Series five of “Black Mirror,” writer-creator Charlie Brooker’s dark anthology series, dropped on Netflix last week. This newest batch of episodes is less preoccupied with what the tech world may look like in the near future and more interested with how we are dealing with it today.
Character-driven and grounded in more or less present-day reality, this might be the least “Black Mirror”-ish series to date, and a possible start to the show’s mature period. That sounds ominous, but Brooker has scored a strong if short season this time out, again taking advantage of our collective unease about the technology—those “black mirrors”—we have surrounded ourselves with.
Each of the three episodes of series five (remember that Brooker spent a lot of energy on the technically innovative “Black Mirror” movie “Bandersnatch”) tops out at just over an hour. One episode leans tense and serious, one is screwball and farcical, the other an intriguingly mature look at friendship, marriage, and sex.
After gaining a cult following from its shocking UK debut in 2011, “Black Mirror” moved to Netflix for its third series, with longer running times and more exotic locations, including American settings, although the show has oddly never filmed in the United States. Series three focused on high-tech eye-tech, while series four tapped into an existential fear of being trapped in our own digital hells. Series five, if it has a theme, is about fighting off loneliness via personal connection.
As always with the show, don’t infer anything from the episode titles.
Episode 1, ‘Striking Vipers’ Grade: A-
Brooker proves there is still something interesting to say about virtual reality technology. Two college friends, Karl and Danny (played by Anthony Mackie from the Marvel movies) meet up and bond again over the titular kung-fu fighting video game, based on the “Street Fighter” franchise.
Eleven years later, Karl, the more outgoing and impulsive one, hasn’t settled down, while the reserved Danny and his now-wife Theo have a slightly boring middle-aged marriage, being bossed around by their high-tech dishwasher. Karl gives Danny a fateful birthday gift: An immersive, virtual reality version of “Striking Vipers.” But when Danny and Karl role-play as fighters “Lance” and “Roxette” inside the game’s world, what else changes besides their handles?
Brooker has an underappreciated talent for slice-of-life pathos, steering a murky path through the workarounds of marriage and friendship. Situations here that could have easily come off ludicrous were effective thanks to the quietly believable acting. I am not a big fan of drama-mode “Black Mirror,” but this episode really worked.
Episode 2, ‘Smithereens’ Grade: B
Actor Andrew Scott goes all-in as a London rideshare driver with a desperate, potentially deadly obsession with the social media company of the title. He’s on a quest to speak to company founder Billy Bauer, who is on a 10=day technology fast in Utah complete with Jesus sandals and a man-bun.
The thin, mechanistic plot is aided by a quiet, tense atmosphere. But questions about motivation become a fatal flaw. The story may have worked better five years ago when the perils of social media hadn’t become quite so baked into our digital cake. As is, “Smithereens” is an ironic victim of the show’s cultural imprint—foreseeable partly because we’ve absorbed so much “Black Mirror” over the last five years.
Episode 3, ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ Grade: A-
This is the surprise smash of series five, with a “Vox Lux” vibe, but more entertaining. Parallel themes of loneliness are experienced by world-famous pop star Ashley O (played by actual world-famous pop star Miley Cyrus) and one of her legion of teenage fans, Rachel, struggling at a new school while receiving little empathy from older sister Jack, a sullen guitar player resistant to Ashley O’s charms, and their widowed father, beavering in the basement to perfect “humane” mouse control.
As in “Striking Vipers,” things change with the arrival of a birthday gift for Rachel: A miniature stylized robot doll, branded Ashley Too, its circuits stuffed with banal paeans of encouragement and empowerment, like the star herself. Inspired by the doll to mimic Ashley O’s choreography for a school talent show, Rachel practices with amateur enthusiasm and amateur talent, leading to a scene that feels inevitable but is still heart-breaking.
When catastrophe strikes, the two stories merge and the tone abruptly changes, as various teenage movie genres start crashing into each other pell-mell. There’s a sinister Svengali crew and echoes of “The Fugitive,” making a fun farce that is goofy, corny, and crammed with incidents, demonstrating a message of individual empowerment without making an after-school special about it.
Reviewers aren’t wild about the series five package as a whole, but for me, two neat stories out of three is pretty good for late-period “Black Mirror.” Brooker made a change of pace, slowed things down a little, and got away with it.