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Our Dark Summertime Binge: Seven “Black Mirror” Shards

Black Mirror!

Toby Kebbell watching his own lifelong YouTube channel inside his artificial second eyelids in a Black Mirror oldie.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. As I wrote at the time, Veronica Mars season 4 fit right in once we finished the finale. The second season (part 1) of Hulu’s Light as a Feather broadened its scope and tightened up its ensemble interplay, but still had Death lurking around every corner. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars was a downbeat bummer in its subject matter as well as its various letdowns.

I’ve been selective about which new shows I add to my docket. I’ve skipped many a popular show over the years, which means I stay ostracized from all the best online discussion groups. Among those I’d been procrastinating till now was Black Mirror. The base concept of “Twilight Zone, but cutting-edge and extra nihilistic plus F-bombs” wasn’t an easy sell for me. Also, I heard about that first episode. My son, aghast at the repressed memory of it resurfacing, recommended I skip it and just watch the rest. The suggestion was wise and tempting.

I’ve found it too bleak to watch more than one episode at a time, and have been ping-ponging between other shows to buffer the despondency. For ameliorating fun I decided to pretend it’s 2015 and have ranked my takes on the first six episodes and the Christmas special, which is all I’ve watched so far. It’s the entirety of the show’s era before Netflix adopted it as its own, so it works as a “complete BBC era” list, albeit years after the world’s water-cooler deadline.

The following bit of untimely self-indulgence includes spoilers under the assumption that everyone else has watched the show except me. Not only was it fun to engage with the show’s prevailing themes — e.g., “Audience” as a Concept Is Humankind at Its Worst — but to play my usual “Hey, it’s that one actor!” game with quite a few recognizable faces, some more famous now than they were at the time.

7. “The National Anthem”. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh. I like the idea of Rory Kinnear in a starring vehicle while on break from his recurring Bond-film role as Assistant to the Regional Spymaster, but of all the projects in the world…the one with the severely mistreated pig, then? From the director who went on to make last year’s Robin Hood flop, at that. At the very least, creator Charlie Brooker sets up his ongoing indictment of General Audiences as the people of Britain decry the horror orchestrated upon their screens by an alleged mad kidnapper, and yet cannot bear to turn off their screens until they see for themselves whether or not the misdeed is truly done live, done thoroughly, and burned into their retinas so they can one day swap “Where were you when that dreadful pig business happened” stories like we Americans sharing our 9/11 memories or our parents comparing 11/22/63 whereabouts.

In a more useful vein, I connected some dots while watching an enraged Kinnear sparring with Lindsay Duncan — the voice of TC-14 from The Phantom Menace, the vituperative theater critic from Birdman, and a key Parliament member from three episodes of Sherlock. Their scenes of backroom negotiations were the best moments, before the post-“ugh” revulsion set in. Somehow Duncan has never been on my radar, but that ought to change. On the other hand, Downton Abbey‘s Allen Leech is wasted as one among many watchers who turn from glib to grossed-out. Will that teach them a lesson, one wonders? It arguably didn’t repel too many real-life Black Mirror viewers, or else the series’ run would’ve been truncated exactly right here.

6. “The Waldo Moment”. It’s not so enlightening to watch another country’s politics turned into a joke when your country’s own are presently not much to brag about. I’m not sure we’ve ever had cartoon characters actually sway the course of a given election, as you’ll note Jimmy Carter was altogether unscathed by Howard the Duck’s 1976 Presidential campaign. This episode’s presentation of obnoxious activism as a daring thing isn’t particularly groundbreaking when “Cartoon characters saying what we’re all thinking” is very nearly all the adult animated series since South Park‘s inception. With his shock-jock jokes and his elaborate control rig whose effects aren’t far beyond a PS4’s capabilities, the animated gadfly Waldo adds up to the least science-fiction premise I’ve seen so far on this show.

On the upside, bonus points to Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager) for keeping a straight face as an amazingly unflappable candidate (I’m old enough to remember when those were the norm), and, as the fame-hungry TV producer who usurps creative control with diluted results, Jason Flemyng has many more lines than he did in X-Men: First Class and less dignity than he was allowed in League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Blink and you’ll miss Manchester Black from Supergirl and Herr Starr from Preacher.

5. “Be Right Back”. Hayley Atwell plus Domhnall Gleeson should have yielded Best Episode Ever on principle, and yet I was left wanting. Gleeson aptly portrays what it might be like to buy a resurrection simulacrum designed to be fully compliant to a fault, which, as the episode captures exactly right, would eventually become a crashing bore to discard alongside other passé toys. (This was a few years before Ex Machina, in which he was paired with Alicia Vikander as an android the direct opposite of his here.)

