Black Mirror

You should watch Black Mirror.

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.

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 anglophilic tendencies. 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 is another great comedy that ran for three series with a total of 18 episodes. Rumor is Moran is developing it for America, but I suspect that will be a tough show to maintain its funny in middle America.

The British tell stories using their televisions and when the stories have been told, the shows are over. On to the next series. 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 out some more episodes to milk advertising dollars. It’s pathetic.

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.

It’s inexplicable and, frankly, inexcusable.

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.

When I first discovered Wire in the Blood, starring Robson Green, as quirky profiler Dr. Tony Hill, about seven years ago. 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.

Now, of course there were some bloody scenes in WITB because Dr. Tony Hill did profile serial killers after all. But 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, like Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. In fact, the two merge perfectly in Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh based on Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s Wallander series.

Just as the Swedes have a deep literary bench on the dark and twisted crime fiction, British also have a deep bench of dark and twisted shows. There is 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), Ripper Street (good, but something is lost on me I think), The Fall (just watch it), the aforementioned Wallender…and those are just 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. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is no different. It straddles that narrative fence between crime drama and science-fiction (imagine the Twilight Zone meets Terry Gilliam meets David Lynch). While Brooker, more or less, eliminates the “criminal”, as we have come to understand it, element in the series, he replaces it with a heavy helping of postmodernism…in a good way.

While Black Mirror has many of the same traits of the traditional British crime drama: it’s just that the raping and killing have been replaced by something far more menacing, technology. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and technology in general, and our relationship to it, is the criminal element here. It’s Brooker’s emphasis on this reality that makes the show postmodern.

Now, I know the phrase “postmodern” gets tossed around a lot. Some deserving of the definition and some things are just tagged with it because no one can explain it or, even worse, its just crap. However, Black Mirror IS a postmodern show.

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 “. . . 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. 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 portrays a pretty unpleasant view of where we are and where we’re headed.

But maybe Brooker is capturing the zeitgeist.

In George Packer’s recent book, The Unwinding, PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel describes how we have been in a “tech slowdown” since 1973. Thiel describes how the technological portrayal of the future in the fifties and sixties was far sunnier than it is now. And since the early seventies he claims technology has spiraled downwards, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Certainly the portrayal of technology in media since then has almost always been less than sunny.

The goal of a good satirist is to hold a mirror up to and poke holes in society in the hopes of getting us to recognize our own idiocy. Right now, Brooker is operating at the peak of satirical power with Black Mirror (which simply represents your smart phone, phablet or tablet while it’s off and it’s black screen . . . get it?). Satire is a tricky thing and when it hits, as it does in Black Mirror, it packs a helluva punch.

Black Mirror is not a procedural so there is no link between each episode, which only lends to its allure. Every episode stands as the fully realized vision of the creators, like a 45-60 minute movie. There is no worry about getting the principle characters to the next point in some seasonal arc because each episode is complete.

This is a show about the complexity of human nature and how technology has come to serve as a sort of cultural and societal grim reaper. The show demands thought and forces us to face some sad truths about ourselves. Black Mirror is not the show you’d turn to for escapism.

Whatever pretense I am presenting or complexity I’m prattling on about shouldn’t intimidate you, the show is not overly pedantic. You can always make it fun by playing “Spot the Downton Abbey Actor” game (50% of the episodes contain at least one “Downton Abbey” actor).

It’s also worth noting how the actors look like real people, (gasp). Not some sort of idealized version of what we think women and men should look like. The type of ladies who look like ridiculously botoxed waifs who’ve never had red meat or guys whose only job outside of acting is going to the gym and drinking grass smoothies.The principles in the six episodes I have seen, look like someone you might pass on the street.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror paints a seriously dystopian present, near-present and future view of the human condition and technology. It’s a show that forces us to not only question where we are now but, perhaps more importantly, where we are going. 

You should watch it.