Mar 19, 2020
Black Mirror Mini-Binge: A Beginner’s Guide to Entering the Void
With a series title based on the black, yet translucent, and sometimes sinister-looking screen that stares back at you from your sleeping smartphone or tablet, the British-based television anthology Black Mirror has slowly (but surely) garnered cult status since its UK debut back in 2011.
Touted by many as a modern-day Twilight Zone for technophobes, Black Mirror‘s standalone, but thematically related, episodes sagely (and often savagely) tackle the inane nuances of modern day conveniences, while at the same time, contemplating the various ways in which said conveniences could potentially lead to the catastrophic downfall of society as we know it. Needless to say, it’s not uncommon to finish watching an episode of Black Mirror and feel just the slightest bit like slitting your own wrists, because the vision of the future it presents is so gosh darn bleak.
This is not to say that Black Mirror is a bad series. On the contrary, most of the time, it’s a pretty friggin’ awesome one. In fact, on numerous occasions, I’ve found myself utterly spellbound by a particular episode’s creative insightfulness, not to mention the sheer delicious terror it induces in me while watching. On just as many occasions, topics presented during the episode have sparked spirited (and sometimes very angry) conversations among my friends regarding various forms of social media and modern technology and their inherent downsides.
And yet, Black Mirror is certainly not for everybody, nor is it appropriate for all occasions. As such, it’s not the kind of show for which I’d advocate binging all four seasons of the series (comprising just 13 episodes in total) in a single sitting. That would likely be way too intense, even for the toughest and most mentally stable of TV viewers among us.
No, Black Mirror is most definitely the kind of show best absorbed in moderation, much like fine wine, double fudge brownies, sex, and the Home Shopping Network (if viewed while feeling particularly insomniac and thus vulnerable to cheap advertising ploys).
Fear not, TV fanatics and eclectic cult series connoisseurs! I have a relatively risk-free solution to the Black Mirror Conundrum. For those planning to embark upon a steady diet of this show, I propose the following fail-safe Introductory Mini-Binge. It’s only three episodes long, just enough to whet your appetite and get you used to Black Mirror’s unique flavor, without immediately sending you into uber-depressive straitjacket territory. Let’s explore, shall we?
Recommendation #1: “The Entire History of You” (Series 1, Episode 3)
Sites like Facebook and Instagram, and even the photo cache on your cell phone, have made millions of dollars by capitalizing on the rose-tinted world of human nostalgia. Not too long ago, a trip down memory lane required flipping through the pages of a carefully cultivated photo album or heavily autographed yearbook, or rewinding a lovingly shot, albeit slightly amateur, home video, or retrieving the plastic key that unlocks the childish scrawl adorning a long unopened diary.
But now, you’ve got Facebook creepily combining all your digital photos with music, in order to create a “Your Year in Review” montage. Anyone with an internet connection can probably find at least one of your baby pictures online, if they look hard enough. And your own cell phone exists as a constant daily reminder of that ill-advised drunken selfie you and your friends took in the public restroom of a gross dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen at 3 a.m. that one hazy Saturday night.
In “The Entire History of You”, Black Mirror takes this unsettling-if-you-really-think-about-it concept one step further. It contemplates a computer chip in your brain that records everything you see and hear for purposes of instant (and if you aren’t careful) obsessive repeat viewing. Anyone who’s ever said or done something stupid, and then aggressively punished themselves for it by replaying said stupid actions or words over and over again, ad nauseum, each time finding a new and improved reason for self-loathing, could probably imagine the egregious self-harm they could inflict upon themselves if given the opportunity to actually re-watch their own darkest moments in unfiltered, full color HDTV.
The reverse could be problematic, too. I could imagine after a particularly shitty day, it would be rather tempting to get lost for days in the vortex of that awesome summer you had junior year of college, where every day was sun-filled, and every night was a party (or at least it seemed that way at the time).
Picture a successful young professional who gets home from a bad day at work to find a strange man in his house, who may or may not be schtupping his wife on the regular. You could imagine how dangerous this particular type of technology could be in the hands of such an emotionally volatile man, both for himself and those around him.
