Posted in Television

Great Expectations

Nanette (Cristin Milloti) Getting the Last Laugh in Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Is there any doubt that one of the highest bars in American popular culture was set by that television gem, “The Twilight Zone”? Lasting only five seasons in its initial run, its long shadow has been felt ever since. There’s hardly been a sci-fi or speculative television series in subsequent decades that has not escaped comparison with Rod Serling’s creation. Its hallmarks made it iconic: Serling’s clenched-jaw introductions, the terseness of its storytelling and above all, its final twists. It was and is a tough act to follow, yet we still hope, with the premiere of each new show of that genre, that the original will be matched, if not surpassed.

“Black Mirror,” the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, was both inspired by and measured against TZ from the start. Now in its fourth season, “Black Mirror” seems not only in competition with the older show but with itself. Gaining steam over time, “Black Mirror’s” previous episodes culminated in an unforgettable Season 3, which brought “Nosedive,” “Playtest,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and, most memorably, the Emmy-winning “San Junipero.” Where would Charlie Brooker go from here?

The answer, at least for me, was not entirely welcome. While I have no quibble with Brooker’s promise that Season 4 of “Black Mirror” would be much darker than before, I found it markedly inconsistent, both in writing and in execution. It begins with “USS Callister,” featuring a “Star Trek”-like fantasy created by an exceptionally mean character. I was never a Trekkie, but the end of the episode, both in real and fantasy time, is most satisfying (the above photo is only half the story). Two of the episodes, “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” are the darkest of Season 4, and both fail for different reasons. I’m not into torture porn, which features in the former, and the latter consists entirely of a chase with little if any information as to “Who,” “What,” “Where” and “Why?,” leaving you not to care. And I found “Black Museum,” the last episode, to be quite predictable.

The two stand-out episodes are “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ,” which in retrospect are also the most plausible. “Arkangel” rests on the age-old push/ pull between mothers and daughters, updated with technology that’s just around the corner. Featuring Rosemarie DeWitt as the over-protective (to say the least) mom and Brenna Harding as her shielded daughter, the episode is directed by Jodie Foster to a heartbreaking conclusion. However, my favorite, and one of “Black Mirror’s” best, is “Hang the DJ,” the ingredients of which somewhat resemble those of “San Junipero:” two characters with mad chemistry who belong together. In place of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, we’ve got Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole (who is especially adorable) in a world where Higher Powers pair people in serial relationships of dictated duration. “Hang the DJ” resonates on several levels, not least in its references to mythic stories. The Forbidden Question looms large in this episode: as Elsa can not ask Lohengrin his name, as Orpheus may not glance back at Eurydice, Amy and Frank agree not to ask the length of their predetermined relationship. Naturally one of them blinks. In addition to the sweetness of its actors, “Hang the DJ” features a number of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending worthy of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a shame the rest of this season’s episodes didn’t match this one in quality.

The availability of Amazon Prime’s “Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams'” followed closely on the heels of the current round of “Black Mirror.” This 10-episode show is based on Dick’s futuristic short stories which were initially published in the early 50’s. Although Dick’s work has been updated and expanded, there’s a strong feeling of “Been there, done that.” So many ground-breaking sci-fi concepts of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s wound up in film and television that the imitations are stronger in memory than the originals. But this show suffers from another problem: so many sci-fi concepts originally deemed beyond imagination have in fact become reality. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said (and is quoted in one of the “Electric Dream” episodes), “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Like “The Twilight Zone,” “Electric Dreams” is an anthology in which each episode has a different writer, director and cast (“Black Mirror” also features independent episodes, but all with the exception of Season 3’s “Nosedive,” were scripted by Charlie Brooker, who still managed to devise its story). When “Electric Dreams” works, it’s more because of the actors’ performances than the material which by now has been worked and reworked so many times: The boy who thinks his father has been taken over by an alien (“The Father Thing”). The man with a psychotic son being tempted to join a perfect world in which the son never existed (“The Commuter”). The existence of a fantasy world which may be more real than the original (“Real Life”). Greg Kinnear, Mireille Enos and Jack Gore, Timothy Spall, and Anna Paquin, respectively, enrich these episodes to a considerable degree, as does Richard Madden (hello, Robb Stark!) for “The Hood Maker.”

“Human Is”: Silas (Bryan Cranston) and Vera (Essie Davis)

Once again, though, mad chemistry wins out, this time in “Human Is,” the episode which may be closest to Philip Dick’s original concept. The beginning is hard to take—Bryan Cranston may be a space hero, but his emotional distance from his wife, played by Essie Davis, borders on abuse. The change in the man, following a harrowing ambush by aliens, the suspicion of his co-workers, the loyalty of his wife and the wonderful ending are all foreseeable, yet the journey is a particularly enjoyable one. Cranston has never been more intriguing, and he and Davis are terrific together. The final lines of the episode are taken directly from Dick’s short story, and Cranston’s delivery sticks the landing of the final twist. Bravo!

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