“Black Mirror” is often blurbed as the “Twilight Zone” for the 21st century and it is an apt elevator pitch. Created by Charlie Brooker, “Black Mirror” is an anthology series about how technology relates to our society, privacy and politics. With such heavy emotional turns and intense subject matter, “Black Mirror” is best watched in small doses. This was not a problem until the current season, in which Netflix promptly doubled the number of episodes resulting in a whopping runtime of seven hours. Thankfully, the full season three experience is still possible if one is selective about which episodes to watch. Following, I’ll be reviewing my three standout episodes.
First up: “Shut Up and Dance”
Although it is the weakest of the three I am recommending, it is an important episode with which to begin. I have learned from past seasons it is not a good idea to start off with the best episode, but rather with one that sets up the right expectations. In this episode, faceless hackers extort a teenage boy to their bidding by threatening to release footage of him masturbating. Indeed, “Black Mirror” is hardly comfort food, which makes it all the more important to prime our expectations. One of these expectations is to suspend our disbelief.. It is frustrating because the villain of the episode is either a lone wolf so unbounded in his capabilities that he is effectively God incarnated, or an institution so efficient that it is not beholden to the inertia of bureaucracy. With logistics out the window, it is best to think of each episode as a visualization of a Brooker thought experiment. Ethicists ask us whether we would push a fat man in front of a train to save the lives of children. With “Shut Up and Dance,” Brooker shows us what that would look like.
Next up: “Nosedive”
The standout episode of the season, “Nosedive” imagines a future where people rate social interactions using a five-star system on an app. I love this episode because it shows how the hands puppeting our lives belong not to some conspirator but to the crowd. The characters look like they crawled out of an Instagram feed. Every detail is mesmerizing, from the way our protagonist even takes surgically-perfect bites of a cookie to how acquaintances research each other's profiles to find the most meaningful small talk topics. It is a future where entire industries are built around this social currency, but no one has figured out how to cure cancer. As a bonus, the episode has the most cathartic ending one can expect from the show.
Wrap up: “Hated in a Nation”
This episode is quite the mixed bag. Again, the problem in “Hated in a Nation” comes from the sheer amount of hand-waving the script performs to procure its agent of chaos. Here, not only does the villain achieve omniscience in surveillance, but also omnipotence in execution. It is almost hard not to watch this episode as if it were wrathful divinity casting a plague upon the land. However, the episode captures so well the small but vocal witch hunting culture found in social media platforms. Brooker fully understands both the evil of the crowd and the innocence of its members. It is a tough act to pull, and for that I can look past its contrivances.
Brooker has said “Black Mirror” is a description of what our devices look like when they are turned off. It is such an operative metaphor that it perhaps makes it my favorite title for a television series. Yes, the show is cynical and even nihilistic, but I take relief from any reminder that the real world is not as abysmal as it can be. Then again, the best science fiction are said to be those that hold a mirror to society.