Brow Beat

Black Mirror’s Stars and Writers on How They Made the Most Disturbing Season Yet

Bryce Dallas Howard in Season 3 of Black Mirror.
Bryce Dallas Howard in Season 3 of Black Mirror.

David Dettmann/Netflix

Bryce Dallas Howard has barely been talking for a minute when I hear the laugh: Lacie’s laugh. Once you’ve seen “Nosedive,” Howard’s episode from the new season of Black Mirror, you can’t forget the high-pitched flutter that Howard gives her character, a desperate social climber whose bottomless need to be liked is enhanced by the fact that she lives in a society where people are ranked like restaurants on Yelp, and that ranking determines everything in their lives: who they talk to, where they live, even what buildings they can enter.

Like most episodes of Black Mirror, whose third season premieres on Netflix this Friday, “Nosedive” takes a familiar aspect of the human character and gives it a technological twist. It’s the real world, enhanced, the way Howard took her own “absurd” laugh (as she described it to me) and tweaked it into Lacie’s “operatic giggle.” Howard recalls reading Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and realizing that even in centuries past, people would set aside hours of their day to devote to the maintenance of their public self. “People would have time to write or work or do whatever they were doing, and then there was always a time of the day that was for for writing letters or entertaining visitors,” she says. “I was like, oh, everyone always needs to do email. Some version of emails has always happened.”

The series, which was created by the British writer and comedian Charlie Brooker in 2011, is often described as a tech-focused Twilight Zone, and it does occasionally go full sci-fi. But its best episodes feel like logical extrapolations of the present, the way “Nosedive” takes the way social media intensifies our inherent desire to be liked and makes it algorithmic. Instead of crafting ingratiating status updates and tweaking Instagram photos, the people in Lacie’s world rate every interaction, even ones as casual as passing someone on the street, on a scale from one to five stars, and their aggregate score is the sole marker of their worth. “High fours” are the social elite, while sinking below the mid twos can get you fired, ostracized, or worse.

Although “Nosedive” grows darker as Lacie’s determination to raise her own ranking grows more intense, the episode, which was directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright, is brighter and more satirical than Black Mirror’s usual dystopias, which is why Brooker and producer Annabel Jones tapped Rashida Jones and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Michael Schur to write the script. The series’ move from the U.K.’s Channel 4 to Netflix has been accompanied by a broader diversity of tone across the season. The new season’s episodes range from psychological thriller (“Shut Up and Dance”) to horror (“Playtest,” directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg). There’s even, for the first time, an episode that ends on an optimistic note, suggesting Brooker isn’t quite the Luddite doomsayer that he’s sometimes accussed of being. “The impression is sometimes that I’m the Unabomber sitting in a cave angry at all technology,” says Brooker, who did a stint as a video-game reviewer in the mid-’90s. “Actually, I’m quite dweeby and I like technology.”

Brooker points out that if you look closely, “technology doesn’t tend to be the villain in most of the stories.” Whether it’s allowing a woman to recreate an avatar of her dead husband in “Be Right Back” or abetting a paranoid husband’s desire to spy on his wife in “The Entire History of You,” technology is merely a tool that allows human impulses to flourish with greater efficiency. The enemy, always, is us. “Basically, it’s like a new limb, or something that we’ve evolved and we don’t quite what the etiquette is around using it,” Brooker says. “So we’re flailing around and knocking everything over at the moment. We’re still, as a species, getting to grips with the impact that it’s having.”

Although Black Mirror’s technological parables lend themselves to allegorical readings, Brooker says they tend to evolve into statements rather than begin that way. “Generally what happens is we come up with a ‘What if’ scenario that I find quite amusing and you,” Brooker says, gesturing toward Jones, “find appalling. That’s when we know there’s a good dynamic, where I’m going, ‘Yes, and then …’ to try and upset you more and tell you what would happen … ” Jones jumps in: “And you don’t stop until I’m in tears.”

As Jones and Brooker spoke, the morning before “Nosedive” and “San Junipero” were shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, a recurring dynamic emerged. One of them, usually Brooker, would go off on a tear and go a little too far, and the other would jump in to undercut it. They didn’t complete each other’s sentences so much as reroute them, giving the half-completed idea a new spin. Brooker starts talking about how they’re still settling on the order in which the episodes will be presented on Netflix, since a binge-watching block has a different rhythm than a weekly TV series. “The way we’ve approached this is that it’s like we’re curating a mini–film festival,” he says, before Jones adds, “because we’re wankers like that.” “Because we’re wankers,” Brooker agrees. “We were wearing a beret at the time.”

Rashida Jones (no relation) and Mike Schur ping off each other with even greater fluidity. The two have been friends since they were at Harvard, and they worked together on The Office and Parks and Recreation, but “Nosedive” is the first thing they’ve written as a unit since a college assignment that somehow fused The Jerry Springer Show and the Warren Court. They take turns telling the story of how Jones got Brooker’s attention by fannishly “stalking” him for two years, so that when the show needed writers more solidly versed in comedy to tackle the episode, they knew just who to call.

Jones is only the second woman to write for Black Mirror (Brooker, who has written most of the episodes himself, shared a first-season credit with his wife, Konnie Huq), and “Nosedive” is clearly informed by Sheryl Sandberg’s idea that, as Jones phrases it, “Women are taught to be liked, and men are taught to be powerful.” The villain isn’t a person—not even Lacie’s flawless blonde frenemy, Naomi (Alice Eve)—but a culture in which Lacie’s self-worth is explicitly determined by how good she is at pleasing others. “I was in a cab the other day and I put in the wrong address,” Jones recalls. “I was apologizing so profusely to the cab driver while I was on the phone, and my friend was like, ‘Stop it, you’re paying him to take you somewhere.’ I just wanted to make sure that nobody anywhere thought that I was … you know.”

“There’s a huge gender aspect to this,” Schur adds. “There’s a woman running for president right now where the timbre of her voice and whether or not she smiles is a thing that people actually discuss, as if that’s fucking important for one second. If that character were a man, it would be a very different story.”

In “Nosedive,” the characters’ rankings tend towards the same inverse bell curve to which most internet ratings conform: Five stars is a reward, one star is a punishment, and almost no one uses the options in between. “Everything is like, ‘It’s fucking awful,’“ Brooker says, “or, ‘It was brilliant. It’s won the internet!’ I was thinking the other day that I miss ‘Meh.’ Remember when everything on the internet, it was like, ‘Did you see that thing?’ ‘Yeah, it was meh.’ But on social media, you are rewarded for having a more extreme opinion. It’s baked into the system, and that leads people to be more polarized. Whether that’s what’s leaking out into the real world, I don’t know. Maybe it’ll evolve to where we’ll be the red team and the blue team, pulling each other’s skin off.”