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How to Make a Great ‘Black Mirror’ Episode

The technophobic series is back, and it’s as hit-and-miss as ever. We break down what makes the hits so great.

Netflix
Netflix

Depending on what episode you’re watching or even whom you’re asking, Black Mirror is either an unflinching portrait of our modern era or a frustratingly self-important attempt at social commentary. Which is perhaps inevitable: The line between acerbic and self-important can be vanishingly thin, and Black Mirror suggests that you probably can’t have the former without at least a bit of the latter. An early standard-bearer for the episodic anthology trend, Charlie Brooker’s drama, a British import that makes its debut as a Netflix original Friday, exemplifies the advantages of starting from scratch with every installment: creative range (Black Mirror moves freely between genres), liberty from any narrative obligations beyond some connection to the overriding theme of technology (the series’ name refers to the reflective surface of an empty screen, as well as the show’s opinion of what those screens do to us), and big names (Jon Hamm starred in the Christmas special) drawn in by the minimal time commitment. It also typifies the anthology’s flaws.

Black Mirror sets an astonishingly high bar for itself, announcing its intention to comment on the most fundamental and all-encompassing social shift of this century in its very title. But the show crashes into that bar just as often as it sails over it. That’s because its format works as a double-edged sword: For better or for worse, there’s no guarantee that the quality of one self-contained story will carry over into the next. The show veers between poignant and pedantic, heartbreaking and hectoring.

The best Black Mirror episodes understand human nature well enough to lay it bare for us the way Brooker believes smartphones, social media, and virtual reality do. Jealousy, longing, and vindictiveness aren’t new qualities; we’re simply empowered to express them in new ways. Which makes it worth asking what makes for a great episode. The ’50s-style anthology renaissance will continue, but more importantly, so will efforts to capture exactly what the way we communicate says, or changes, about what we’re communicating.

Keep Human Stories at Human Scale

Let’s start with what doesn’t make for the best of Black Mirror. The show’s two weakest episodes to date are its most literally political: its very first, “The National Anthem,” in which terrorists blackmail the U.K.’s prime minister into having sex with a pig on live television, and “The Waldo Moment,” in which a satirical cartoon character accidentally becomes a viable candidate for office. This is Black Mirror at its most cynical, which is also its most sweeping and in-your-face. Politics often feels incompatible with Black Mirror’s aspirations because it takes place on such a grand scale. And these two episodes contain generalizations that bear little resemblance to the nuance of reality. People are cruel and easily manipulated, these episodes spell out in 96-point letters — we’re mindless hordes just waiting for someone to point us in the right direction, which is usually the nearest television. It’s “wake up, sheeple” as storytelling, and it’s maddeningly simplistic.

These episodes’ offhand dismissal of our collective capacity to think for ourselves is directly connected to another of the show’s sometimes-signatures: the absence of a developed protagonist and the emotional stakes that come with one. The prime minister of “National Anthem” is a pathetic figure, his audience a faceless mob; the struggling comedian who voices Waldo spends much of the episode behind his character. The end result is characters so abstract and dehumanized it’s all but impossible to see ourselves in them — they’re just outlines Brooker drew to prove his point. It’s hard to take Black Mirror’s conclusions seriously when it hasn’t reached them using people we recognize.

Luckily, Brooker has self-corrected this tendency going into the new season. “Hated in the Nation,” the last and longest episode of the new batch, is just as damning of technology’s ability to instill groupthink. (Brooker has said the episode was inspired by Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book that’s incidentally been criticized for the same reductive logic and smug superiority as Black Mirror’s weaker installments.) Yet unlike the earlier episodes, it offers compelling protagonists, a detective and sidekick investigating a string of deaths targeting people who’ve run afoul of the hivemind, and even in its villain, whose motivation turns out to be more personal than ideological. No one is a mouthpiece, which makes what they say and do all the more affecting.

Break Out of Your Mold

“Stay in your lane” is great advice for life and terrible advice for a television show. While a series that resets with every episode might sound immune from the ruts and inertia that plague a late-era sitcom, Black Mirror carries the same risk as any series firmly past its early days: revisiting the same terrain to diminishing returns. Black Mirror is good when it’s filling in previous gaps, but it’s at its absolute best when it’s forging ahead.

The new season’s weakest episode is thus the one that most closely resembles a preexisting one — and dilutes its predecessor’s power. “Shut Up and Dance” is almost identical to “White Bear,” the most disturbing and directly horror-inspired chapter of the initial seasons. But in “White Bear,” the final twist is a gut punch, elevating the episode from well-constructed thriller to intriguing hypothetical about the nature of justice. In “Shut Up and Dance,” it’s old news.

Meanwhile, the clear standout of Season 3 is “San Junipero,” a love story between two women (Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose namesake beach town isn’t all it seems. This being Black Mirror, viewers spend the entire hour waiting for the other shoe to drop: What happens at the ominous-sounding “quagmire”? Why does the story suddenly cut off at the stroke of midnight? Instead, what “San Junipero” delivers is genuinely without precedent in the world of Black Mirror: pure, life-affirming romance, enabled rather than limited by technology. Black Mirror has explored intimacy before, but instead of technology destroying (“The Entire History of You”) or failing to replace (“Be Right Back”) a connection, in “San Junipero” it facilitates one. Some of the episode’s appeal comes from it being a reprieve from Black Mirror’s unrelenting bleakness, but it also emits the undeniable feeling of a show stretching its legs and pushing past its self-imposed limits.

Keep Up With Your Source Material

Making a show about cutting-edge technology can certainly be a challenge; for all that “It’s like Black Mirror is now the knee-jerk response to the dystopic crisis of the week, almost all near-future science fiction looks tragically dated with just a few years’ worth of hindsight. But it’s also an opportunity, because Black Mirror’s real-life subject is constantly generating new material for Brooker’s speculation.

“Playtest” and “Men Against Fire” each take on a technology that’s really risen to prominence only in the multiyear gap between seasons and therefore far less overexposed than, say, Instagram’s effect on our self-presentation. (This is what makes an episode like “Nosedive” feel uneventful despite a committed performance from Bryce Dallas Howard and a winning script from Rashida Jones and Mike Schur. The idea of five-star “ratings” determining social status isn’t just reminiscent of Season 1’s “Fifteen Million Merits” — it’s also a nearly identical concept to a Community episode that aired almost two and a half years ago.) Virtual reality figures heavily in both episodes, though it’s put to very different ends: an experimental horror video game in “Playtest” and military equipment in “Men Against Fire.” For a technology with such an immediate effect on human life, weapons have been strangely missing from Black Mirror, and it’s immediately clear they’re an apt fit for Brooker’s pessimistic outlook. (The show’s new American roots mostly make themselves felt in the locations and acting ensemble, and the sudden presence of the military industrial complex suggests they’ve made their way into the writing process as well.) And “Playtest” uses its premise to serve up some of the outright scariest stuff Black Mirror’s ever done, but ultimately puts it in service of a less showy, more earnest sort of fear: confronting a family tragedy.

Black Mirror works best when it’s exploring the human tendencies technology channels, not making blanket statements about the technology itself. That’s because technology, especially the hypothetical kind, is infinitely flexible; human nature is not. It’s this tension that gives Black Mirror an endless well of inspiration, and an endless combination of disturbia, uplift, ambivalence, and melancholy to mine.