So about one year ago (January 13, 2014) I wrote about Charlie Brooker’s television show, Black Mirror. I said you should really be watching it.
Last week, Brooker was interviewed for WNYC’s On The Media and talked about it, A Paranoid Reflection of our Digital Age.
Because all too often people have come up to me and prattled on about something I wrote specifically or tangentially, I thought I would re-post my Black Mirror entry because it is NOW available to stream on Netflix. Once you finish reading this, go watch the series. Really.
You’re probably not watching Charlie Brooker’s brilliant show Black Mirror because it isn’t easy to find on American television. In fact, I am not sure where to find it except on bootleg sites. It’s not on BBC America, it’s not available on American iTunes, Netflix or Amazon.
Frankly, it’s a bitch to find but you should look for it because Black Mirror is simply the smartest show I have ever seen.
From time to time, I write about television and things media related. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I typically skirt over my Anglophile tendencies. Well, I won’t ignore them now because I am of the opinion that the British seem to understand television and storytelling better than we do in America.
It seems to me their focus is on the story. For example, the entire series (a series = a season, in US parlance) of The Office is 12 episodes. That is 1/2 of one season of the American version (which ran for NINE SEASONS). Dylan Moran’s Black Books, another great British comedy, ran for three series for a total of 18 episodes. Rumor is Moran is developing it for America for ABC, but I suspect that will be a tough show to maintain its funny in the arms of the Disney monolith. Adapting Black Books for middle America would be like trying to put Californication on CBS.
The British, from what I can gather, tell stories using their televisions. When the stories have been told, the show is over. On to the next one.
In America, we take a decent show, beat the snot out of it, bleed the characters dry and when it eventually sours, we’ll introduce some inane character or ridiculous plot line. This is done all in the hopes of squeezing more episodes out to milk advertising dollars. It’s pathetic and sad.
Cable television has made some inroads in creating better story driven TV shows like Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc. Even though the very same media companies that own the cable outlets also own the network television channels, the disparate approaches to programming is staggering.
It’s almost as though network television relishes in keeping its head firmly jammed up its own arse.
In fact, the ratings (which are pretty much fake anyway, but whatever) for some of the more popular cable shows are the same as, and sometimes higher than, the prime time television shows on the four networks.
So what makes the British shows better? I think it’s their emphasis on story. It’s that simple, I think.
My first forray into British television sensibility was Wire in the Blood, starring Robson Green, as quirky profiler Dr. Tony Hill. Aside from incredible acting, writing and directing, this was the first time I had been exposed to such CRAZY story lines. They make any Law & Order franchise episode look like Sesame Street. And Wire in the Blood wasn’t particularly gory, like a CSI or (insert current gory TV show here) franchise here, it was a little gory, but mostly suspenseful.
There was some gore, the guy did profile serial killers after all. More importantly, the show was built on the characters and each episode emphasized the drama. It was the trajectory of the story that made the show compelling, not the gore.
Television crime drama, in the UK, seems to be the kissing cousin of the twisted Swedish literary crime drama. So close in fact that there is Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh based on Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s Wallander series.
The Brit’s are really flexing their murder mystery muscle with shows like Sherlock (amazing cast, couldn’t get into it), Luther (Idris Alba, ’nuff said), Prime Suspect (Helen Miren, ’nuff said. NBC’s aborted remake doesn’t tarnish the original), White Chapel (odd, but well written and performed), Broadchurch (I tried, but didn’t care for the first two episodes, America didn’t like the re-do), Ripper Street (good, but something is lost on me I think), The Fall (just watch it…the second series was just released on Netflix…in a word, amazing), the aforementioned Wallender…and those are only the ones I have watched.
While British crime dramas are not necessarily “ripped from the headlines”, they are rooted in the reality of modern life with the penultimate of the modern dilemma being Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
It straddles that narrative fence between crime drama and science-fiction (imagine the Twilight Zone meets Terry Gilliam with a dash of David Lynch). While Brooker has more or less done away with the “criminal” element, as we have come to understand it, he has replaced it with a heavy helping of postmodernism. But not in that pretentious way where you can’t understand how or sound like a dick saying “postmodern”.
Now, I know the phrase “postmodern” gets tossed around a lot. Some deserving and some things are just tagged with it because no one can explain what it even means or uses it to offset its pure crappiness.
However, Black Mirror IS a postmodern show.
Certainly Black Mirror shares some of the traits of British crime drama but where it deviates is that the raping and killing have been replaced by something far more menacing. Technology.
YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and all things digital, present and future, and our relationship to it. It is that relationship that serves as the criminal element here. It’s Brooker’s emphasis on this humanistic reality that makes the show postmodern.
Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard called “The Real“, “that which is authentic, the unchangeable truth in reference both to being/the Self and the external dimension of experience.” Baudrillard goes on to further define the concept of the real “…subjects are detached from the outcomes of events (political, literary, artistic, personal, or otherwise), events no longer hold any particular sway on the subject nor have any identifiable context; they therefore have the effect of producing widespread indifference, detachment, and passivity in industrialized populations.”
Each one of the first six episodes of Black Mirror shows just how detached and indifferent we have become as a culture. And how it is getting worse!
Just take a moment and watch anything that passes for news, especially here in the United States. It’s grim. Passivity is seeing less than 58% of registered voters voting in the last presidential election because they don’t think it matters. Detached and indifferent when someone is bullied on social media, to the point of suicide.
Each one of Black Mirror’s six episodes address the ways we continue our march towards a dystopian future.
From where I sit, Brooker is capturing the zeitgeist. And it ain’t pretty.
But Brooker isn’t necessarily alone. In George Packer’s recent book, The Unwinding, PayPal co-founder, and billionaire, Peter Thiel describes how the technological portrayal of the future in the fifties and sixties was far sunnier than it is now. Technology was going to save the day, make us a better society. But since the early seventies Thiel claims technology has spiraled downwards, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Which begs the question, is technology our cultural and societal savior or is it our grim reaper?
The show demands thought and forces us to face some truths about ourselves so if you are looking for some degree of escapism, Black Mirror is probably not the best show for you.
The goal of a good satirist is to poke holes in society and get us to recognize our own idiocy. With Black Mirror, Brooker is operating at the peak of satirical power. Satire is a tricky thing to pull off and when it hits, as it does here, it’s worth your time.
Black Mirror is not a procedural so there is no link between each episode. Every episode stands as a fully realized vision of the creators, like a 45-60 minute movie. There is no worry about getting the principal characters to the next point in some seasonal, or romantic, arc because each episode is a complete story.
This show is a direct descendent of The Twilight Zone…but with a touch of British cheekiness to offset the horror.
Now in case you are thinking I’ve gone loony or that I am being too pedantic. Don’t watch it then.
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror paints a seriously dystopian present and future view of the human condition and our relationship with technology. It’s a show that forces us to not only question where we are now but, perhaps more importantly, where we’re headed.
You should watch it.