‘Black Mirror’: A ‘Twilight Zone’ for the Modern Age

'White Bear.' (Channel 4)
‘White Bear.’ (Channel 4) Netflix

Do you love the creepy parables of The Twilight Zone, but find the Soviet-era paranoia of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” a little less than relevant? Than you seriously need to be watching Black Mirror, a British show from Channel 4 which has been running both of its two seasons on Directv, yet for reason’s that defy explanation, has garnered exactly zero mentions on anyone’s “Best Of” list this summer. (Note: It looks like the show’s been available on Directv, and only Directv, since November, making it even weirder that only a few devoted fans have written about it.)

Let’s rectify that right now.

Black Mirror gets its name from our relationship with technology–the reflective surface of a darkened screen–and every episode is a self-contained sci-fi nightmare about the modern condition of being constantly plugged-in. You’d think this conceit would get old after one episode, but it doesn’t, because the best Black Mirror stories manage to isolate one facet of our addictive little screens and their potential and use them to represent far greater (and far older fears) about identity and conformity.

In “The Entire History of You,” a chip implanted in people’s skulls records everything they see and hear and allows them to play it back via a process called “re-dos.” You imagine that a story like this would quickly spiral out to gigantic Orwellian implications, but Black Mirror plays the theme on the much more claustrophobic–and relatable–scale of an intimate dinner party. The future portrayed on the show is queasily close to the technology we have today, not just Google Glass but a variety of devices that can be hooked up to document one’s every waking (or sleeping) moments. The certainty of an objective “truth” outside our faulty memories is appealing, to be sure, but what makes “History” such a great episode is how sad (and likely) it is that our nature is such that we’d spend the majority of time using these devices to settle petty arguments about who was right about the drapes.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bFCqK81s7Y]

In “Be Right Back,” a grieving girlfriend tries out a new service that allows her to communicate with a version of her dead lover, using a program that compiled his social media identity to create a virtual version. (Call it Him.) Considering there’s already an app that let’s you keep tweeting after you’re dead, we’re probably only a couple years away from this reality, as well. The problem with this OR isn’t that it joins with Scarlett in the singularity, but that there’s only so much “personality” you can show on social media. What if you were nothing more of the amalgamation of all your tweets? That’s a scary thought.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ld9m8Xrpko0]

Sometimes Black Mirror will swing and miss, like in “Fifteen Million Merits,” which tries to cram in as much dystopia-tech as possible. (In the future, everyone works out on WiiFits, all the time! Also American Idol! Avatars! Synthetic food!) Perhaps proving its own point, Black Mirror does best when its less distracted by all the shiny things at once: the dark and bizarre pilot, “The National Anthem,” isn’t even set in the future, but its themes of politicians and web cam sex culture come together in such a subversively delicious way that’s both totally brilliant and deeply, deeply upsetting. (Pro-tip: Do not watch it at work.) “The National Anthem” is also remarkable perhaps because you can imagine what the pitch meeting sounded like–“So the prime minister has to broadcast himself doing X to an X on national television, or else a kidnapper will kill the Royal Princess!”–and yet the way this concept plays out feels both incredibly true and like a furtive fever dream you’d stumble over in some dark recesses of an erotic sub-forum at 3 a.m.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa8HX7qMjoc]

Black Mirror, in true understated British fashion, has only three episodes per season, and the other two fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum–I can make a case for or against “The Waldo Moment,” about a cartoon character running for office and “White Bear” starts out as a Purge-like meditation on the paparazzi and Kitty Genovese, but relies too much on a silly third act reveal–but even the not-great ones still comprise some of the most scary imagery and ideas I’ve seen in recent television history.

Besides, what else are you watching … Under the Dome?

‘Black Mirror’: A ‘Twilight Zone’ for the Modern Age