is impressive, but the show’s primary crutch is too often that it uses thought-provoking and fascinating foundations in order to reach the simplest, most alarmist possible conclusion about a variety of technological innovations.

Take “The Waldo Moment,” a season-two episode with some marked echoes of our current political landscape. In it, a comedian who voices and controls a vulgar animated bear ends up running in a local election as a stunt. He ends up detonating the political discourse, driving the electorate toward entertainment rather than real engagement with issues, and ultimately Waldo takes over the world as a global political brand selling an anodyne, featureless message of change. Two-thirds of the way through the episode, you realize that Waldo will grow bigger than our comedian protagonist, and things will not turn out well for the world. And then, that happens. 

There are a couple problems here. The first is that now we’ve seen the reality of this play out, it doesn’t feel quite so revelatory. “The Waldo Moment” looks like a fairly utopian vision of what political discourse could sound like compared to the contemporary real-world offerings. But the second and more widespread issue with Black Mirror as a whole is that “The Waldo Moment” follows a pattern that informs nearly all of its installments. You begin in one place, half- to two-thirds of the way through, you get either a twist or an unexpected escalation, and then, yep, that thing you suspected was not good at the start, ends up being really, extra not good by the end. Once you’ve seen more than one or two episodes, you know the third-act revelation is coming. You examine the first part for clues about what it might be, and then, to its credit, Black Mirror usually finds a way to make that surprise even more upsetting than you were imagining.

Black Mirror relies on the illusion of depth. Its one-two punch structure is all about bombshells and astonishing disclosures, and it’s a format that capitalizes on the audience feeling they’ve discovered something important. When you follow Black Mirror through the wormhole, you also feel like you’ve come out the other side. You’ve learned something worthwhile. The truth of things — which is usually some version of how technology has perverted humanity — is hidden, and by the end, you get to see behind the veil.

But that depth is not actually all that deep. The things Black Mirror uncovers about the nature of people and technology are pessimistic visions of humankind, and they’re also remarkably absent of nuance. Guess what: Reality shows are dehumanizing. Social media makes people say and do horrible things. Documenting every single moment of our lives has downsides. It’s like stepping through the wardrobe into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, but instead of a magical land full of fauns and evil queens and talking beavers, there’s just a note that reads, “This is an allegory about Jesus.”

In part, that’s just the nature of cynicism, which notoriously punches holes in things without offering much in the way of solutions. And in the few moments when Black Mirror escapes a default stance of scorn, its vision of the future can be more interesting. It may be notable that this happens most frequently when the show contemplates death, as in the second season’s “Be Right Back” or the new Netflix season’s most interesting episode, “San Junipero.” Maybe death is still such a frightening, baffling, human, cynicism-flummoxing phenomenon that even Black Mirror is forced to take a more thoughtful and even optimistic perspective of what the future could hold.

Those moments, though, are few and far between. In general, Black Mirror’s box of magic tricks is just that — a set of admittedly impressive narrative tricks that don’t result in much of substance.

And the nature of Black Mirror’s vision of the future is that it can also feel like a cop-out. Its very simplicity — cell phones = bad! — is so misaligned with the much more complicated, multifaceted role technology plays in our world that we are almost let off the hook. We’re excused from the consequences of deep thoughtfulness about what role we give technology because Black Mirror already leapt to a conclusion. Social media is bad! I got it! It is bad! But it’s also here, in our politics and our commerce and our daily lives, doing horrible things and decent things and neutral things all at once.

Yes, this is still ultimately a matter of taste. All fiction is basically narrative magic trickery, and the bottom line is that Black Mirror’s brand of magic is distinctly not my preference. It’s especially tough to take in the midst of a year where it’s not much of a surprise twist for the world to be worse than you thought. Even without that element, though, it’s too easy to imagine what the Black Mirror episode about a more popular, viral version of itself would look like. We’d become glued to a fictional account of a near-future horror, dazzled by its audacity and sharpness, and we’d be so entranced by it that we would fail to notice its superficiality. We’d tweet about it. Maybe when we picked up our phones or used a trending hashtag, we would get a tiny jolt of depression, remembering the dark prospect Black Mirror foretold. But nothing about our behavior would ultimately change — we’d just left with the tiny jolt of depression, and another episode of Black Mirror.