Yes, the view of future society painted by “The Entire History of You” is a pretty ugly one. But it’s one that will definitely make you think about the unspoken benefits of selective memory, forgetfulness, and plain old outright ignorance, specifically, the ways in which those seemingly negative qualities of human nature could, in some ways, save us all from our own ever-approaching insanity. (Fun Fact: Robert Downey Jr. has actually optioned this episode for a full-length feature film, which is another solid reason to check it out, if the above hasn’t succeeded in swaying you.)
Recommendation #2: “Fifteen Million Merits” (Series 1, Episode 2)
For better or worse, reality TV has become a mainstay of prime-time television viewing. And why the heck not? It’s cheap to produce. It’s mind numbingly addictive to watch. And it’s oddly refreshing in its emphasis on real, flawed, “average” individuals competing for your attention, as opposed to the beautiful airbrushed heartthrobs and starlets of television past, the ones who seemed genetically pre-designed to make us all feel so gosh darn inadequate.
“Fifteen Million Merits” is a not-so-subtle commentary on reality TV, as well as our society’s increasing reliance on using avatars and “virtual selves” to carry out our own personal fantasies in a pixelated online world, without the “hassle” of having to getting out of our pajamas and actually leave our homes.
While “The Entire History of You” takes place in the not-so-distant future, inside a world that looks suspiciously like our own, “Fifteen Million Merits” contemplates a universe that’s a bit farther removed, and yet not entirely incomprehensible, especially in light of our society’s current trajectory toward the increased living out of our lives online.
In this alternate version of our world, men and women live entirely through their avatars, working and exercising compulsively, not to better themselves, but to buy shinier duds, and better opportunities for the computerized creatures designed to represent them in the digital world.
Our main character in this story, Bing, has grown surprisingly complacent in this new unreal world. We watch him in the first few minutes of the episode, simply sleepwalking through the virtual annoyances of his daily life. But then, he meets Sybil from Downton Abbey, and promptly falls in love with her. (As men do!) After that, all bets are off.
“Fifteen Million Merits” is fascinating in its deft and surprisingly believable world building, excoriating in its commentary on modern media and its compulsive need to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and horrifying, when you recognize how close to real life the world of this episode happens to be. In short, it’s a can’t-miss hour of television for any new viewer.
Recommendation #3: “San Junipero” (Series 3, Episode 4)
Since my first two Black Mirror episode introductory picks were admittedly pretty darn dark, I figure it’s time to lighten things up a bit with what may very well be Black Mirror’s most optimistic, heart-warming, surprisingly pro-technology, episodic feature to date. If the underlying purpose of “The Entire History of You” is to warn viewers of the dangers of nostalgia and living in the past, “San Junipero” exists as its idealistic counterpoint. This episode, which takes place almost entirely in a glossy, almost-too-perfect embodiment of 1980s California, views both nostalgia and memory as a circuitous route toward eternal happiness, love, second chances, and yes, immortality.
Shy, bookish Yorkie, a child of the ’80s, never had the chance to experience much in life. That is until she enters the virtual world of San Junipero, enters a dance club filled with strangers, and encounters the effervescent, free-spirited, Kelly, a wild child who’s hiding secrets of her own.
This surprisingly fun-filled, oddly “happy” installment of Black Mirror has a little twist in it, one that I won’t spoil for you here, thought the more observant of you will likely catch on to it within the episode’s first fifteen minutes. Suffice it to say, this episode has a heck of a lot more heart than most Black Mirror installments, and it’s certainly a good deal more optimistic. Yet, despite its deceptively simplistic, lighthearted nature, “San Junipero” has a lot of intelligent things to say about the nature of mortality, love, relationships, and the legacies we create for ourselves and one another just by following our dreams and giving in to our own desires.
If “The Entire History of You” and “Fifteen Million Merits” left you feeling super depressed and wary of the future of humanity, this third Black Mirror pick will ensure that you can wake up tomorrow, fully capable of getting out of bed, and maybe even put an extra spring in your step as you do it.
So there you have it, my top three picks for a healthy introduction into the dangerously addictive world of Black Mirror. Are you ready to dive into the void?