The mid-’90s era Home Box Office had a slightly obnoxious, definitely ingenious marketing slogan: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” HBO’s dichotomy was patently false; even prestige TV is still TV. But HBO’s successor as the standard-bearer for its strange, pivotal moment in entertainment history might have a better claim to the saying than its originator ever did. What do you call five hours of footage, arranged into a series of sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-divergent parallel timelines? It’s not TV. It’s Netflix.
“Bandersnatch,” the latest installment of the technological horror series Black Mirror, is a story about a video game that takes the shape of a video game. Rather than present the ’80s-set tale of a troubled designer, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), as a fixed, hour-long narrative, “Bandersnatch” borrows its structure as well as its name from Stefan’s magnum opus in progress. Bandersnatch, the game-within-a-game, is an adaptation of a choose-your-own-adventure novel whose author met a grisly, tabloid-ready end. “Bandersnatch,” the episode-as-a-game, presents the viewer-player with dozens of binary options, some as simple as what kind of cereal to eat for breakfast and some as fraught as whether to kill someone. The promise is the same, the technology used to deliver it very different: you get to decide.
I’ve long felt that Netflix and its collaborators are at their finest when they acknowledge just how wide-open the possibilities of a TV-internet hybrid are, especially one with this many resources. Liberated from fixed 30- or 60-minute time slots, The Comedy Lineup successfully simulates the experience of watching a handful of short stand-up sets at a nightclub. Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj is structured more like a YouTube clip than a traditional, segmented late-night show. Scripted shows like Mindhunter oscillate from 30 minutes to 60 as the story demands. In and of themselves, each of these is a minor tweak; as a whole, they represent a slow but steady testing of their platform’s boundaries, or lack thereof.
“Bandersnatch” is, by far, the most radical of these experiments, an ambitious effort that literally would not be possible on traditional TV. (HBO arguably came close with Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh’s interactive app from 2017, though the experience had to be cut into a more traditional miniseries to fit onto the network itself.) Written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, whose previous anthology entry “Metalhead” is nodded to in “Bandersnatch” via Easter egg, the episode is as much a technological feat as a storytelling one. The transition between being prompted to make a choice and the action that results from said choice is seamless; I’ve played through to the credits three times and never experienced a moment of lag time or obvious stitching together. “Bandersnatch” is also, in its way, a clever business strategy. As with all internet companies, Netflix’s lifeblood is engagement, as evidenced by a telling, self-produced graphic ranking shows by average watch time per viewing session. “Bandersnatch,” of course, requires multiple viewings to experience the full effect of its differing outcomes and explore its various detours. As earned as those viewings may be, they’re also more hours the consumer is spending on Netflix’s real estate as opposed to someone else’s.
Creatively, the format of “Bandersnatch” dovetails well enough with its themes to register as more than a mere gimmick. Even before he takes on the daunting, taxing, possibly even cursed endeavor of adapting Bandersnatch into a game, Stefan is obsessed with the idea of irreversible choice; he blames himself for his mother’s death in a train accident after he, a toddler at the time, insisted on searching for a missing toy rabbit. “Bandersnatch” cleverly replicates Stefan’s anxiety by presenting the “choice” to search for the bunny in the flashback as a single option. There’s nothing he, or we, can do to change the past.
As he plunges deeper into Bandersnatch and its original author’s mysterious death, Stefan becomes obsessed with agency and decision-making, eventually growing convinced he’s under the control of some unseen outside force. Which, of course, he is, a meta aspect Brooker sometimes pushes too far into the obtuse territory for which the show is somewhat infamous — then, on one occasion, out the other side into a garish, frivolous subplot that’s an obvious footnote to the main event. Mostly, though, the effect is pleasingly uncanny, implicating the viewer-player in Stefan’s downward spiral while also drawing them further in.
In the end, “Bandersnatch” suffers from the drawback of all choose-your-own-adventure stories, which remain unchanged from their ’80s heyday even as their presentation has evolved. The autonomy granted to the consumer is something of an illusion: Choice may exist in the story, but only within the parameters the unseen architect has already laid down. Still, “Bandersnatch” emphasizes the decisions made by the audience rather than those of the creator, valuing the journey over the destination. Whenever I reached the end credits — or one of the dead ends that prompts the viewer to double back, an effect not unlike losing a life in a video game and regressing to an earlier juncture — I didn’t feel much of anything for Stefan or the awful things I’d just watched him endure. I just took it as a prompt to start the whole thing all over again so I could test out the possibilities I’d passed up, or suss out the subplots I’d somehow missed. “Bandersnatch” is a novel experience, but that sometimes comes at the expense of its impact as a story.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Television Academy changed the eligibility rules surrounding the Outstanding Television Movie award, which Black Mirror episodes — first “San Junipero,” then “USS Callister” — have won for the past two years. Candidates now must run for a minimum of 75 minutes, an arbitrary dividing line between a movie and merely a very long episode. There’s an almost comical, whack-a-mole quality to Black Mirror then releasing something like “Bandersnatch,” which technically meets the requirements several times over, but feels unlike a proper TV movie, or even TV, for an entirely different reason. And yet: Who has time to care about labels when they’re busy figuring out whether it matters which record Stefan picks up at the store? Black Mirror has gone from discussing technology to capitalizing on its potential, from warning us about the future to becoming its latest harbinger. If you can’t beat the mission creep of the digital age, join it.