Through a Glass Darkly

Black Mirror, the only show on TV that truly understands how we use technology.

Black Mirror.
Like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror starts anew every episode.

Still of Black Mirror from Channel 4

We’re living in a golden age for golden ages: television, technology, journalism, television technology, television journalism, journalism technology, and on and on—we’ve all seen the TED talks. Paeans to our best-of-all-possible-worlds tend to not mention that the first golden age was presided over by a god who devoured his own children. But every utopia has its discontents, and every utopia deserves them. If you’re one of the discontents—if you get the nagging feeling that maybe buying a tablet computer isn’t a revolutionary act, that Twitter might not end political oppression, that humanity remains as stubbornly imperfectible as ever—British science-fiction series Black Mirror may be the show you’ve been waiting for.

Black Mirror’s title, show creator Charlie Brooker has written, refers to “the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone,” which should give you some idea of his point of view. It’s not subtle, but perhaps we live in an age when subtlety isn’t what’s called for. At its best, Black Mirror—created for the U.K.’s Channel 4 and currently airing on DirecTV’s Audience Network—is a Notes From Underground for our times, a brick gleefully hurled at the techno-utopian Crystal Palace. Not incidentally, it’s the most interesting show on television.

We know by now exactly what to expect from TV’s brooding antiheroes and manic heroines. In the pilot episodes of most prestige dramas, the most important message is reassurance: It may take 60 hours or so to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, but you’re in good hands. You know what to expect. On the other hand, I haven’t the slightest idea what to expect from a show that opens with a terrorist demanding the prime minister have intercourse with a pig on national television. But that’s how the first episode of Black Mirror begins.

If I try to imagine a show with that premise, I come up with something tonally like South Park, but Black Mirror plays it completely straight. That opening episode ends up being about the internecine struggles between Downing Street, the press, and the public. There aren’t a lot of jokes about sex with pigs, because the prospect of someone actually having sex with a pig is not particularly funny. Which is not to say there aren’t any jokes: In my favorite scene, two hospital orderlies see the terrorists’ detailed specifications for how the unspeakable event must be filmed and get into an argument about Dogme 95. Lots of shows take interesting ideas and turn them into cheap gimmicks; this is the rare case of taking a cheap gimmick and turning it into an interesting show.

Even its form is bracing. Black Mirror is an anthology show, like The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a radical act in this era of serials designed for binge-watching. Each episode has its own characters, its own story, its own cast, and no connection to the rest of the show except being loosely about our relationship with technology. Starting over every episode leaves very little room for exposition, which means—thank God—this is a science-fiction show with no “world-building.” And yet each episode covers more thematic ground than most shows reach in a six-season run. The second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” starts out as a George Saunders–style satire about gamification and fitness obsession, flirts with a love triangle plot, veers off into a critique of reality television, lurches into a nightmare about the commoditization of women’s bodies, and ends by making a point about the way power structures co-opt and pre-empt criticism that’s straight out of David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram.” It’s dizzying and exhausting and surprising and horrifying—real skin-tightening, stomach-churning horror, not the American Horror Story kind—and even if it doesn’t completely hit every mark (there’s really nothing left to say about reality television), its ambition is staggering.

It helps that this is one of the only television shows or films that seems to have been made by people who actually use modern technology. I don’t just mean that Black Mirror doesn’t use embarrassingly fake sites—the ransom video in “The National Anthem” appears on YouTube and is talked about on Twitter—but that the show captures the difference between the way people would discuss the prospect of the prime minister having sex with a pig on Twitter and in YouTube comments. Verisimilitude is a blind alley for science fiction (or any fiction), but if you want to satirize the way we use technology to mediate experience, it helps to get the details right. Charlie Brooker started his career as a video game reviewer, is active on Twitter, and is a self-confessed gadget addict—he knows his way around this world. So you won’t find any tortured, implausible explanations of how a character managed to mistakenly email the entire company. (The last thing television needs is another manifesto from a showrunner who seems to feel that the Internet was created specifically to confuse and humiliate him.) Instead, the technological leaps forward the show takes are not just based on logical extensions of things we use today, but on the reasons people use them. Black Mirror was created by people who understand why someone might check Twitter 50 times a day, and that structuring your life around that little dopamine spike when your feed refreshes can be as destructive as nicotine.

Each Twilight Zone–style thought experiment is played out in full. The third episode, “The Entire History of You,” asks a simple question: Who wouldn’t want the ability to replay and share past experiences? (If you answer “no one,” keep in mind that a considerable amount of design effort was just spent on the PlayStation 4 on the proposition that we’ll want to share videos of ourselves playing video games.) But say you had that power: How much more difficult would it become to craft new memories? One character confesses that rather than going upstairs to sleep with his fiancée, “I’d find myself, you know, watching redos of like, hot times in earlier relationships.” And how long would it take for HR departments—not to mention police departments—to start evaluating our memories the way they evaluate our Facebook pages?

The show can be, at times, unrelentingly bleak. Brooker has George Saunders’ ear for the ways people use language to paper over inequalities of power (one character closes a job review by saying, “We hope to look forward to seeing you again”), but Saunders’ stories evince a faith in human kindness that Black Mirror emphatically lacks. Still, even though every episode goes to dark places, this isn’t the cheap nihilism of Grand Theft Auto V; it has targets. And like any good satirist, Brooker reserves his deepest scorn for systems of power themselves, not the people they trap. Even in a relatively nondystopian episode about a wife grieving her husband, Booker makes the explicit point that other people are exploiting her misery for profit.

Whatever its flaws, Black Mirror is the perfect antidote to our age of technological solutionism. We’re constantly told that we can use online videos to end war crimes, that selfies strike a blow against sexism, that any day now, millennials will usher in the Millennium. But the people who want us to believe this are the same people who are selling us smartphones. Black Mirror has the temerity to suggest that, human nature being what it is, we’re just as likely to use new technologies to feed the worst parts of our souls: the needy parts, the weak parts, until everything is commodified and we’re all part of the same slavering, ravenous, lonely digital mob. Let us know what you think in the comments!