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Eight Takes on ‘Black Mirror’

Opinions, complaints, and recommendations for Season 3

Netflix
Netflix

Black Mirror is an inspiring TV show. It inspires fear about our near future, conversations about love and relationships, and thoughts about what kind of actors we want on imported TV shows. It’s a rich text that forces viewers to mull it over for days. Here are a few topics we’ve been thinking about.

Keep ‘Black Mirror’ Short

Chris Ryan: The goal for any given Black Mirror entry is to get in and out before the “Yeah But” moment. You know what the “Yeah But” moment is, because you have it every Sunday while you watch Westworld. It’s a phenomenon that particularly afflicts sci-fi — the moment when your suspension of disbelief is shattered, and you start saying “yeah … but” to all that beautiful world-building.

This is why the ideal Black Mirror episode is less than 50 minutes long. “Be Right Back,” “The Entire History of You,” “The National Anthem,” and “White Bear” are all between 40 and 50 minutes. They get in, break your heart/raise your blood pressure/make you cancel you data plan/check job listings for national parks, and get out. Most importantly: They don’t give you enough time to start questioning how, say, in “Playtest,” a technologically advanced company like Saito Games would neglect to have security cameras watching their testers during their super-secret game demos.

Look for long enough, and you just can’t ignore all the threads you want to pull. The trick is to not give people enough time.

Ban Movie Stars From ‘Black Mirror’

Sam Schube: British television shows do plenty of things well: provide material for bad American adaptations; portray relationships as soul-sucking fields of quicksand; and teach us how to bake, or something. But for my money, the best thing about British TV is the pipeline it creates for classically trained, hyper-talented folks to become dope character actors in American film and television. Before Black Mirror turned into a showcase for medium-wattage stars, it did exactly this.

Do you know who Daniel Kaluuya is? No? That’s OK. Because he’s not famous yet, and he certainly won’t be cast as Replacement-Level Jessica Chastain anytime soon. Kaluuya was on the British teen soap Skins, and then he carried Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits.” Now he’s stateside, popping up in Sicario (character name Reggie Wayne, I KNOW), grabbing a supporting role in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and headlining Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out. A star — or at least a cool and exciting That Guy I’m stoked to see in movies for the next 10 years — is being born right before our eyes. Give me more of that, Black Mirror, and let Jon Hamm go back to rooting for the Cardinals.

This Would Have Been a Good ‘San Junipero’ Song

‘Nosedive’ Is the Worst of ‘Black Mirror,’ and ‘Community’ Did That Episode First Anyway

Alison Herman: Black Mirror plays a risky game. If the real world catches up with the onscreen one, it’s proof of the show’s prescience — fuel for the “just like Black Mirror!” cliché that’s more confirmation of its relevance than any standalone review. Piggate taught us there’s nothing stranger than Charlie Brooker’s fiction. But if another satire gets there first … well, it’s just proof of the harshest critique of Black Mirror: It’s a facile swipe at technology’s most obvious fallout, not predicting the future so much as channeling and confirming our shared fears of it.

“Nosedive” falls into the latter camp, thanks to one ridiculous-sounding word: MeowMeowBeenz. That’s the namesake app from Season 5 Community episode “App Development and Condiments,” in which Greendale Community College students rate each other from one to five and rapidly splinter into a dystopian, rigidly categorized society … which is exactly the not-so-distant future imagined by “Nosedive,” minus the Tim and Eric cameos. A crucial component of insight is novelty, and “Nosedive” has none.

As a result, the what-if-Instagram-controlled-your-life hypothetical of “Nosedive” is yawn-inducing, with none of the wondrous potential of “San Junipero” or out-and-out creep factor of “Playtest.” Social media may be a tyrant, but Community already told us that — and took itself less seriously, too.

Keep ‘Black Mirror’ British

Juliet Litman: Bryce Dallas Howard is cool. She has accepted a few questionable roles, but overall, I approve. However, she does not belong in Black Mirror. Neither does Mackenzie Davis, nor anyone from outside of the United Kingdom or Ireland. Black Mirror was created by a Briton, and it should be and star Britons, and until Season 3, starred Britons. Let’s keep it that way, because its Britishness is essential to its success.

Give me a troubled couple living in a cold, coastal, chilly town, neither too far from the city nor the ocean. Give me people in wool sweaters and coats. Give me an episode with a visual palette limited to the gray and mauve color families. Drive on the left side of the road and drink some tea. All of these traits, plus some enchanting British accents and a few quirky conventions, sell the near-reality of the show. They create a world that we Americans could easily slip into, similar enough to what we know at home, but with some distinct differences. Because that’s what Black Mirror is about: a world we could easily imagine living in, but one that is warped. It could be our reality.

Also, what’s the point of casting eminent Britons like Alice Eve and Gugu Mbatha-Raw if they can’t flaunt their brogues? Keep them, and the show, British.

This Would Have Been a Good ‘San Junipero’ Song

‘Shut Up and Dance’ Is Why ‘Black Mirror’ Exists

Sean Fennessey: I watch Black Mirror because it’s willing to be mean, to peel scabs. Charlie Brooker’s vision of humanity — give or take a “San Junipero” — is callous and untrusting. Brooker revels in a bad beat. These aren’t parables because there is no lesson; even the penitent are unforgiven, the saints felled. “Shut Up and Dance” is no one’s favorite episode of the show, but it is one of the truest to its form, telling the story of shameful people forced to confront their shame in public and self-flagellating ways. Only a show as dire as Black Mirror could make Game of Thrones’ merry, carousing Bronn seem like a desperate, philandering pawn, as this episode does to the actor Jerome Flynn, who plays a sorrowful Hector.

