The anthology returns with more hope and more stars

By Darren Franich
June 05, 2019 at 08:34 AM EDT
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Worth remembering a lost golden era of tech optimism, when titans of Silicon Valley were not yet generally recognized as flopsweating deathlords of monetized tyranny. Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 in the U.K. in 2011, when it was still possible to imagine a hyper-connected utopia of social media and smartphones and whatever FourSquare was. Charlie Brooker’s techno-satire was good news for people who love bad news, arguing that any cheerful thing about modern technology would drive everything crazy.

The first three episodes of Charlie Brooker’s techno-satire have not lost their urgency. In “The National Anthem,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” and “The Entire History of You,” the humor is sharp enough to slice your head off, and the science-fiction tragedy is factual enough to blow your decapitated mind.

The anthology trends glossier in its Netflix phase. The three episodes launching Wednesday juggle tones and genres. They’re all better than Bandersnatch. They’re experimental, and long. And they’re also a bit sentimental. Even the bleakest feels programmed with hopeful pathos. I worry that’s a collective failing, evidence that big budgets and a prime streaming venue are nudging Brooker towards an optimism few viewers are feeling. Then again, he was pessimistic before it was cool. Maybe he’s onto something? Here are reviews of the new episodes, with some plot spoilers.

Netflix

“Striking Vipers”

Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul Mateen II play best bros Danny and Karl. They used to spend long nights playing their favorite videogame, a Tekken-ish fighter called Striking Vipers. Now Danny is frowningly married in the suburbs, while Karl is a downtown lothario dating women too young for Dennis Rodman references.

Karl gets Danny a birthday present: A new edition of Striking Vipers, souped up into virtual reality. Within the game, Danny looks like Pom Klementieff and Karl looks like Ludi Lin. The fact that all four performers have starred in superhero movies could be stuntcasting — or maybe it’s increasingly impossible to cast a name performer who hasn’t played comic book action.

In the game, Danny and Karl start off fighting — and wind up kissing. More than kissing: Striking Vipers is, apparently, an omni-sensual game experience. Danny’s having an affair with his best friend. It’s a nifty idea, a riff on the whole idea of the “bromance” that ever-so-slightly suggests there’s something more going on when you’re online role-playing with massive multiplayers.

One thing that sets Black Mirror apart from recent anthological imitators, I think, is its attention to atmospheric detail. The near-future dishwasher has a hazard warning when the knives are blades up. Danny agonizes over whether to include a suggestively kiss-y “x” in a text message to his friend-lover. And the game Striking Vipers resembles a fully realized Street Fighter knockoff: battle stages with ancient-futuristic backgrounds, neon-dojo costumes.

Mackie and Mateen are funny, sweet, extremely confused. I especially love how Mackie looks torn between repressed lust and bemusement, like he can’t even figure out if he’s cheating on his wife. It all goes on a bit too long, and wraps on a twist that doesn’t feel fully supported by the complicated emotions that lead there. As Danny’s wife, Nicole Beharie gets locked out of the action — especially when potentially explosive marital drama gets timejumped into the void. This one’s in the history books, though, for one line: “I f—ed a polar bear, and I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.” B

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”

Netflix

There’s one very cool idea in this goofy caper: “Foulmouthed Robo-Doll with the Voice of Miley Cyrus.” Cyrus plays Ashley O, a purple-haired pop star preaching an empowerment vibe. Her positivity appeals to lonely teen Rachel (Angourie Rice) — and infuriates Rachel’s sister Jack (Madison Davenport), who’s more about the Pixies.

The story initially splits. Ashley withstands her controlling aunt-manager (Susan Pourfar), who’s anxious about Ashley’s new interest in black eyeshadow. Meanwhile, Rachel receives a very special birthday present: Ashley Too, an adorable little talkbot programmed with the pop star’s brainscans.

The real Ashley winds up comatose, but her manager still gets a new album out of her, ripping music and lyrics straight from her brain. Since I love the phrase “spiritual sequel,” I feel required to point out that this episode continues a saga begun in the classic South Park episode “Britney’s New Look,” wherein a suffering Britney Spears has to record new music with half her head missing.

That episode ended with a dark premonition for a then-upcoming starlet named Miley Cyrus. Cyrus has defeated that prophesy, and maybe one problem with “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is that the usually savvy Brooker settles for some rather archaic ideas about popular music. Like, Ashley’s handlers are nervous about her ruining her squeaky-clean image. Surely “ruining the squeaky-clean image” is an essential media narrative for all modern pop stars!

I really love the Ashley Too doll, though. I want one! Am I watching this wrong? I don’t think so — for all the maliciousness surrounding Ashley, this episode comes out strong in support of imprinting celebrity brains into purchasable friend alternatives. And the plot stops making sense as soon as there’s a plot. The sisters drive to Ashley’s house in Malibu, where a wacky bodyguard lets in anyone with a convincing story about rat traps. Oh, also, the sisters’ dad has a brainscan laboratory where he’s developing new extermination technology. The vibe suggests a made-for-Disney-channel telefilm, with more swears. Jaunty and forgettable. C+

“Smithereens”

Stuart Hendry/Netflix

Andrew Scott, recently great on Fleabag, is great again here as Chris, a mysterious rideshare driver stalking the London headquarters of a major social media company (whose user interface looks a lot like Twitter). He kidnaps a man (Damson Idris) who looks like an executive: Young, handsome, well-dressed in a suit.

First big whoops: The dude’s just an intern. Which leads Chris to a darkly funny freakout about tech workplace ethics: “How is anyone supposed to have a sense of the hierarchy?” Chris doesn’t have much of a plan. His kidnapping goes comically wrong. He winds up in a standoff, overseen by policemen. The squad’s commander is played by Monica Dolan, a wonderful performer best known in my household as Tracey from the behind-the-scenes Britcom W1A. It’s possible I like “Smithereens” best because it’s the most British in the current batch, and the smallest-scale — the most like a classic Black Mirror, come to think of it.

The scope expands. Chris demands to speak with Billy Bauer (Topher Grace), some Silicon founder on a disconnected retreat to Furnace Valley, Utah. Getting to Bauer requires a jangly transcontinental collaboration between sectors public and private. “Smithereens” has no real science-fiction, so Brooker’s observational points feel uncomfortably true-life. The Smithereen brain trust in Los Gatos has access to more information than the United States or the United Kingdom — and there’s something very Mount Olympus about the company’s role here, these twentysomething executives in sun-dappled glass offices sending info-bolts of data lightning from eight timezones away.

Grace’s performance is remarkable, and trickier than parody. Bauer looks to me like a pretty clear Jack Dorsey analogue, and “Smithereens” captures the strains of DIY spirituality and egomania that define our conception of the modern tech CEO. But Bauer has his own confession to make. Smithereen, he explains, “was one thing when I started it and then…it just became this whole other f—ing thing!” He compares his great creation to a crack pipe, or a Vegas casino, starts ranting about dopamine targets. “There’s nothing I can do to f—ing stop it!”

Here again, there’s an unconvincing dash of faithful techno-optimism. Chris’ insane gambit works, and the wonders of telecoms connect him to one of the most powerful men in the world. (Like, does Charlie Brooker think Netflix CEO Reed Hastings would take that phone call? Could Brooker ask him? Is that the problem?) And the ambiguous ending depends on a contrivance I don’t quite believe. Still, this is the one new Black Mirror where you feel Brooker’s unique mix of empathic humanity and comic despair. Thanks to modern technology, representatives of America, Great Britain, and one of the world’s most powerful tech companies are all invisibly present in a field in England. And nobody can really see what’s happening. And nothing turns out well for anyone. A-

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