I was a big fan of the first two series of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi/horror satire of how modern technology and media act to reflect our darkest impulses right back at us. I didn’t love every single episode, though while I found series 2’s “The Waldo Moment” possibly the weakest instalment, 2016 has proven it depressingly prescient. When Netflix announced that they were financing a third, longer series, I was definitely interested – though then it came out to, let’s say, uneven reviews. Many still loved it, and some thought the new series was simply uneven but still largely good – but eminent internet essayist Film Crit Hulk (if you don’t already know him, be warned: while he is usually insightful and well-reasoned, he does have his quirks and affectations) published a pretty damning post. Its title didn’t exactly promise a differentiated look at the series: “Why BLACK MIRROR Is Kinda Bullshit”. Ironically, FCH’s post increased my optimism about the new series; while usually get a lot out of his essays, even when I disagree, what he wrote about some of my favourite episodes of Black Mirror, such as series 2’s “White Bear”, made me think that he’d misunderstood several fundamental things, mainly this: in its first two series, Black Mirror wasn’t about how technology was evil, it was about how technology acts as an amplifier and accelerant for some of our worst impulses. The metaphor’s not subtle, but it’s effective: new technology and media acts as a dark, distorted reflection of ourselves, they’re (all together now!) a black mirror to mankind.
So, having dismissed FCH’s argument, I got started on the third series of Black Mirror – and found that, yeah, it was kinda bullshit.
Now, before I get subjected to the same kind of fan ire as FCH did (so much so that he ended up writing a second blog post, a semi-apology), let me rephrase that. After watching the first two of the new episodes, “Nosedive” and “Playtest”, I was disappointed. More than that, I was pissed off. Both episodes were well acted, directed and shot. They were competently made TV. And they were facile, glib and had next to nothing to say about their subject matter – at least nothing that required a full hour. “Nosedive” seems relevant on the surface, with its depiction of a world of people all staring at their mobile devices, its criticism of social media and its trend of quantifying popularity, but the criticism remains disappointingly shallow. “Isn’t it disgusting how superficial and dishonest we become once we start competing for other people’s approval?” isn’t much of a statement to begin with, but it becomes downright lazy in combination with the episode’s conclusion, which suggests that you just need to take away these darn social media and we immediately are freed by sheer honesty.
Now, I’d be the last to say that things like Facebook likes can’t drive toxic behaviour – but it’s not like social media and the internet’s penchant to have everybody review everything has created popularity contests, and it’s definitely not like human beings are inherently honest to each other without them. In its first two seasons, Black Mirror did ask questions like “So, how about these social media?”, “Have you considered the darker side of gamification?” or “Isn’t it eerie how these little gadgets have changed our lives?”, but it was never so naive or reductive as to suggest that unhealthy behaviours are forced on us by technology. “Nosedive”, however, seems to say exactly this, as the people who are frank and come across as enjoying freedom from social judgement are the ones that have opted out of the ever-present social media. That’s the kind of incisive media criticism you’d expect from a know-it-all teenager who’s realised that the world is filled with phonies – but I’ve come to expect more from Black Mirror, doubly so when the episode basically makes the same overblown, reductive statement over and over again over its one-hour running time. It’s a shame for the strong performances and the obvious production values, but I found it difficult to watch “Nosedive” and not think that more in this case ended up being decidedly less.
“Playtest” is not as annoying perhaps, but that’s mainly because it has even less to say than “Nosedive”‘s cyber-Caulfieldesque sneer. To begin with, it looks like it wants to comment on gaming in general, or possibly Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality – but it sure as hell doesn’t have anything much to say about modern technology, let alone human behaviour… except perhaps that very human behaviour of ignoring warnings to switch off your mobile devices, which doesn’t exactly make “Playtest” all that relevant. Like the first episode it’s a competently told tale, but it basically takes an hour to repeat variations on the same fake-out several times, each time to diminishing returns. Like “Nosedive”, at half its length this could have been an effective enough tale with a nasty-but-fun twist, a modern Twilight Zone episode, but it’s too long and too flabby for what’s there. At least it doesn’t try to sell facile criticism of modern technology as relevant and perceptive, but I’m not sure its essential emptiness is all that much better.
So, two episodes into the third series, Black Mirror had struck out twice, reflecting a lot of FCH’s criticism quite accurately. However, I’d also read on various review websites and blogs that “San Junipero” was surprisingly different from the other episodes, so I didn’t want to give up without checking it out. And, as much as I disliked “Nosedive” and “Playtest”, I am glad I watched “San Junipero” – because regardless of the rest of series 3 it’s one of the best episodes of the entire series. Much like films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her, it works on several levels and doesn’t shy away from ambiguity, but neither does it go for a safe, easy cynicism implying that we’re all fucked anyway.It is smart, entertaining and poignant, working both as a sci-fi tale of love in the time of virtual reality and a comment on what modern technology can do for us: the spaces it creates where we can reinvent ourselves as well as the limitations of those spaces. It’s exactly what Black Mirror needed to refresh itself, and to remind me what I liked about it in the first place, after two episodes that suggested a bigger budget complemented by a smaller imagination.
At the same time, “San Junipero” makes me hesitant to watch the remainder of the series, and at the very least I’ll wait a while before revisiting Charlie Brooker’s dark reflection of existence in a world dominated by technology. Like this I can believe that the potential is still there, that Black Mirror still has stories to tell that are enjoyable, engaging and relevant, rather than glib criticism of social media or derivative horror stories with a technological twist that wasn’t even particularly fresh when Cronenberg did it in eXistenZ. In the meantime, I’m afraid that I’ll get all the funhouse reflection of the world I need by opening the curtains and looking out at what 2017 has in store for us. These days Twitter doesn’t need Charlie Brooker to be scary.