The Star Trek homage, "USS Callister," is a standout.
Is anyone optimistic about technology anymore? Are they insane? When Black Mirror debuted in 2011, it felt conventional to praise the digital future, every new product launch a sacrament, every new social media moment a bolt-of-lightning vision of a more connected future. So producer Charlie Brooker’s initial salvo of satirical techno-skepticism felt transgressive. That’s an effect you can’t recreate today, when the tech industry has become Death, Destroyer of Worlds, and social media is how you check if nuclear war happened yet.
Remember, too, that so many of us in America first discovered Black Mirror down the internet’s back alleys. The first three episodes aired on Channel 4 in Brooker’s native U.K., but weren’t readily available on these shores, which means they were readily available to anyone with an internet connection and a typical modern disregard for the old governing laws of intellectual property. “The National Anthem,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” “The Entire History of You,” these were masterworks consumed like one of those future-drugs Tom Cruise inhales in Minority Report, in choppy gutter-stream Standard-Def. It was the televisual equivalent of, like, what a band’s basement tapes sounded like on hand-me-down bootleg cassette recording: a shadow thing.
Those first three Black Mirrors argued that we were aiming towards a dark future of infinite unhelpful information, where politics was a reality show and life itself had become an act of content creation. Nothing in that first season didn’t come true. And what a cast to peddle such hilarious misery: Daniel Kaluuya pre-Get Out, Jodie Whittaker back when the Doctor wasn’t a woman, poor Rory Kinnear, the poor pig.
The Netflix phase of Black Mirror has more breadth than the Channel 4 years, a bigger budget, a broader scope. Last year’s standout Emmy episode, “San Junipero” was a bold departure — colorful and nostalgia-drenched and generously adorned with warm fuzzies. I’m reminded of a grade-school friend who argued that “Time of Your Life (Good Riddance)” was the most punk song that Green Day ever recorded. When the world expects fast-paced drug-sex anthems, pull out your acoustic guitar for a slow song about photographs and still frames in your mind. And when the world expects paranoid high-tech misery, conjure up a tender romance, miraculously about the spark of young first love simultaneous to the careful simmer of elderly last love, all wrapped up with the most sincere Belinda Carlisle musical cue ever.
The new Black Mirror season continues the anthology’s outward expansion. There are three episodes helmed by feature film directors. There’s one brilliant standout epic, a sardonic meditation on space operas which also feels like a legitimate attempt to outdo any space operas in theaters now. There are a couple chapters that proudly announce their talking-point topics — imagine a chyron running across the bottom of the screen declaring THIS IS ABOUT TINDER. And there are a couple that feel playfully anti-thematic, dousing light flavors of futurist dystopiana over tense action and slippery noir. I don’t think any of the new six measure up to the show’s early heights, but this is a strong batch of science fiction concepts, proof that Brooker has tapped an essential vein of modern living. In no particular order and with a bare minimum of spoilers:
Rosemarie DeWitt plays a mom stressing out about her daughter. It’s a scary world out there: Angry barking dogs, train tracks, the possibility that your kid might just wander off the one time you turn your back. A fancy new start-up offers her parental relief. A tiny chip embedded in the child’s brain allows her to track her daughter everywhere. And it allows her to see the world through her daughter’s eyes, from the comfort of her tablet computer. And if the world ever gets disturbing? Why, turn on the parental filter, and everything scary gets bleached out into a TV-G-friendly array of pixels!
This is one of this season’s two straightforward parables. Your mileage for it may vary, depending on how many conversations you’ve had recently about How To Raise Kids These Days. I found the ideas at the center of “Arkangel” to be thoughtful, probably best experienced adjacent to a co-parent and a bottle of wine. Dewitt’s great, and director Jodie Foster gets fine performances from a very young cast (especially Breanna Harding). It’s almost an afterschool special, but the best afterschool specials always had their own melodramatic powers, exploring into weird teen truths on a broad canvas. It features my favorite bit of new Black Mirror lingo that should become part of our ongoing conversation about Generation Z and helicopter parents: “Chiphead.” A-
Hang the DJ
If you loved “San Junipero” as much as I loved “The National Anthem,” you will without-question dig this year’s whimsical-melancholy romantic outing. A young couple meet thanks to a dating app called “Coach.” Coach doesn’t just find you a match; it figures out ahead of time precisely how long the relationship can last, giving you a deadline that could be one night or one year or longer. Black Mirror has a great history of casting future stars, and Georgina Campbell feels like this year’s Hayley Atwell or Domhnall Gleeson, a glittering screen presence who performs several romcoms’ worth of heartfelt heartbreak. She’s well matched by costar Joe Cole, and together they’re an ideal pair of everypeople, grounding the obvious weirdness of their world with real chemistry and emotions.
