Simultaneously critically acclaimed and a cult phenomenon, Black Mirror is a brilliant piece of television that satirises the modern world in a darkly comic anthology. Originally a Channel 4 programme exclusive to Great Britain, the initial two seasons and Christmas special were later released to the rest of the world on Netflix. Shortly after, Netflix outbid Channel 4 for the rights to future seasons, promising creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones complete creative control and a much bigger budget to play around with. Although a recent trailer offered eager fans a tease of the new season, due for release on Friday 21st October, the only way to really understand the show is to watch it.
From the beginning, it was shocking. It was dark and crude and witty and intelligent, appealing to the masses with its grim humour, but thought-provoking in a way that few other TV shows are.
The first episode, The National Anthem, was nothing if not memorable. A beloved British princess is kidnapped and her life under threat unless the Prime Minister engages in “full, unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig”. It showed humanity at its cruellest and most sadistic, with a twisted kidnapper at its centre and hordes of people around the country leering to see their leader humiliated on the public stage. Or, rather, screen.
At the same time, though, it showed humanity at its most desperate and afraid, lashing out at the people around them and making rash decisions, putting themselves through severe hardships for the good of other people. Broadcasting the Prime Minister’s shameful coerced behaviour onto every television channel in the country, the episode showed what it’s like to feel completely no matter how many people are there.
That first episode took the biting political satire that Brooker was known for in his comedic career and blended it with a stronger critique on society as a whole. It tapped into people’s bloodlust for others’ humiliation, their craving for approval both personally and professionally. The plot hinged on the way technology has changed the way people get news and the way they shape their opinion based on online discussions – with online polls bouncing up and down throughout the episode and the very tangible tension ramps higher and higher up.
The National Anthem started the show as it meant to go on, presenting humanity in all its raw honesty, cruel and petty and afraid but somehow still persevering, no matter what need to be done to endure.
That first show was made all the creepier years later when it started to feel prophetic in a way that almost nobody expected. In September 2015, an unauthorised biography of then British Prime Minister David Cameron reported rumours that during his time at Oxford, he put a “private part of his anatomy” into a pig. The scandal now known as ‘PigGate’ leant itself perfectly to the hashtag #Snoutrage from the first Black Mirror episode.
From the very start, the show expertly blends a haunting sense of reality with things that should be absurd, but are so closely interwoven with the familiar that they seem to add up perfectly. Set in a not too distant dystopia, it echoes reality as it is in the present as well as offering an eerie glimpse into our society’s future, partially through humanity’s relationship with technology but largely through individuals’ relationships with each other.
It is fundamentally this that drives the narrative throughout the show, which only gets rawer and more personal as it continues.
The relatively uncommon anthology format introduces new characters and situations with each episode. As well as showcasing an incredible quality of writing through the captivating individual stories, it also means you can jump in at any time and still get the full impact of the show. Put together, the very different stories create an amazing and enormously comprehensive story world.
In the rest of the first season, the show tackles society’s shallow obsession with fame and people’s anxiety about the past, all the while showing how dependence on technology fuels those flaws.
Technology pumps propaganda into people’s lives. It gives them the tools they need to dwell forever on mistakes and worries from their past. It does a lot of things in Black Mirror that is already does in reality, but it is so closely interwoven with people’s lives that it is impossible to escape when things start to go wrong. When life starts to get unbearable.
The second season kicks off with a heart-breaking episode about grief, going on to plunge into even darker territory from there, exploring crime and punishment in the technological age. It wraps up with another eerily unexpected premonition in The Waldo Moment, in which a crude comic character runs against seasoned politicians for parliamentary candidacy. Two years later, crude comic character Al Murray’s Pub Landlord ran against UKIP toad Nigel Farage as MP of South Thanet under the banner of his own protest political party, the Free United Kingdom Party – FUKP.
The last episode broadcast so far, the Christmas special, got grimmer still. It told the story of a discussion between two people who have done terrible things. At times, you understand them – because they’re human. As their stories progress, they and the world around them get darker and darker, and you follow them every step of the way.
You only realise how dark this world is when you get to the end and you finally have the time and space to reflect.
This is not a show to watch if you want happy endings and inspiring heroes.
But it’s not depressing. It’s thoughtful and intelligent, with realistic characters with real flaws in settings that are introduced candidly and easy to accept. The show offers a glimpse into a potential future for humanity that isn’t utopia we often dream it will be. You can easily see why the technological advances are so popular, why people embrace them so willingly – they make a lot of life’s little problems practically disappear.
And that makes the dangers of them resound that much louder with contemporary viewers.
But as unnerving as the predictions for insidious technology are, what makes Black Mirror so hauntingly evocative is the way it plunges so fearlessly into the darkest, most secret parts of the human condition.
The new season goes live on Netflix tomorrow. The good news is that, with a grand total of just seven episodes so far, you could easily binge watch your way through the first two seasons this evening.
The trailer promises that it’ll be just as dark as ever, showing off a brilliant use of CGI and some famous faces involved too. It’s also due to be twice as long as the previous seasons, with a full six episodes in season three and another six due next year with season four – which is already looking promising in its own right, with Jodie Foster signed up to direct an episode.
Bear in mind, though, that it’s well worth going back and watching them all again later. Between the societal implications in the stories to the characters’ complexity, there is more than enough to keep your mind ticking for months. And that’s before you take on the challenge of finding all the subtle clues from episode to episode that link the story world together.
As a work of television, it is one of the most finely crafted shows in production, in terms of effects, storytelling, acting, everything. As a comedy, it connects to that cynical part of everyone that cuts through the superficial and mocks the rest of the world. As a social satire, it is simply brilliant.
As entertainment, it’s unmissable.
“If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects?” Charlie Brooker asks. “This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror … is set.”