Charlie Brooker has done it again.
“Bandersnatch,” the latest “Black Mirror” entry which dropped on Netflix last week, is an infernal maze of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” that’s maddeningly intriguing. This is the first Netflix presentation that requires viewer interactivity—you have to watch with remote in hand in order to select from among the potential plot options along the way. Fans have already produced maps, flow charts and critical path drawings of the various outcomes, and while they’re helpful, it’s so much more fun to go into this world on your own. I guarantee you’ll visit multiple times.
We begin in 1984 with young Stefan Butler’s attempt to create a game called “Bandersnatch” based on a multiple outcome novel of the same title. Its author, a mad genius named Jerome F. Davis who believed in multiple existences and parallel universes, later became notorious for beheading his wife. Stefan takes his concept to a company named Tuckersoft (nice nod to “San Junipero”) headed by a Mr. Thakur who immediately enthuses over Stefan’s work in progress. He offers him a spot working on premises with a development team, and this is where the viewer makes the first key choice: Does Stefan work collaboratively or on his own? The later options increasingly raise the stakes—does Stefan see his psychiatrist when he becomes blocked in his work, or does he seek counsel from Colin Ritter, Tuckersoft’s resident genius game creator? Does he take his meds or not?
Each fork in the road leads to a significantly different outcome involving the characters’ various fates, and more amusingly, the rating eventually given to the “Bandersnatch” game by a quintessentially nerdy TV reviewer. There’s method in Charlie Brooker’s and Netflix’s madness: If you’re not happy at any point with the story you’ve essentially created, you can’t rewind or fast forward—you can only erase your choices by starting over again from the beginning. However, when certain options lead to premature or dead ends, you are presented with the ability to redo a critical selection. This is occasionally irritating, but the more time you spend with “Bandersnatch” the more intriguing it becomes.
At its core, “Bandersnatch” is a world of mirrors reflecting mirrors. The references and homages enhance rather than detract from the experience. In addition to that reappearance of Tucker, we see that Colin’s current best-selling game is called “Metl Hedd,” reflecting the “Black Mirror” episode of the same title from Season 4. More audaciously, one of the “Bandersnatch” outcomes uses a plot device straight from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode entitled “A World of Difference,” where determining what exactly is reality is impossible. And let’s not forget the origin of the word “bandersnatch” either….through the Looking Glass (punny, isn’t it?) indeed.
The acting is uniformly excellent, though special honors go to Will Poulter as Colin Ritman, who fills the role of Stefan’s guru. With that white hair and the character’s various obsessions, you can’t take your eyes off him (And speaking of which, I’d love to know how his buggy eyes were achieved during a key sequence).
So when you have the time, key in Netflix, keep your remote in hand, and start your “Bandersnatch” adventure. Good luck!
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There’s no better way to wait for the rest of “Black Mirror,” Season 5 than to read “Inside Black Mirror,” a thorough history of the show and a compendium of commentary by the creative team for each episode. It’s fascinating to see where and how the concept for each story originated and how it grew, was modified and ultimately realized on-screen. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, his producing partner, are wonderfully readable, but the best chapters are those in which the actors contribute to the discussion, including among others, Jon Hamm on “White Christmas,” Bryce Dallas Howard on “Nosedive” and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis on “San Junipero.” With all the razzle dazzle of “Black Mirror” and its storytelling, the show’s consistently astute casting shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Inside Black Mirror” makes for compulsive reading and of course the need to revisit all those episodes, if only to pick up on details you may have missed the first time around. It’s a keeper.
Happy New Year to all!