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All you need to know about 'Black Mirror' (and its Christmas special)

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Black Mirror
Hal Shinnie/DirecTV

Drop the name Black Mirror into a conversation, and you’ll likely get one of two reactions: “Oh my God, that’s one of favorite shows!” or “Oh my God, what are you talking about?”

The chasm between these two responses is understandable. Created by TV writer and Guardian newspaper columnist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is a tech-obsessed, British anthology drama whose initial, three-episode season premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 network in December 2011. As of this month, the show’s first two seasons—a mere half dozen hour-long episodes in all—are available to watch on Netflix. Prior to that, Black Mirror could only be legally viewed here on DirecTV’s Audience channel or via import DVDs.

But the people who like Black Mirror tend to really like Black Mirror—last year, EW’s Melissa Maerz hailed it as “the Twilight Zone of our time” in her “A” grade review—and some of those people are really famous. In February 2013, it was announced that Robert Downey Jr’s production company Team Downey had acquired the film rights for a season 1 episode called “The Entire History of You,” which was penned by sitcom writer Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and hinged around a chip which allows owners to play back everything they see.

“There was a lot of buzz about Black Mirror when it started airing, so we watched ‘The Entire History of You,'” says Susan Downey, the actor’s wife and co-founder of Team Downey. “‘This episode interlaces technological advancements, human nature, and voyeurism, which inspired us to focus on creating a paranoid thriller in the vein of Three Days of the Condor or The Conversation, but with a modern twist. We optioned the episode and are developing it with Warner Bros.”

Meanwhile, a new, feature-length Black Mirror special Christmas episode—which DirecTV will broadcast on Dec. 25—stars none other than Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm.

The Mad Men actor and repeat Saturday Night Live guest says he was tipped off about the show by former SNL cast member Bill Hader. “He said, You’ve got to see this thing,” recalls Hamm. “I was like, I’ve never heard of it! Then I watched all of them. I couldn’t get over how smart they were.”

Initially best known as a comedy writer, Brooker’s first proper foray into sci-fi was the 2008 mini-series Dead Set, which was broadcast on the Channel affiliated network E4. It found fictional contestants of the U.K. Big Brother trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. The show starred real-life Big Brother host Davina McCall—essentially the Julie Chen of Britain—who played herself, first as BB frontwoman and then as undead ghoul. “She was one of the best zombies we had,” says Brooker.

Dead Set won rave reviews and a BAFTA nomination, prompting Channel 4 to ask Brooker if he had any other ideas. “The one thing that I always wanted to do was a Twilight Zone-type show,” he says. “I’d been reading a lot about Rod Serling and how he was trying to tackle issues like McCarthyism and paranoia. And I thought, ‘Well, what are we worried about today?’ And I suddenly realized that my face was being reflected in a screen as I was reading off a device of some nature. I thought, ‘That’s it—that’s the thing that’s swept in and changed all or lives in the last five years.’ I’m not anti-technology at all. I’m a dweeb. I grew up playing video games and I’m a gadget-head. What I probably am is a worrier— it’s a worried show.”

The very first Black Mirror episode, titled “The National Anthem,” concerned a Prime Minister who is informed via YouTube clip that he must have sex with a pig on live TV or a member of the royal family will be executed. Subsequent tales have proven less deranged—if not necessarily by much—but just as thought-provoking with regard to the our relationship with technology.

“What I like is that you can point to any one moment in any of the episodes and find something fantastically compelling about it,” says Hamm. “And yet they really have nothing in common from a story standpoint.”

Hamm met Brooker in London when the actor was doing press for his film Million Dollar Arm. “He said he was working on this Christmas special and he said, ‘Maybe I could make this guy American,'” explains the actor. “I said, ‘I sure would like that.'” Brooker in turn reveals that he and the rest of the Black Mirror team were “pinching themselves” about having such a big a star in their midst—even he didn’t act all that starry. “He’s not just incredibly pleasant—he’s normal!” says Brooker of the actor. “Which is not what you expect from anyone who is extremely well known and so good-looking that f—ing lampposts faint as he walks past.”

The Christmas episode features a framing story, starring Hamm and Prometheus cast member Rafe Spall, and three bite-sized tales including a Facebook-inspired yarn in which people can “block” other folk in real-life. “Like a lot of Black Mirror ideas, that sounds like it would be useful,” says Brooker. “But actually that would remove the ability to ever build bridges with somebody, or ever communicate.”

Brooker says that since its Netflix debut, the buzz about Black Mirror in America has increased substantially. “Suddenly I’ve been aware of a lot of noise,” he explains. “Like, Stephen King tweeted about it. That was probably my best moment. With the first season, we weren’t sure if it would travel at all. But the Spanish love it. It’s quite big in China. Somebody [pointed] me to a web page where Chinese people had been uploading reviews and there was something like 10,000 reviews.” Well, the Chinese are famous for their love of Prime Ministerial pig-sex. “They clearly can’t get enough of it!”

Brooker promises more Black Mirror shows are in the pipeline. Given our increasing embrace of ever-more advanced technologies, he’s unlikely to run out of material any time soon. “Exactly,” he laughs. “Which is fortunate for Black Mirror—but unfortunate for the world.”

Dylan McDermottEW has scoop on 116 things that you’re going to be talking about this year—so why not get a head start now? Grab the forecast issue and impress your friends with your newfound powers of prediction.

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