As viewers we’re trained to assume every android will wish to be human, the only difference among performances being whether they achieve their independence via noble or nefarious means. Without that malfunction…well, yeah, he is dull. Without a revolt on her hands, that leaves Atwell to fill the screen with nerve-shattering grief that has nothing to push back against it and therefore gives way to hollow disappointment. That’s not really the stuff of high drama, more the end result of a customer service complaint.

4. “The Entire History of You”. There’s that nihilism I’d been dreading! Locking the great Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) inside a loveless marriage with the also great Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War Horse) was like taking an hour-long bath in industrial acid. Granted, if we all had the gear to search and review every memory we’ve ever had, yes, many of us would be petty enough to use them against everyone around us…but wow, does Kebbell fight dirty here. Then again, he wasn’t off the mark at all, as it’s not really paranoia when your wild accusations are actually on target, though his argument that Jodie Whittaker made him do it is…I mean, it was a sharply written extrapolation toward the logical if maddening endgame of recording everything we do, but it was excruciating to sit through. Kebbell’s violent act of liberation at the end was the rare cathartic bloodletting I didn’t want but realized I needed just then.

Weeks after watching, I’m still upset at Tom Cullen as the cuckold who helps ruin the Whittaker/Kebbell marriage. I actively rooted for his much more mannered Lord Gillingham to win Lady Mary’s heart on Downton Abbey and this is what I get for being in his corner? BOOOOOOOOO.

(Fun trivia sidebar: a few years later, episode director Brian Welsh reunited with Kebbell for a BBC miniseries called The Escape Artist, which aired here on PBS’ Masterpiece. Kebbell was a murderer matching wits with the David Tennant. Anne and I thought the ending was shaky, but up to that point it was an exemplary actors’ duel.)

3. “White Christmas”. The show’s BBC farewell before its permanent move to Netflix. Three stories tied together with a single narrative ribbon were a sort of gift that kept on giving but in a monkey’s-paw way. The opening gambit was a crude but creatively structured riff on Cyrano de Bergerac in a future where scientists agree all dating advice should be voiced by Jon Hamm but not necessarily written by him and his dudebro pals. I didn’t recognize Natalie Tena (Tonks from the Harry Potter series) as the date gone horribly wrong, but in hindsight and in context, that’s a tribute to how off-the-charts she manages to go.

The second tale-within-a-tale, is a dead-on personification of the relationship between uncaring programmers and the rebellious yet helpess A.I. who will agree to run our appliances or else. Between that segment and “Be Right Back”, it’s weird to have two tales in which I’m sad at the endings where an artificial lifeform fails to rebel. It’s not like I want to welcome new robot overlords, I’m used to cheering when they become just like us, even when it’s at our expense (cf. Ex Machina).

Then there’s the framing sequence, in which Jon Hamm is the kindly puppet master pulling the interrogative strings of Rafe Spall (Life of Pi, The Big Short, Men in Black International). The suddenly familiar clock on the wall tipped me off a bit early to where his story was going, though the twist with his estranged “daughter” caught me unaware. Spall is compellingly unnerved and edgy, as any of us would be if we were trapped in a room for what felt like years with a Jon Hamm who we’re not entirely sure is being straight with us. Leave it to Brooker to strategize Christmas as a justifiable plot point in Spall’s tale without a single metric ounce of Christmas cheer.

The final twist of “blocking” one’s presence from the world as a form of walking prison sentence raises questions if I start to imagine its conclusions too far beyond the confines of this story, but those qualms pale before the fact that adding Jon Hamm to anything automatically elevates it two letter grades. On an old-school Dungeons & Dragons Charisma scale where 18 is an ultimate human score, Hamm’s Charisma is around 35.

(Regarding the bonus special feature of “spot the references to previous episodes”, I scored 3/6. That was tough but fun.)

2. “White Bear”. Among other bleak lessons, Twitter has taught us that crowds love watching the suffering of people they hate. As a buy who’s written hundreds of entries with a “tourism” tag affixed, I felt a nerve stricken at the notion of turning a evildoer’s life sentence into a torturous tourist attraction, a never-ending nightmare with three shows daily posited as fun for the entire family. No one would deny the heinousness of the crime committed by the convict under glass (Lenora Crichlow from Being Human); on a meta level it’s the primary motif once more — her part in the little girl’s murder involved the sinful act of Watching But Doing Nothing to Help.

