These are not happy stories. This is not “hell, yeah!” science fiction. It is not comfortable, or triumphant, or heart-warming, or kickass. It is occasionally a little bit predictable, but only when you know to expect the very worst, even as you hope against hope that this time it’ll turn out to be just a little less bleak. (And then are grateful when it doesn’t.)
But the seven episodes — to date — of Black Mirror are absolutely essential viewing, and not just because a new 6-episode season will be launching on Netflix next week and you’ll want to know what everyone is talking about.
First airing in 2011, this UK anthology series sees its standalone episodes set in either dystopian futures or unsettling alternate nows. Right from the first episode, a shattering look at the voyeuristic madness of live news that is both shocking and beautifully realized, the tone of the show was set. This was speculative fiction at its most incisive, upsetting and important. This was not only a black mirror but — to quote Oz — a sobering one. It was our world, but just enough different to allow our foibles to be shone under a harsh, not always subtle but usually nicely metaphorical spotlight.
Brainchild of creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote or co-wrote all but one episode so far, the series gives us chilling, poignant look at our technology and how it changes us; our entertainment and how it defines us; our society, and how it warps us; our relationships, and how they can destroy us.
Here, my ranking of all seven episodes:
The series’ second episode is its most memorable, the tale of a slavery-driven future where questions about reality TV, talent contests, body image, discrimination and integrity all merge.
In this second season episode (this is a UK series, so of course the “seasons” are only three episodes long), the always luminous Hayley Atwell stars as a woman bereft of her one true love, who then turns to artificial intelligence to have him remain in her life. Affecting, depressing, and kind of icky, it is a love story, a warning and a commentary on our false social media selves all at once.
This 90-minute Christmas Special (this is a UK series, so of course there is a one-off Christmas Special) stars John Hamm as an increasingly ruthless manipulator, as three separate stories converge to show us a world in which our reality is shaped by those around us.
The British Prime Minister is given an ultimatum: perform a cruel act of bestiality, or a princess dies. Can he do it? Should he? Over to you, constituency!
No longer his side, her side and the truth, a couple’s argument is settled using technology that records — and displays — an individual’s memories with filmic precision. But do we really want the unvarnished truth?
A woman awakens with selective amnesia and a silent, menacing audience dogging her has she attempts to figure out what’s going on. Nothing is quite as it seems and it’s all very disquieting as it poses the question: does vengeance equal justice?
An irreverent comic creation becomes involved in a local election. His creator goes crazy. And is the system really so broken that people will just vote for ANYONE who makes them laugh? (I think we’ve seen this one answered pretty definitively of late…)
The quality of these episodes is so high that a ranking like this is simply a matter of taste, however. Number 7 is not inherently worse than Number 1, although it doesn’t deliver the same level of meta societal commentary as the others, or at least, not with as much subtlety. Nevertheless, they are all thought-provoking hours of speculative television, and are very much worthy of your time. Years later, I am still thinking about some of these stories, their characters and concepts and the nature of our very existence, as shown to us in the black mirror of these twisted, often tawdry but certainly not impossible futures.
So bring on Season 3! I am equal parts excited and full of dread about whatever dark imaginings will play out therein. And in the meantime, I may have to go and watch “The Waldo Moment” again. Because with this show, even your least favorite episodes are still worth repeating.