For several years now Black Mirror has been my favorite television show despite the fact that U.S. audiences could only view it using, erm, “less-legal” methods. Apparently the show is now airing on something called the Audience Network on DirecTV and I’d encourage folks to give it a try.
Slate has a Slate-y take on the series, but here is the gist of what you need to know: each episode has a completely different cast and crew. There is no recurring plot. There are no returning characters. The writers and directors are all different from show-to-show as well. The only consistency is the techno-dystopian theme of each episode, which has some resonance in the age of Snowden and Facebook face-recognition algorithms.
In some ways Black Mirror‘s closest analogue is The Twilight Zone, but with one key difference: there is little surreal or absurdist about the premise of the episodes. The show is futuristic but just barely: the worlds in the show look functionally the same as our own, except that technology is extrapolated two or three short steps beyond where it presently is. There are no phasers or teleportation devices, just slightly better artificial intelligence. In some episodes the entire narrative is possible given existing technology. The show’s name refers both to an unpowered LCD screen and to an Arcade Fire song… tangible things that presently exist.
Refreshingly, the show also refuses to be dystopian in any one particular way. The first episode involves a terrorist plot to humiliate a head of state. Another imagines one possible future of Google Glass: the ability to revisit video of every event in your life’s past… no more need for hazy memories to settle a he-said-she-said dispute. To bear the loss of a loved one why not download a lifetime’s social network data into a replicant body? It’d be like they never left. In several cases the characters believe they have overcome part of the human condition via technology, only to realize that problems frequently require something other than a technical solution.
But that is not the fault of the technology. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is an avid user of Twitter and a casual technology optimist. His chosen medium is television, not print. The takeaway from the show is not to turn off the smartphone, disconnect from Facebook, and re-learn your penmanship. The technology is never the real problem. The people are. It is a point that frequently gets lost in discussions over the relationship between technology and society. And that is why the show is such a needed interjection into the culture.