Critics are fond of the phrase “five minutes in the future” (it used to be 20; things have sped up) to describe creator and chief writer Charlie Brooker’s dark near-future anthology series “Black Mirror,” series three of which dropped on Netflix last month.
It’s not quite science fiction. No alien invasions or apocalypses necessary: In “Black Mirror” we’ve built our own prisons of social media, of screen-saturated soft authoritarianism, still struggling to harness the amazing technological appendages we’ve grafted onto our all-too-human selves. The show asks: As we spend our days staring into those black mirrors, just what is looking back?
Satire is hard to do without coming off as lecturing or smug. But Brooker’s background in dark comedy lets him dodge those twin dilemmas (he was the mastermind behind the underappreciated zombie drama “Dead Set”). But for those pleasantly creeped out by the first two series, series three may feel a touch dour and predictable.
Dark Pleasures of the Future
Extrapolating to the near-future may be the toughest trick for fictional world-builders. Evoking the past involves research and costume design. For the far-flung future, one can make up whatever customs and creatures you like.
But tweaking what the world may look like a few years out is a more subtle affair, and Brooker’s worlds, next door to our own, are chillingly convincing. We can see them from here: A system that records everything you do, see, or hear and never forgets. A “block” function for real life. A TV personality’s surprisingly strong run for office (Wait, what?).
After two series comprising seven episodes, “Black Mirror” migrated from the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 to Netflix, and with the move comes an expanded running time and more diverse locations. British television tends to be parsimonious, so it would be petulant to complain about these supersized American helpings. Still, “Black Mirror” probably goes down better in bite-size portions; anthologies aren’t particularly built for binge-watching.
The first episode back in 2011, the quickly notorious “The National Anthem,” featured the kidnapping of a member of the British royal family, Princess Susannah, her life hinging on one unspeakable condition: The prime minister must have sex with a pig, live on national television. Hard to top that premise, and give Brooker points for bravery for not, um, chickening out. There’s nothing quite that shocking in the new batch, but there are dark pleasures in all of them.
Let’s Go Episode by Episode
I’ll loosely rank the six episodes of the new series in descending order of merit, though your mileage may vary.
“Nosedive” may be the most affecting. Think Uber uber alles: social media as life and death, where interactions with your fellow humans are instantly rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with social and career penalties for those who drop too far. It follows Lucie Pound’s “nosedive” into hell while getting to the wedding of her more highly rated childhood friend—Pound’s ticket to elite status.
The journey devolves into a series of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” fiascoes that strip away Pound’s social veneer and social rank. The climactic wedding scene featuring Pound (played perfectly by Bryce Dallas Howard) delivering her bridesmaid speech is a masterstroke of cringe-making catharsis. This episode feels the closest to the satire of the first two series.
“San Junipero” opens at an unbearably 1987 nightclub, featuring the most unspeakable clothes and most disposable pop of the era. Impossibly clichéd until you suspect that may be the point, it becomes an unlikely lesbian romance that eclipses time and space, and perhaps death and reality itself. It escapes the hopeless claustrophobic feel of the other stories, allowing for humanity and hope. A possible ominous sign: Critics and viewers consider “San Junipero” a series favorite, while also calling it a change of pace.
“Shut Up and Dance” has no dancing or humor of any kind. It’s the dankest, darkest, most intense entry, and may disturb you the longest. We follow the desperate exploits of two strangers, unwillingly thrown together, racing against time to commit a horrible act before an unseen social media blackmailer unleashes their darkest secrets, virally stolen from their devices.
“Hated in the Nation,” the last and longest episode, has a conventional crime-thriller pacing. It’s set in London amid an investigation into a deadly “unpopularity contest” where social media pariahs aren’t just murdered metaphorically. When you hear about mechanized bees, you don’t need spoilers to figure out the angle, but getting there is still pretty intense.
“Men Against Fire” (another odd title) follows a platoon of futuristic soldiers tasked with wiping out subhuman creatures—“roaches,” in military parlance—when one soldier’s eyepiece technology begins to malfunction in sinister ways (half the episodes involve eye tech). One can guess the general thrust, but it still delivers a good new twist on the dehumanization of war, risking preachiness but achieving surprising poignancy.
“Playtest” is a total immersion “haunted house” videogame test that goes—you guessed it—awry. There’s some novelty, and the setting is suitably jumpy, quiet, and creepy, although the ending renders much of what’s transpired pointless.
“Black Mirror’s” premise is so thrilling one wishes the individual stories were a little more adventurous: A scintillatingly queasy-making format that never quite produces undeniably classic TV (although the pig one may qualify). Perhaps the world is moving so swiftly underneath us that even satire set “five minutes in the future” can’t help but fall a few minutes behind.
Still, if the sweet, huggable sincerity of that other Netflix offering “Stranger Things” pushed you away, the dark embrace of “Black Mirror” may be just the box of dark chocolate you crave.