I get anxious when Black Mirror gets the cutes, and no episode this season has more cutes. “Hang the DJ” also feels the most like an expression of a particular subset of upper-class boho champagne problems: It’s a clever riff on Tinder with little hints of Orwell, but it’s also a pleasant depiction of a world where the only thing left to worry about is how weird modern dating is. Then again, 1984 was a love story, too. And Cole and Campbell sell the emotions of “Hang the DJ” even if the narrative foundation starts to feel unsteady. B
Brooker wrote every episode of this season (with one co-writing credit, next). “Metalhead” is the shortest, but it feels like it would have been the most fun and most frustrating to write. Shot in black and white by director David Slade, it’s a near-realtime thriller. Maxine Peake stars as a woman in a post-apocalyptic environment. She’s on a mission, but she quickly finds herself in a death duel with a freaky robot, the particular design of which is a continually unexpected thrill.
I’ve got a lot of love for Slade, who made his name with culty horror flicks Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night before delivering the only Twilight movie where anything happened. This decade he’s become a TV journeyman with a real flair, setting the sumptuous pilot-episode tones of American Gods and Hannibal. There’s a particular flourish in “Metalhead” that feels right in line with his horror work. Now I want a new David Slade Black Mirror every year. B+
With an hour-plus running time, a delicious premise that brings out the best in a brilliant cast, and some genuine ticking-clock thrills, “USS Callister” feels like this season’s big play for the Emmy “San Junipero” recently won. Emmys, Shmemmys, someone call the Hugos! This starship science-fiction tale isn’t just a clever riff on Star Trek. it’s a gorgeous homage to the adventures of the USS Enterprise – and a stunning dissection of all the latter-day attempts to reboot Star Trek. And it is also about the urge to reboot nostalgic science-fiction franchises, and how that urge wraps retrograde toxicity into utopian-idealist camouflage. No episode this season sparkles with a greater combination of dramatic and deep-tough conceptual imagination.
“USS Callister” stars Jesse Plemons in what amounts to a brilliant dual role. He plays Robert Daly, the nerdy and awkward CTO of a videogame company, his very surname an expression of crush-of-time banality, one sad pointless day after another. But Robert flees into his own private cinematic universe, where he is a swaggering hero boldly going wherever he wants. To say more would spoil the slippery cleverness with which Brooker and co-writer William Bridges tackle their Star Trek variant. But I have to call out Cristin Milioti, who appears as a young employee at Daly’s company. This is a great part for Milioti, funny and freaked out. She’s a clever counterpoint to Plemons, who doesn’t aim for any limp parody but achieves some bizarro-Platonic version of Captain Kirkhood, with a mid-Atlantic Shakespearean accent, hair the color of a rare solar phenomenon.
Director Toby Haynes has worked on Doctor Who — and is best known for directing “The Reichenbach Fall,” the last episode of Sherlock that ever happened, how great that Sherlock ended after six episodes and never returned with disappointing seasons of television. Haynes finds an uncanny-valley majesty in the “Callister” visuals. Pair the episode with any episode of the original Trek, also on Netflix, and you can appreciate how he captures the color-blasted tone of Roddenberry’s original show while also casting the action with deep-dark shadows that go beyond simple faux-realism. There is one insane plot turn in “Callister” that has tormented me on both viewings, maybe the single least believable thing that has ever happened on Black Mirror, but I’ve concluded that I don’t care. Among its other many contributions to society, this is the best Star Trek TV episode in decades. A
Another great acting showcase. This time the standouts are Andrea Riseborough — familiar from Oblivion and Birdman and Bloodline — and Kiran Sonia Sawar, a relative newcomer who popped up on TNT’s Legends. They’re two women slowly approaching each other, like walls closing in. “Crocodile” starts with a random act of violence and follows the unexpected consequences. With that plot arc and the wintry Iceland setting, it feels a little bit like a lost season of Fargo chopped to its bare essentials. It’s handsomely shot by John Hillcoat, but don’t let the fancy scenery fool you: This is a nasty little story about very bad things, and the two performers give it a special pulpy kick. B+
The only outright stinker of the season finds Black Mirror diving all the way into what you might call “multiverse continuity.” Any ongoing anthology series will inevitably embed little nods to past events, and credit to Brooker for fitting most of his fan service into one easily ignored hour. Like the Christmas episode a few years back, this is a triptych of vaguely connected tales, all of them leavened with a forced sense of humor and heavy tell-while-you’re-showing narration. Douglas Hodge plays Rolo Haynes, sort of Rod Serling reimagined as a carnival barker, guiding you through a museum of blink-and-you’ll-still-see-it reference to past Black Mirrors. Inessential, but there is a funny doll. C-