Among the many literary feats that late writer David Foster Wallace pulled off in his mammoth masterpiece Infinite Jest, he predicted such innovations as Netflix, Skype, and Snapchat more than 20 years ahead of time, down to some spooky specifics. But more than just imagining, “What if … video messaging?” Wallace explored the behavioral and societal ramifications that such advances would have on their users. The results of the thought experiments he squirreled into his bigger narrative were often bleak, blackly comical, and deeply unsettling.
Michael Schur, a co-writer of the Black Mirror standout “Nosedive,” along with his former Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones, ranks in the uppermost echelon of DFW’s acolytes. Schur wrote his undergraduate thesis on Infinite Jest, currently owns the film rights to the property, directed a music video for the Decemberists based on one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, and smuggled loads of allusions to the novel in Parks and Rec. (His wife even forbade him from discussing it at dinner parties.) And with this carefully thought out, insightful, devastating(ly hilarious) new hour, Schur has produced something worthy of comparison to his idol’s work.
The brain trust of Schur, Jones, and Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker conceived a monstrous premise for this season opener, a setup that extends weird little bits of modernity — forced politeness in an Uber, thirsting for Instagram likes far past the point of healthiness — to terrifying extremes. In a sanitary-looking, not-so-distant future, everyone is subject to constant one-to-five-star ratings from anybody who crosses their path, based on the quality and congeniality of the interaction. Patrons might five-star attentive and quick waiters, but the smartphone app can also be used to rate anything from photos your besties post online (dope frittata, five stars!) to phone conversations with family members. The program then aggregates all of these ratings into a numerical average that hovers above a person’s head like a Sims gem. A caste system, perfected via sabermetrics.
Fives get the plushest flights and the ritziest homes, and 4.2 social climber Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard, in what has to be her best performance yet) intends on moving into the best digs she can procure. Despite her brother’s protestations of sellout-itude, Lacie is determined to charm her way into a 4.5-and-up gated community if it’s the last damn thing she does, even if that means leaning into a life of phony cheer. She lands the perfect opportunity to curry some social favor from highly rated types when childhood friend Naomi (Alice Eve) invites Lacie to be maid of honor at her impending wedding. If she nails the speech, completely with a perfectly timed single tear, she’s on the fast track to — to paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, another keenly insightful piece about the intersection between tech and social standing — a fun, exclusive, better life.
But tragedy strikes, as it must, when a canceled flight throws Lacie’s carefully planned schedule into disarray and unexpected dip in her personal score bars her from the standby list. The highly candid outburst she has at the check-in counter sends her number plummeting even further, setting her on a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles–style odyssey to make the nuptials and secure her upper-crust future. As increasingly dire circumstances conspire to push Lacie into a spiral of outcast-dom, the soul-corroding effects of this rating system come into full focus.
In an early scene, we’re shown Lacie going through her morning routine, getting a jog in and showering up. In the mirror, she practices emoting with a creepy disconnect. Howard turns it on and off on a dime, braying with laughter before instantly flattening Lacie’s expression. The primary wonder of Howard’s performance is the even pacing of her descent into DGAF madness, but this early moment grabs the audience by the lapels and hisses that something’s not right. Something has degraded this human’s humanity.
Like “The Entire History of You” before it, “Nosedive” singles out a particularly game-changing technology and follows as it perverts the natural course of public and private manners. Being held to a rigorous set of precisely monitored standards at all times demands a constant state of performance, which makes people calculating and harsh. The most disturbing aspect is how that exacting cold-bloodedness must be hidden at all times under a veneer of cheek-stretching smiles and sing-song laughter. Like all the finest episodes of Black Mirror, even the more out-there bits of “Nosedive” have a basis in grains of reality. Who among us can honestly say we haven’t felt a little twinge of joy upon checking Twitter to see we’ve accrued likes and retweets, and then felt momentarily guilty that something so superficial made us feel something? Let he who has never forced small talk with an Uber driver to guarantee a positive rating cast the first stone.
Schur, Jones, and Brooker don’t wield the ready-made commentary with too heavy a hand, excepting perhaps a brief interlude with a 1.9-rated trucker (a well-cast Cherry Jones) who has chosen to keep it real and live on the fringes of society. For the most part, however, they dispense with the didactics and let the material speak for itself. The fluid ease with which the script oscillates between bone-dry humor — after giving Lacie a two-star rating, a porn-watching booth attendant deadpans that “it wasn’t a meaningful encounter” — and chilling shock removes the crotchety-oldster vibe that can sometimes hobble cautionary tales about new gadgetry.
I’d be remiss not to specifically celebrate Joe Wright’s immaculate direction, and the totality with which he helps to create this alienating, yet all-too-familiar world. Little details root “Nosedive” in the near-future mold: Lacie lives under some sort of whisper-quiet superhighway, and charging stations have replaced gas stations. Everyone’s clothed in soft pastels, a clear reflection of a status quo that revolves around inoffensiveness. Wright’s crisp photography and clean compositions reinforce the feeling that these lives are too regimented. The artifice is starting to show through.
“Nosedive” is a great hour of television for all the usual reasons: methodical direction, highly original writing, a maniacally committed lead performance. What elevates it into the five-star range (never mind the surreal irony of having to append a standardized rating to a show about the hazards of doing exactly that) is the discomfiting accuracy with which Schur, Jones, and Brooker hit their satirical targets. Watching it, you flash back to that time you went to the brunch place across town just so you could post a photo of your eggs Benedict, and you feel a creeping guilt.
It feels good to be liked, and that feeling has never been more easily accessible or more exactly quantified. The other side of that sword, however, is the amplified absence of that feeling, and the shame of knowing that everyone else can see your zero-fave tweet. These are petty concerns, which makes giving a shit about them all the more embarrassing, but as “Nosedive” suggests, they’re only one new app away from commanding our collective sense of self-worth.
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