“Shut Up and Dance” features so many of the show’s hallmarks through three seasons — hacking paranoia, laptop camera surveillance, drones, location tracking, anonymous communication, a hilariously sad Radiohead song that closes the episode — that it feels as if the episode edges into self-parody. It twists and twists again, careening into churlish woe, as if Rod Serling had written a Twilight Zone episode shortly after stubbing his toe on the coffee table. I really didn’t enjoy myself watching it, and I’ll never see it again. But what else can make us feel so bad, so engaged by sheer dread? Bravo for the pain.

Silence the Haters

Sam Donsky: It happened. They said it couldn’t be done, but it happened. Somehow, someway, despite immeasurable odds … and in the face of incomprehensible adversity, the people who hate Black Mirror became more annoying than the people who love Black Mirror.

I remember Season 1 like it was yesterday. “Nah,” a source told me, when I asked if anyone could ever be as annoying as the people who love Black Mirror. “It couldn’t happen.” “It’s a nice thought,” another source emailed, “But it’s just not realistic.” “Can’t be done,” a third source explained. “Too many variables. Too much to overcome. The people who love Black Mirror are — I’m sorry, no, the numbers just don’t add up. Those people are too annoying. I wish I could be more optimistic; I really do. But I can’t see it.”

In Season 2, things weren’t much better. “Is it possible?” a source asked me over lunch. “Sure, it’s possible. I once saw a Labrador make a gin and tonic. Anything is possible. And, look: Are the people who hate Black Mirror getting worse by the day, and reeking more and more of their own self-satisfaction, like they think they’re so special — just because they’ve figured out that a TV show about tech-anxiety features some plotlines about tech anxiety? Yeah, for sure. It’s awful. But even still. Even still. The people who love Black Mirror … oof. I just can’t see their level of annoying being topped.”

And yet here we are. Questions, of course, abound. No one I’ve spoken to seems sure when it happened, much less how. And where, exactly, the people who love Black Mirror go from here — from an annoyance perspective — remains to be seen. But all of those questions can be answered in due time. For now, the focus is on what we do know: that it happened. While once the people who love Black Mirror were more annoying than the people who hate Black Mirror … now they are not. Yesterday, the world was different. Today, we try to pick up the pieces.

This Would Have Been a Good ‘San Junipero’ Song

Disable Notifications

Justin Charity: Pollution, disease, and Twitter are all bad. They’re a blot on human affairs, but we must all live with these things; such are the conditions of original sin. You don’t have to live with Twitter notifications, though. You can disable notifications in settings, and you should do so immediately. I’ve lived without notifications for more than a year now, and, as a result, my quality of life has sharply improved. Watching Season 3, Episode 6, “Hated in the Nation” (henceforth known as “the bee episode”), reminded me that millions of people, including people who profess to hate Twitter, leave their desktop and mobile notifications enabled, per industry standard, thus maximally subjecting themselves to the stings of each and every hateful loser who flies into their mentions. Which comes with the territory, I guess, but no one needs a symphony of rings and buzzes to alert them. Bees didn’t kill those people. Social media desktop notifications killed those people. Save yourselves!

#ProtectSanJunipero

Mallory Rubin: In general, one of the best things about Black Mirror is that it inspires debate. We can engage and challenge ourselves and each other to be better, or at least to understand why we’re being bad. But with “San Junipero,” the soul-stirring fourth episode, there’s no room for dissent. If you’re part of the blowback to the blow job, part of the crowd trying to well-actually the wave of euphoria that greeted this episode, you’re a monster, and I hope a python strangles you while you’re seeking thrills at The Quagmire.

The “of course everyone liked San Junipero; you simple-minded fools just want to smile!” naysaying is problematic for two reasons: First, it implies that happiness isn’t challenging, that joy is somehow a limitation, that finding love and a sense of self is a shallow goal. But hope isn’t easy; it’s audacious.

Second, that attitude mistakes what’s actually at play here, because this isn’t all sunshine and daisies. It’s as much about the struggle to find acceptance and understanding as it is about the happy ending. That’s profound. It’s also scary.

Think about some of the issues “San Junipero” raises. Kelly’s dilemma isn’t whether to chase a crush: It’s whether forever is worth having if she can’t share it with the loved ones who defined her life. Yorkie’s reaction to seeing a car flip on Top Speed isn’t just fright: It’s the darkest moment of her past resurfacing to haunt her anew. When Kelly tells Yorkie that her glasses make her “authentically you,” it’s not just a compliment: It’s an indictment of the full-timers and tourists who, even when gifted with the seeming freedom of eternity, can’t stop grappling with their insecurities or trying to be someone they’re not.

The digital imprints who inhabit San Junipero carry their past pain and search for future fulfillment. They’re not content. They know that they’ve opted into something simultaneously manufactured and limitless. And most crucially, they know that they can be hurt. “It’s got different endings depending on if you’re in one or two player,” the dude who can’t land a date in paradise tells Yorkie, and we know that he’s not just talking about a video game. These avatars aren’t merely passing over to a blissful afterlife; they’re living life all over again.

This Would Have Been a Good ‘San Junipero’ Song