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What I'm Watching Now: 'Black Mirror,' the best sci-fi show you've never seen

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If you’ve already bingewatched every single critically acclaimed show out there, and you’re wondering what to watch next, TV critic Melissa Maerz has a few suggestions. Her column, “What I’m Watching Now,” is devoted to the best underhyped series on television (or Amazon, or Netflix, or whatever iDevice you’re using), whether they’re just premiering or have been lingering on your friends’ season pass queues for years.

Every so often a British drama comes along that’s so brilliant, you must ride a TARDIS to London just to watch. (Note: ”Ride a TARDIS to London” definitely isn’t slang for ”secretly download while pretending to play World of Warcraft,” because that would be wrong.) The cult-favorite sci-fi series Black Mirror is one of those shows, as I said in a rave review last year. (It was one of my favorite TV shows of 2013.) But, thankfully, the TARDIS is no longer necessary: The whole series is now streaming on Netflix.

If you’re delighted by this news, then you probably already know the reasons why you should watch. Yes, Black Mirror is easily binge-able: There are only six episodes, each one is self-contained, and you can watch them in any order (I’d start with “The Entire History of You,” one of EW’s best TV episodes of 2013), though you’ll want to get through both seasons before the holidays, when Jon Hamm will star in the Christmas special. It’s also highly original. You won’t find any hardboiled detectives or Middle Eastern conflicts or hipster ennui in its two seasons. If there’s any apt comparison to another show, it’s the one that critics have been making for years: Black Mirror might be the closest thing this generation has to The Twilight Zone, though its vision of the future feels fresh. 

Robert Downey Jr. is such a big fan, he’s set to produce a film version of ”The Entire History of You,” which is about the complications that arise when a husband (Toby Kebbell) and wife (Jodie Whittaker) record their memories of their relationship. I’m personally convinced that Spike Jonze must have seen and loved my own favorite episode, the Domhnall Gleeson-staring “Be Right Back,” a meditation on grief in an age when everything lives on the internet forever, because it shares a lot in common with his film Her, though I’ll refrain from explaining why, lest I spoil anything. Generally, the less you know beyond the basic plot points of these episodes, the better. Let’s just say that each one takes place in the not-too-distant future, wrestles with our unease over the digital age, and offers commentary on consumerism and conformity that’s just as sharp as the days when Rod Serling was battling McCarthyism with pulpy stories about robots and gremlins.

When Black Mirror first premiered, its creator, Charlie Brooker, described its themes to The Guardian: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

Normally, when a drama concerns itself with the dangers of technology, it can end up feeling reactionary, as if some stodgy elder is warning you not to get too addicted to these newfangled devices these days. Even the undeniably forward-thinking Twilight Zone often played with a certain longing for simpler, slower times, as its characters were beamed back into their childhoods, or suddenly awoke in the 19th century. But Black Mirror never trades in nostalgia. It skewers modern times in a way that only someone who’s kept up with them and totally understands the allure of instant gratification can. “Fifteen Million Merits” delves into the ethics of TV’s obsession with American Idol-style singing competitions. “The Waldo Moment,” which finds a blue cartoon bear named Waldo (voiced by Daniel Rigby) running for office, suggests that a love of political satire has made the public so cynical, no one even wants a government that works anymore. “White Bear”… well, I won’t say too much about “White Bear,” except that it’s a grim indictment of the way we use our iPhones to detach from what’s happening in the real world. Also, you’ll want to read up on this real-life case after you watch it.

Allowing yourself to feel deeply unsettled by the uncanny valley that exists between the series’ world and our own is a big part of the fun. Though the best thing about Black Mirror might be that it also makes you feel complicit in the rush for bigger, faster, more entertainment. In the first episode, “The National Anthem,” a kidnapper threatens to kill the Duchess of Beaumont (Lydia Wilson) unless the Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) agrees to have sex with a pig and have the act broadcast on television. As the public awaits his decision, all of England gathers into the pubs, just in case they get to see the horrible scene play out live. At first, the premise seems preposterous. What self-respecting citizen would watch a human being sodomize an animal? Sure, we might watch a man get devoured by an anaconda, but we have to draw the line somewhere. And yet, as the will-he-or-won’t-he tension mounts, you might find that you’re just as eagerly awaiting the Prime Minister’s decision yourself, and whichever way things turn out, you’re probably not going to switch off the television. It’s a theme that you’ll find yourself pondering throughout the series: How much responsibility should I take for being entertained by something that’s inherently dehumanizing? Brooker’s right. The real black mirror is your TV screen. And what it’s reflecting is you.

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