One of the most difficult television shows to describe is “Black Mirror,” a British import that’s become a Netflix favorite. It’s not because of twist endings—not every episode takes an O. Henry turn. It’s the total experience: the almost sterile look of the show, its stark imagery and its take-no-prisoners attitude. “Black Mirror” is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
This show is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker who cites “The Twilight Zone” as his primary inspiration. Yes, both are anthology series—there’s a different cast and director for each episode, though Brooker has written nearly all 13 episodes made available to date. Several of these reiterate some familiar TZ themes, such as replication of the dearly departed (“Be Right Back”) and humanization of the enemy in wartime (“Men Against Fire”). But “Black Mirror” twists the knife. The replica becomes too attentive. A soldier wants to remove the implanted technology that makes him see monsters, not people. One of the series’ best, “White Bear,” is also classic TZ in its story of a woman hunted in some dystopian future, though it’s far more brutal in both depiction and resolution than the earlier series ever could be.
It’s not just that television is no longer bound by the censorship of networks. Our mindset has been hardened by technology, and Brooker plays with this brilliantly. That infamous first episode, “The National Anthem,” with all of England glued to its televisions (Yes, the one with the prime minister and the pig which unfortunately you will never be able to un-see). The poor souls who cycle for a living in “15 Million Merits,” fighting boredom by fixating on the most idiotic video drivel (Brooker’s little nose thumb at us?). A corporation that lets you turn a mini-clone of yourself into a virtual house servant (“White Christmas”). And most strikingly, the married couple of “The Entire History of You,” who make love while reliving their hottest sexual encounters, courtesy of implanted “grains,” or chips. Those greyed-over eyes, enraptured by internally viewed video, will haunt you for days. Rod Serling made the “Twilight Zone” stories seem like they could happen in anyone’s home town. You pray “Black Mirror” never pays a visit to yours.
Not every episode will land for you, and a few, especially “Hated in the Nation,” are too long. However, the acting is uniformly excellent. It’s fun seeing familiar actors playing against type. Jerome Flynn, the wise-cracking Bronn on “Game of Thrones,” makes a terrific at-his-wit’s-end victim in “Shut Up and Dance.” Faye Marsay, the same series’ murderous Waif and enemy of Arya Stark, is a shrewd, tech-savvy detective in “Hated in the Nation,” and her cynical superior officer is none other than Kelly Macdonald, lately Margaret, Nucky Johnson’s discarded wife, on “Boardwalk Empire.” But some actors play variations on what they’re best known for, and it’s a welcome experience: Jon Hamm is an even darker version of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper in “White Christmas,” and Michael Kelly is only slightly less sinister as a psychiatrist in “Men of Fire” than he is as a political operative in “House of Cards.”
Ranking “Black Mirror” episodes seems to be a favorite online sport. Everyone’s mileage varies greatly, but here are my picks for the best:
“White Bear.” Difficult to discuss without giving it away. It’s freaky, it’s brutal, it’s brilliant, and it can spark conversation for days.
“Playtest.” Hoping to earn the money needed to return home, an American stranded in London picks up a gig as a test subject for a leading, though mysterious, game creator. But to participate he must consent to the implantation of a chip in his head that will discern his worst fears. To his surprise he has more than he thought.
“San Junipero.” This has consistently shown up on “Best Episodes of 2016” lists for good reason, yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Of all things, the bickering is over whether there’s a happy ending or not. This episode is the most un-“Black Mirror” in terms of energy and tone, and it’s definitely the sweetest. “Heaven is a place on earth” indeed.
“Nosedive,” an absolute gem of an episode that unlike the rest has a number of laugh-out-loud moments (Charlie Brooker wrote the story, but the script is by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur). In a world where everyone electronically rates every individual they encounter, a young woman struggles to raise her status in order to enjoy the things in life open to only the most pleasing. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers an incredible performance, and the episode’s end is sheer perfection.
There are six more “Black Mirror” episodes waiting in the wings for 2017. Let’s hope Netflix commissions even more so we can continue to savor the products of Charlie Brooker’s imagination. There should be an endless stream of stories he can tell. As he himself has said: “[“Black Mirror” is] all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: we’re usually clumsy.”