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Monday, September 21, 2015

Static Thoughts - Black Mirror, Good Episodes

So, I’m not exactly sure who reads this blog but on the off chance you aren’t clued up on world politics here’s a quick recap: the world has gone completely and comically insane.   I don’t have time to cover the massive cavalcade of political shenanigans that have turned our world from one of sane rationality into a nightmarish, Twilight Zone-esc re-imagining of every political satire script the ‘70s chose not to publish.  However, the latest cherry on the sundae of insanity was the revelation that British Prime Minister David Cameron had stuck his junk in the mouth of a dead pig in order to gain access to the college society that served as his entrance to the world of politics.  This is the kind of incredibly stupid, incredibly embarrassing, instantly mockable story the Internet never dreamed of getting its hands on, except for one man who saw it coming: Charlie Booker, writer and developer of the British dark Sci-Fi show Black Mirror.

In case you’ve never encountered it before Black Mirror is a relatively recent British show to spin out of the anthology boom of the late 2000s/early 2010s.  Each episode is set in its own universe with its own characters and even its own depiction of science fiction.  Some are speculative future stories endeavoring to imagine the havoc that could be wrecked in the not too distant future by technology unchecked while others are more about Sci-Fi allegory, painting a grim reflection on reality as it is using a palette dipped in sterilized dystopia and human ugliness.  It’s a very popular show though personally I actually don’t really care for it.  However, now is not the time for my harsh but well reasoned critiques, it’s the time to revel in the disgrace of an awful politician.  My point is, there are episodes of Black Mirror I like I’d rather not rain on everyone’s parade so that’s what I’m going to be talking about today, especially because one of those episodes is pertinent to this conversation.

Of the 7 episodes of Black Mirror that have been produced (it’s a British show remember?) there are about 3 really good ones, one per season as it were.  In season 1 the pilot episode, National Anthem, is by far the best.  In this episode the Prime Minister of the UK is blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on national television.  The shocking predictive power of this episode is pretty amazing in hindsight but even taking the recent shocking revelations about David Cameron out of the equation ‘National Anthem’ is an excellent work of high concept fiction and allegory.  The story is a unique blend of dark comedy with incredibly harsh insight into web culture in the 21st century.  A lot of the episode is built around the build up to the Prime Minister actually being forced to bone the pig, with the emphasis being on the PM’s spin doctors and staff looking for either an alternative response or a way to mitigate the damage that bestiality might have on the prime minister’s career. 
It’s a clever point of view for the episode because the “search for alternative” stuff affords the plot legitimate forward momentum while the spin doctor elements let the show really dig into public response and the dissociative cruelty endemic to web based consumption and response to news media.   The eventual conclusion is a very well shot sequence as well that manages to drain the human away from the situation in a deeply sobering manner that adds some interesting extra dimensions to the story.  

In season 2 the best episode came smack dab in the middle of the season with ‘White Bear.’  ‘White Bear’ is a little hard to talk about because a lot of it revolves around a central mystery so while I won’t spoil the episode’s amazing ending I will be making allusions to theme and ideas from which you might draw your own conclusions.  Just know that if you’re on the fence about the series ‘White Bear’ really is the best episode to watch, it’s the episode that could honestly be it’s own movie all things considered. 
The episode revolves around a woman waking up one day to discover a mysterious signal has turned the entire world into sort of cell phone zombies.  Everyone around her is stuck motionless, filming her on their phones.  There are a few others who missed the signal or were resistant to it and while some of them are friendly some of them are taking advantage of society’s collapse to indulge in their basest villainy.  It’s a really well written episode that plays on our ideas of the apocalypse in unique manner without falling into more sophomoric anger about technology. 
It may seem like the “phone zombies” idea is substandard, Banksy level non-criticism but trust me, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye and when the episode reaches its thrilling conclusion it reveals itself to be an excellent meditation on inaction, judgment, and guilt.  Black Mirror really is at its best when it’s focusing on human ugliness and cruelty rather than laziness or impotence as that’s where it feels the most honest and relevant. 

The final great episode of the series was a Christmas special which actually starred the great Jon Hamm entitled “White Christmas.”  It’s actually a bit of a supersized episode, running through about 3 different major concepts and stories over the course of its running time.  The opening 2 Sci-Fi concepts, revolving primarily around Jon Hamm’s character, are the most interesting of the bunch and the only time the show’s attempts at speculative future fiction have felt like they really landed in a meaningful way.  The initial idea is about Hamm as a kind of pick-up coach who uses advanced tech to remotely guide guys on how to pick-up women.  It’s a weird idea and is probably the show at its zaniest given that it’s basically a stripped down, high tech version of a sitcom plot but the cast is game and it’s well realized.  What’s more it’s one of the few times the show doesn’t feel the need to emphasis male impotence in the ace of developing technology which is the most tedious theme ever forced upon humanity. 
There second sort of story in the episode revolves around Hamm’s actual job, as his lady’s man coaching is just a hobby.  The idea is that in the future we’ll make electronic copies of our consciousness to act as supporting AIs to run our schedule and our appliances and such.  Between the two good ideas in the episode this one is a bit more lackluster as the complexity of the concept makes it feel less believable.  However, it’s still a very well realized concept and the direction is solid.  What most sells the concept though is Jon Hamm who just absolutely devours his role.  Hamm really is one of our best actors and he walks a fine line here between manipulative mastermind and company man just doing his job.  This is one of the less meaningful stories in Black Mirror’s catalog as there’s really no deeper message to be cleaned from this story unless Black Mirror is trying to argue that programs are people too.
The final part of ‘White Christmas’ is the least interesting, a story about a weird future technology where you can “block” someone from life.  Basically what this does is renders the blocker beyond a person’s reach, inaudible and invisible to whoever has been blocked.  This is kind of an interesting speculative future concept, extending the way relationships have been forced to evolve to digital cut-offs in a world of Twitter and Facebook but the show doesn’t really have much of an idea beyond the very basic.  Like a lot of Black Mirror episodes the actual thesis of the story ends up muddled into consideration as the story tries to examine both sides of the “block” concept.  

Black Mirror may not be the best anthology show to break out of our newfound obsession with the genre but it’s still very much worth checking out.  I’m also especially aware that I’m in the minority in my feeling towards most of the shows more popular stories so know that there’s still a very good chance you might like the entire series not just the handful of episodes I’ve suggested.  The show is already on Netflix if you’re interested in checking it out and it’s been reported new episodes produced strictly for the streaming service will be coming soon. 

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