If you’ve taken a break from bingeing Black Mirror’s fourth season to see how people are responding to it on social media, you probably noticed something a bit unusual this week. Compared to the way viewers rallied around hit shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, people have been virtually at each other’s throats over Black Mirror. Amid criticism of the season as a whole, it’s been common to see people arguing back and forth about the merits of specific episodes. Charlie Brooker’s satirical vision of technological hell is no stranger to these debates, but the conversation feels bigger than ever this time. Why has the fourth season really got people talking? What exactly is so divisive about Black Mirror? Here are five theories.
Every episode tells a different story
Let’s start with the obvious: Black Mirror episodes are uniquely designed to stand on their own, allowing people to pit them against each other more easily. It’s just not the same as arguing about the best episodes of, say, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, because it’s harder to distinguish notable changes in quality from episode to episode of serialized television. But the anthology structure of Black Mirror makes it feel more like a franchise than a traditional series, and if there’s one thing people love to do with popular culture, it’s rank franchises. (Just try searching for “top 10 Marvel movies,” or see the debates about where The Last Jedi places in the Star Wars saga.) If Marvel Studios suddenly debuted six movies on the same day, nobody would agree on the good ones and the bad ones. What’s happening with Black Mirror isn’t all that different; it’s a debate that intensifies as the show’s output grows. In season four, Black Mirror has jumped from 13 episodes to 19 total. That’s an almost 50 percent increase, a growth substantial enough that each best episodes list will be markedly unique. And that’s more fuel for the fire.
It’s more personal than ever
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker doesn’t make entertainment that’s easy to shake off. His show is designed to strike certain chords with different demographics, and that kind of screenwriting is bound to be incredibly subjective and elicit a wide range of reactions. The responses to “Arkangel” seem to vary greatly based on whether or not you’re a parent (especially if you’re the parent of a teenage girl), while some Star Trek diehards are ticked off about “USS Callister” and its vision of fandom run amok. Of course, that’s not to say that nonparents who dislike “Arkangel” are wrong or Captain Kirk fans hating on “USS Callister” are in any way invalid. It’s just a reminder that people see Black Mirror through the lens of their own experience. Who we are greatly influences our response from episode to episode, in a way that’s unique for series television.
Fandom breeds contempt
With great success comes great backlash, especially in the era of instant reactions on social media. As with anything that gets as popular as Black Mirror has over the last few years, culminating in its big Emmy win for “San Junipero,” the show is bound to attract a loud fandom. It’s not uncommon to see that fandom rise to the defense of any and all Black Mirror episodes, which ultimately inflates the show’s reputation. Meanwhile, the show’s detractors are bound to look for weaknesses to expose that fandom. The idea that Black Mirror is a bit overrated wasn’t diminished by the playfulness of this season, either: Brooker and company winked at their fan base with over two dozen Easter eggs, which can make the show seem more like a game for Reddit’s puzzle hunters than a piece of art for everyone.
Bigger isn’t always better
The first two seasons of Black Mirror were only three episodes long. Both contained at least one widely praised installment — season one’s “The Entire History of You” and season two’s “Be Right Back” — which made it easier to overlook flaws in the others. But at a half-dozen episodes each, the Netflix seasons are twice as long, if not longer, given the feature-length run times of “Hated in the Nation” and “USS Callister.” It’s enough to make you wonder if six episodes per season is too much of a good thing, and if more episodes ultimately means more opportunities to argue about the show. Without a beloved episode for viewers to rally around, à la “San Junipero” in last year’s batch, the fourth season winds up being a perfect battleground for fans and skeptics.
That’s the whole point!
Charlie Brooker wants people to argue, plain and simple. He’s trying to provoke heated responses, and he’s probably loving every minute of the uproar about season four. Black Mirror is designed as a form of mini-torture, in which our flaws are amplified for cautionary tales of sci-fi entertainment: The protective mother of “Arkangel,” the office politics and misogyny of “USS Callister,” and the dating drama of “Hang the DJ” are designed to push our buttons in a way that makes us angry and expect the worst. These provocations are designed to incite heated responses, of course, but we’ve also come to expect them from Black Mirror at this point. The rhythm of each episode is a predictable sort of pattern: We watch with our fingers over our eyes, knowing something bad is going to befall our protagonists, and worried how it will relate to our own daily lives. And that we’re often examining our tech addiction on Netflix or our smartphones only adds to the sensitivity of the inevitable response.