Until recently, the critically lauded speculative fiction TV series Black Mirror has not been readily available to most American viewers (although the British were already aware of its merits, as our Sean Fallon can tell you). Since the series’s release on Netflix, however, it has drawn increased attention from American critics and Netflix subscribers alike. Because there is nothing like it on television here, and because this show needles at some of our most fundamental anxieties as members of the 21st century and the digital age, I’m doing my part to add to the hype. If there’s one “shocking” or “disturbing” series you binge-watch this month while you’re snowed in, let it not be something that is horrifying for horror’s sake (like Spartacus, which is pointlessly disturbing). Let it instead be Black Mirror, a series cut from the same cloth as The Twilight Zone, which forces its audience to live out the “what ifs” they never really follow to their conclusion, because that conclusion is too upsetting. What if terrorists demanded our country’s leader have sex with a pig in exchange for the life of a hostage? What if our personality was so well documented on social media that we could be recreated after we are dead? What if criminals had to be victims of the crimes they committed against others? What if everything we did was part of some reality TV competition?
Each episode of Black Mirror stands alone. They are, with few exceptions, all written by Charlie Brooker, but differing directors lend each episode individuality, such that one can hardly compare them. Still, I have chosen my three favorites from the first two series (series 3 is not yet complete). Each of the three touches on a different aspect of modern (western, for the most part) experience, and each would be a good introduction to the show–just pick one based on your usual film preference. Like to feel disgusted and uncomfortable with yourself? Pick number 1! Enjoy being pretty scared and confused? Pick number 2! Enjoy movies/books/poems/other media that make your heart ache? Pick number 3.
So. Here we go. Katherine’s top picks for you, dear reader:
- “The National Anthem” (Episode 1, Series 1)
This episode also happens to be the first episode in the series, but that’s not why I chose to include it in my top three. It’s not even the first episode I watched. Still, it’s one of the most memorable for the way it makes the viewer question their expectations of political leaders versus expectations of themselves, and in the way it exposed the way we are complicit in a mass media / viral video culture that would make such a demand (that the Prime Minister have sex with a pig on live TV) not only possible, but something the government might take seriously. It highlights the fact that our connectedness–our impulse to share everything on twitter–can be used against us. By the end of the episode, I was left feeling quite dirty–and not because of the idea of bestiality.
- “White Bear” (Episode 2, Series 2)
“White Bear” does not challenge our notion of and role in terrorism, but instead our notion of and role in justice. I’ll give no plot details here (for being in the dark is part of the experience of this episode), but I will say that I chose this one because it was truly terrifying. While not wantonly violent or sadistic, it forced me into a conversation in which I’m usually a passive participant, if I participate at all. I’ll say no more. Just start here if you enjoy a good thriller.
- “Be Right Back” (Episode 1, Series 2)
And last, my favorite. “Be Right Back” will break your heart at least once, but it’s such a beautiful story that it’s worth the pain. It explores grief in the digital age, and considers the effect of a digital legacy of your thoughts, your humor, your values, your memories–you, basically–and how that legacy could impact those you leave behind. It’s a story that naturally emerges when people grieving already look to their loved ones’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds for an echo of the person they lost. My heart is breaking all over again just thinking about it…
If my three favorites don’t pique your interest, here’s a quick run-down of the remaining episodes and what they offer:
- “Fifteen Million Merits” (Episode 2, Series 1) – watch if you enjoy a sense of futility.
- “The Entire History of You” (Episode 3, Series 1) – watch if you’re comfortable considering that you might be a terrible person, and just haven’t been given the opportunity because the technology’s not quite there yet.
- “The Waldo Moment” (Episode 3, Series 2) – watch if your dreams have been distorted into something unrecognizable to you.
Of course, you can’t really go wrong with any episode you choose—you can even watch them in numerical order over the course of a weekend (though may I recommend ice cream and/or a good therapist if you choose that route?). The Black Mirror bandwagon is one well worth jumping on, if only for the conversations you’ll have as a result (Black Mirror cocktail party, anyone? Can I make that a thing?).
Featured Image: Black Mirror, The National Anthem, Endemol UK