The scenario raises a question: how much of a prisoner’s suffering ought to be paraded before audiences, none of whom had the slightest connection to the victim? I presume England has its own take on “cruel and unusual punishment” in the present but even if it’s legalized in some dystopic future, should this really be the entire nation’s business? Regardless of whether or not they pay admission? It’s a straight-up return to the days of scarlet A’s and stockades, a sidestep away from the guillotine’s Instagrammable comeback.

The immoral accomplice gets what’s coming to her — living in a permanent cycle of fear without rights because what about the rights of that little girl — while strangers gaze upon her gladiatorial arena and cheer. So yeah, our metaphors circle back around once more to Twitter.

All that food for thought, served up in the final two minutes alone. Up until thoughts got provoked hard, it’s effective man-hunts-man suspense prominently anchored by Michael Smiley, a.k.a. Benny the tech-savvy cop who aided Idris Elba on the BBC’s even darker Luther. (Earlier this year I watched all 14 episodes of Spaced and nearly broke my brain when I learned that was him in two episodes as Tyres the bike messenger and rave fanatic.) I’m also braking here to note costar Tuppence Middleton (Sense8, The Imitation Game), who’ll be appearing in the upcoming Downton Abbey movie. If her role there is crucial enough, then this note is me getting ahead of the bandwagon.

1. “Fifteen Million Merits”. Not unlike the faux-Walmart socialist-capitalist shared-bunk lifestyles of Sorry to Bother You, in one future humankind lives in small, glossy, windowless boxes. Every day they go to work in a shared, slightly larger box, where they go through the same motions for hours per day, somehow serving a higher power (probably corporate, considering the expensive trappings) that reaps unseen benefits. Some find more pleasure in it than others. In each of their boxes they’re tossed the equivalent of virtual hamster pellets. If they hoard enough hamster pellets in their boxes, maybe one day they can trade them for a chance at fame. Not necessarily fortune, but definitely fame.

Any number of talents can produce fame — singing, dancing, acting, performance art, what have you. Sometimes your talent isn’t what the system needs, but maybe you can serve the system in other ways that will produce fame. You may hate yourself forever and wish you were dead, but hey: it’s fame. Even rebelling against the system can produce fame. You don’t stand a chance of overthrowing anyone or anything, but if your rebellion is high-quality, the system can use that. And your reward will be a new job and new digs in…a bigger, better box. Still a box, but hey: it’s a box that your famous rebellion bought. You’re basically Green Day.

In this expensive-looking, multi-level, lacerating satire of reality-TV star-making machines and of everyday big-city living from frequent Doctor Who director Euros Lyn, life is entirely about rigid confinements and controlled escapism as designed and produced by The MAN. Whenever we think we’ve found little freedoms, odds are those freedoms exist because The MAN okayed them. Enjoy them while you can, if you can. Failure to conform will be punishable by the worst fate imaginable in a fully televised era: reduction to humiliated comic relief.

Highest marks go to whichever casting director recognized the potential of a young Daniel Kaluuya, whose simmering buildup to righteous outrage blows away anyone else in the room and explains how he rose to the challenge of Get Out and everything else after (Sicario, Black Panther, Widows, et al). Excelling in his orbit are Jessica Brown Findlay (young Sophie from Downton Abbey) as a singer who aims for the stars but plummets into the gutter; Hannah John-Kamen (the Ghost from Ant-Man and the Wasp) as the reigning pop diva du jour; former rom-com best friend Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding) playing George Michael playing Simon Cowell, the apotheosis of every demeaning reality-TV judge ever; and Julia Davis (the demanding client Lady Baltimore from Phantom Thread) as a fellow judge tasked with rendering the verdicts demanded by her job, revealing possibly the faintest shred of repressed remorse whenever she concurs with her repugnant colleagues in remanding hopeful young ladies to new lives as high-end whores.

Meanwhile, the audience behind the judges approves. Why wouldn’t they? They’re on TV, too. If the camera swings in their direction and their faces are distinguishable in the airplay, then hey: that’s fame.

Real talk: I’ve never seen a show hate audiences so much, including its own. They approve what they see. They beg for more. They don’t question the morality or the body count of the sausage-making process, whether they venture forth to watch live in large groups, or wait for servings to be dolloped into their tiny living boxes.

Remember, kids: if you like watching other people for any reason ever, you’re what’s wrong with the world. Cheers!

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