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Netflix has turned into a treasure trove of amazing television. And I’m not just talking about the site’s own original programming. Some of the absolute best new (or, relatively new) television the world has to offer can be found on Netflix these days. I often find myself recommending my friends watch foreign imports including The Fall, Broadchurch, or Happy Valley on Netflix (all of which you should check out ASAP) rather than watch some of the disappointing shows currently on broadcast television. But out of all the various programs available on Netflix, one of the most interesting new offerings on the streaming site is the British series Black Mirror.
Black Mirror is hard to describe. The show is most commonly compared to The Twilight Zone, and it certainly shares a lot with that seminal program (and, Black Mirror‘s creator, satirist Charlie Brooker, has admitted he drew inspiration from the show). It initially premiered in the UK in 2012, offering a three episode first season, followed by a three episode second season in 2013. Each episode is a self-contained standalone story, complete with a brand new cast comprised of various rising British stars (the six episodes contain appearances from two Downton Abbey cast members, a Harry Potter actor, and someone from Game of Thrones, among others). But, unlike The Twilight Zone, which tended to draw inspiration for its stories from a wide array of sources in everyday life, Black Mirror is much more concerned with honing in on technology.
The brilliance that exists within Black Mirror comes from the kernel of the familiar within each episode (in some, it’s more like a boulder, but there’s always something). In the show’s fifth episode, “White Bear,” it’s seeing people watching events unfold from behind their smartphones rather than engaging. In “The Entire History of You” it’s seeing what Google Glass might one day morph into and the positive and awful things that might come of it. And that is another key distinction: There are always positives that go with the negatives. The technology presented within each episode is familiar and varied, but it’s not all bad. Which is why Black Mirror is a step above your typical cautionary tales.
Each of the six episodes is grounded in a familiar reality. There’s something (most of the time, many things) that we recognize from our world today. The series’ first episode (“The National Anthem”), which tells the tale of a Prime Minister faced with a difficult choice when Britain’s beloved princess is kidnapped by apparent terrorists, is the most “present day” of the six, while the series’ second episode (“15 Million Merits”) presents as the most futuristic from a time perspective. Yet despite the jumps in time, all the episodes resonate with our modern sensibilities. I’m hesitant to tell too much about any individual episode, as part of the joy of the series (or, in the case of “White Bear,” fear, as that is by far the most purely frightening of the lot) is slowly piecing together the elements of each episode and divining its message. But, suffice it to say, each of the six episodes rolls out at its own pace, with revelations- both good and bad- appearing around every twist and turn.
Some episodes, like “White Bear” or “The Entire History of You” (the third episode), drop you in-medias-res and you have to take a few beats before things begin to become clear. Others, like the fourth episode, “Be Right Back,” or the sixth “The Waldo Moment” build rather slowly with a fairly clear plot. Each set-up fits the particular subject. Sure, there are some episodes that are a bit more successful than others (“15 Million Merits” is my particular favorite of the six), but even when a particular episode misses the mark a bit, it still forces one to think a bit about its overall message. Case in point, without giving much away, I personally found the end of “White Bear” a disappointment. However, while the overall message of the piece didn’t quite work, the imagery of numbers of people watching disturbing events happen from behind their cellphone cameras is one that is incredibly hard to shake.
Black Mirror is television that will force you to think, which really, isn’t such a bad thing. At its best, entertainment shows us heightened situations from our own lives and the world at large. The particular images and situations within Black Mirror may be uncomfortable to see or painful to experience as an observer, but I really think it’s television that manages to entertain while also allowing its viewers to grow a change a bit with each episode. And, if you’ve made it through all six and are lamenting that there aren’t any more, fret not! There is also Black Mirror’s Christmas that aired this year starring none other than Jon Hamm.
If you’re about to embark on your first journey through the Black Mirror, there’s no right way to watch the series, as each is a stand-alone piece. But should you choose to watch “The National Anthem” first, let me quell one of the fears you might have upon finishing that episode: none of the other episodes involve farm animals, or even any animals at all. So, don’t worry! Just sit back and get swept up into the complex world of Black Mirror.