In the midst of a year that will likely be draped in people’s minds as a long inescapable nightmare, Netflix published the third season of Charlie Brooker’s seminal series ‘Black Mirror.’ A series that is synonymous with biting satire and disturbingly close caricatures of modern living. Here, Doreen Manning reviews Brooker’s third offering and asks if the series still disturbs in a year beyond satire.
Everybody has fears. We’re all afraid of something. One thing. Two things. Many things, if you’re anything like me. Common things (heights, spiders, the darkness). Obscure things (strong odours, mirrors, locked-in syndrome. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that last one is my own.). We all have something to be afraid of, whether we want to admit to it or not. We’re all weak in that way. It’s one thing that connects us. But just to explore that even further, we’re left with the realisation that we all have one very common fear: that our secrets, no matter how embarrassing, or silly, or defaming, or often deadly, will suddenly become public, known to everyone, out of our heads and hearts, out of our hands where we can wrangle them back into the shadows. That little thing you regret doing, that silly off-the-cuff comment you made to someone in a pub 15 years ago, that group initiation activity which seemed like misjudged fun at the time it happened, that deep dark thought you inadvertently expressed to an ex-partner when things were still rosy between you; what if that became the only thing people associated you with, that darkest secret approaching the open in the modern world, where it can be shared and spread ad infinitum by all and sundry, completely beyond your control?
Welcome to Black Mirror.
Black Mirror is the Charlie Brooker-created anthology of modern-tech horror and satire, in case you’ve had your heads under the covers for the past few weeks. Beginning in 2011, and appearing first on Channel 4 before Netflix bought the rights, Black Mirror focuses on tapping into those fears you know you have; the fear of having your world crumble around you, while others can (or often, will) only watch, while casually recording your every gut-wrenching moment and uploading it, broadcasting your pain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Brooker is adept at pulling back the hitherto untouched curtain on the ever-present terror the modern world has of all that can go wrong with the technology that surrounds and engulfs us, how easily it can impact, and destroy, our reputations, employment prospects and entire lives. Think about any modern fear you may have, and Brooker has probably already exploited it in some way:
-fear of what video games can do to the minds of young people, as displayed in Playtest;
-fear of the monotony of modern society, being constantly on autopilot, working to live instead of living to work, and how easily that cycle of existence can be corrupted and turned against you (Fifteen Million Merits);
-fear of extreme terrorist control (The National Anthem);
-fear of how the devices around us, no matter how well they’re designed, can easily be manipulated into either working for or against us (White Christmas);
-fear of all the apps and websites we regularly use, which are constantly farming our data and movements, easily determining our behaviours and actions, suddenly gaining further control by predicting what we would do in a crisis situation, and controlling events and situations based on our predicted actions (Shut Up and Dance);
-fear of outside control of what we see and experience, and how we interact with the world immediately around us (Men Against Fire)
“Think about any modern fear you may have, and Brooker has probably already exploited it in some way.”
Black Mirror is firmly rooted in fear, as you can see. It’s brilliant and succinct at hitting at the core of modern horror, twisting the audience’s expectations in a fresh way. In a time when movie-going audiences and TV viewers are acclimatised to gore and suspense, and are waiting simply for jump-scares to feel exhilarated, while not being horrified by gory imagery, Black Mirror is setting the bar even higher, putting viewers on edge in a way that has yet to be approached by modern movie directors. Every episode could be its own feature-length movie (with the possible exceptions of White Christmas and Hated in the Nation, which are 74 minutes and 89 minutes respectively), yet the plots, although short and sweet, still manage to pack a serious punch, even on TV.
Outside of the overwhelming ‘fear’ element of Black Mirror’s schtick, for want of a better word, the anthology has shown that it can also touch an emotional nerve. Episodes such as Be Right Back (which aptly deals with the emotional and mental struggles of the loss of a romantic partner) and San Junipero (focusing on the touching relationship between two young women across different decades of time) have both been met with overwhelming praise for centering on completely three-dimensional characters, particularly realistic LGBTQ characters in the case of San Junipero, and the slightly more positive emotional impact of modern living and the rapid growth and evolution of technology.
But one thing I do absolutely love about Black Mirror is the artistic merit of Brooker’s harsh light on reality. The camera tends to hover too close for comfort on the central characters of each story, dragging you in to the world the character inhabits, making you feel like a supporting friend, or tourist in the case of White Bear, in the protagonist’s claustrophobic world. The design of the technology in each episode can be compared easily to Spike Jonze’s Her, in that the world surrounding the main focus of the story feels real enough that it could become our everyday life at any moment, and the tech displayed and centered on story-wise could very easily be announced at a tech convention next week as an upcoming innovation that’ll revolutionize all of our lives.
Having watched, and re-watched, Black Mirror many times over the past few years, the third series, currently on Netflix, for me is very much welcome. Considering what little genuinely entertaining movies there are currently in, or are on their way to cinema screens; Black Mirror has a consistently fresh approach to psychological horror, drama, tension, comedy (what small comedy there is to be had, even if it’s very bleak comedy) and storytelling. It forces you to confront the myriad of fears you have, and then some you didn’t even know you had, and hooks your attention from the comfortable beginnings of each episode, right up until the bitter end.
Confront your fears.