Wednesday, December 7, 2016

TV Review: Black Mirror Season 3 (2016)

Black Mirror Season 3 (2016) created by Charlie Brooker

Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series by Charlie Brooker originating on the UK's Channel 4. The stories focus on the negative impact of technology on human life. All the stories are set in the near future with many familiar elements taken to a logical (and often tragic) conclusion. The title refers to a screen (such as a smart phone or tablet) that is off--it gives a cold and dark reflection of what's in front of it. The series is deliberately unsettling and challenging.

Netflix has picked up the series for its third season. Here's an episode by episode review:

"Nosedive"--Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a socially ambitious woman in a near-future dominated by social media rankings. Everyone goes around with their phones giving people one- to five-star votes as they interact. Lacie is hovering between 4.2 and 4.3. She's moving out of a place she was sharing with her brother. The new, very upscale place she wants to move into is a little too expensive but if she can get her rank up to 4.5 there's a twenty percent discount. She has a ranking consultant who helps her get ahead and a big opportunity arises when an old friend (Alice Eve) invites Lacie to be maid of honor at her wedding. The wedding will have lots of over-4.5 people, so if Lacie can do well she can spike her popularity and make her ambitions come true. The trip to the wedding doesn't go smoothly and Lacie watches her chance slip away.

The story is a sharp satire of the shallowness of seeking others' approval. Ratings don't just come from friends and co-workers--even random people like baristas and cafe patrons give out rankings. People have a certain expectation of getting five stars all the time, regardless of the importance or depth of their social interaction. The rankings don't just effect how other people judge you, they also effect work opportunities, shopping options, etc. Everyone has a false smile and a perpetually sunny disposition just in hopes of moving a bit up the scale. But is there any true happiness in the system?

The show isn't entirely bleak. Lacie's brother has little ambition but also seems perfectly content playing virtual reality games with his friends. He sees the shallowness of her ambition and tells her so. Others she runs into along the way show ambivalence toward or even rejection of the ranking system, demonstrating that she does have other options, even if they aren't socially recognized and approved options.

"Playtest"--Cooper is an American traveler whose trying to get away from his tough home life. He's been caring for his dad who just died from Alzheimer's. Cooper doesn't understand his mom, not even how to talk to her. So he sneaks out on a world tour. In England he runs out of cash. The "odd jobs" app on his phone offers an experimental playtest of a new game being developed by a reclusive Japanese designer. The game runs through a neural interface and is designed to test how much fear the subject can endure, using information gleaned from the subject's own brain. Not a good premise for a show called "Black Mirror," eh?

The premise is fairly interesting and as always the technology seems like it's only a few years off. I enjoyed the execution up to a point but found it getting repetitive and less believable and therefore less engaging in the final five or ten minutes.

"Shut Up and Dance"--Kenny is a typical teenage boy. He's got a part-time job at a fast food restaurant, an annoying sister who always borrows his laptop, and a bicycle for transportation. His sister downloads some malware which he tries to get rid of, but the removal software lets some hackers access his computer's camera. Soon enough, he gets an email saying they will release a compromising video of Kenny captured by the laptop camera unless he does exactly as they tell him. They send a video clip (which the viewers only see the beginning of) to convince him they've got the goods. He begins complying. At first, they only want to race him across town but the situation gets worse and worse as he runs into other people who are in his same situation (being blackmailed with online content of misdeeds).

The downward spiral is fairly rapid and quite horrific. Kenny gets to the point where he has to commit even graver crimes than he already has but it never occurs to him that he's just digging himself in deeper. The shame and the hope of hiding is so strong, any common sense is lost. It's a very bleak indictment of human behavior with a very bleak outcome. I can't say I enjoyed this episode.

"San Junipero"--In 1987, a shy young woman goes to a club and meets a party girl. They strike up a friendship, meeting the next week at the same club in the town of San Junipero. The third week, it's 1980 so something weird is definitely going on, especially since the people aren't really bothered by the time disparity (though they do notice).

The ultimate reveal of what's going on is not a surprise, though the ambiguity of the ending is. Viewers are left to their own interpretation of events, whether the characters made the right choice or not. The ending could be taken as exceptionally bleak or as uncharacteristically upbeat. Bleak seems like the proper interpretation, given the show's general tone.

"Men Against Fire"--Near-future soldiers are tasked with eliminating a threat to humanity--the Roaches. Roaches are subhuman monsters (they have human bodies but horrible faces) who raid local villages for food and spare parts. The soldiers are helped by implants that link them to technical data and intelligence as well as reward them with erotic dreams. One soldier is hit by a Roach's tech weapon and his implants start to malfunction. Or are they?

Though predictable, I found the story engaging and the moral considerations more challenging than the short-hand oversimplifications often presented by modern media.

"Hated in the Nation"--A veteran detective inspector is joined by a transfer from the cyber crimes division for her next investigation. A columnist who is despised by the general populace for her hateful article about the death of a wheel-chair bound woman has died violently. The husband claims it was suicide, saying his wife tried to cut her head open before gashing him and slitting her own throat with a broken bottle. The detectives chase a lot of dead ends until another media pariah dies the next day under similar circumstances. The two dead people also share a weird on-line connection.

I found the investigation interesting but the ultimate villain, a Saw-like character, seemed more to serve the moral of the story than to be an actual character. The villain wasn't believable. The awfulness of the ending is mitigated by a slight up-beat at the end, which is surprising for this series.

Overall, I think this season was a mixed bag, which is something to be expected with an anthology show. The show is a bit tough to watch because of the relentless pessimism and, after a few episodes, it's easy to guess where some stories are going. Even so, the writing is intelligent and performances are good. "Nosedive" and "Men against Fire" were my favorite episodes. If you are interested in watching, start with those and then go in this order until you are unsatisfied:
  • Hated in the Nation
  • Playtest
  • Shut Up and Dance
  • San Junipero
The third season is available only streaming on Netflix.

Parental Advisory: The show is rated TV-MA, the small screen version of the R rating. I would say it is a very hard R, not just because of the challenging and difficult ideas but also for lots of swearing and violence and sex. I'd say the show is for mature teens and up.

No comments:

Post a Comment