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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Greatest Show You're Not Watching: Black Mirror

Black Mirror is a television program that originally aired in England. Late in 2011, it aired its first season. Being British, that first season was only three episodes long. In 2013, Black Mirror aired another three episodes. For the longest time, Black Mirror was just this underground greatness that TV critics flew to England in order to get a glimpse of it. Recently, the States have received it as the DirecTV channel aired it. Luckily for us normal television watchers, Black Mirror's six episodes recently came to Netflix. Having just heard of this show on the periphery of the zeitgeist, I wasn't all that thrilled in checking it out. However, after the American fall TV period ended, I needed a show to fill the void. The first show that popped up to me was Netflix's Marco Polo, but after three plus episodes of that pile of garbage, I picked another show. That show just so happened to be Black Mirror. Boy howdy am I glad I stumbled upon this pile of greatness.

Black Mirror is an anthology series that shows the dark side of technology. Charlie Booker, the show's creator, stated, "If technology is a drug- and it does feel like a drug- then what, precisely, are the side-effects?" The elevator pitch you hear about this show is that it's the modern day Twilight Zone. While that's a pretty good comparison, it's somewhat of a misnomer. The Twilight Zone was genuinely freaky and scary and when you think of The Twilight Zone you think horror and suspense. That's the wrong way to think about Black Mirror. While both are works of science fiction, Black Mirror steers very much towards drama and many of its stories seem like they could happen in the very near future, There's no flying cars or hover boards, but Black Mirror is science fiction in the truest sense of the genre- it shines a mirror on society and shows us the ugly sides to life.

Every single episode of Black Mirror is its own isolated story. There's nothing that connects the characters in episode 1 to the characters in episode 6. This allows for each individual episode to tell a brilliant 45 minute story about one particular topic. In an era where mini-series are becoming the new king of television; where programs like Fargo and True Detective dominate Best Of lists, Black Mirror's finite-ness is the perfect treat to modern day television watchers.

At the end of the day, whether I'm watching a TV show or a film, all I want is a good and compelling story. I know that seems really dumb and obvious for me to say, but so many filmmakers seem to stray from this course. It's why shows like Mad Men can fall down the drain into oblivion and why we allow films like Foxcatcher to exist. Black Mirror gives me a new story every episode that leaves me both satisfied and makes me think. It's a series that I cannot recommend enough.

Despite how awesome Black Mirror is, I can't fully describe it without going into detail about each particular episode. So that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to describe in detail the entire series episode by episode. It's OK, You can go watch the entire series. I'll wait. You watched it? All of it? Good. Let's begin. Spoilers ahead (duh!).


If you don't like "The National Anthem" then you just don't enjoy good storytelling. Like every TV show, you need a good first episode to help get you sucked in, and that's what "The National Anthem" does. It sucks you in.

This episode asks one simple question, "What are the real life consequences and stakes by forcing the Prime Minister of England into an ultimatum by having him fuck a pig?" On paper this is a goofy concept and something that seems more appropriate for a midnight-airing special on the Cartoon Network than on a smartly written science fiction show. However, this episode treats this concept with the utmost sincerity, and its this treatment which is the reason this episode works so well.

"The National Anthem" opens up extremely cliche, a man gets awoken in the middle of the night by his land line phone ringing. His wife nags him to hang up and go to bed, but the voice on the other end of the telephone gives the man news too important to make him fall back asleep. This is news that makes the man go into work in the middle of the night. We soon find out that this man is the Prime Minister of England and the reason he needs to get out of bed is because of a video that has been uploaded onto YouTube. On this video, a man shows us that he has kidnapped the Princess of England and he will release her upon one condition: the Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig by 4:00 pm the next day.

Since the video has been uploaded onto YouTube, it is impossible not to have the entire country see the video and see the threat/ultimatum. The interesting part now is, "what comes next"? How does one react to a situation like this? We see this situation from three main perspectives, the Prime Minister's angle and his team, the news/media angle, and the public perspective. We see how the news media covering this story all day is exactly what the kidnapper wanted and we see Twitter responses for the public at large which plays a huge influence on the Prime Minister and his team's decision. The initial response from the Twitter-verse is positive towards the Prime Minster; they don't need him caving to any terrorist threats. This is almost identical to how the American public reacted to the recent The Interview threats. However, as The Internet is want to do, they turn on the Prime Minister quickly. Once the kidnapper finds out that the Prime Minster had violated one of his demands (don't have someone act as a fill in for the PM during the sex act) the kidnapper cuts off one of the Princess's fingers. To help their own self-preservation, the PM's party forced him to go through with The Act.

As the episode draws towards a close and you see the Prime Minister drive towards the location to shtupp the pig, there's still doubt in your mind as to whether the PM will go through with it or not. The tension throughout the entire episode builds towards the climax (pun intended) of if he or won't he go through with the kidnapper's demand. This decision is not treated lightly as you see the look of pure fear on Rory Kinnear's face as he's superb throughout the entire episode as the PM.

Once the PM actually penetrates the pig, you can see the absolute horror that is this heinous act. In fact, the camera doesn't initially even show us what everyone in England is watching. All we see is the look of disgust and horror on people's faces. They as a unit demanded that the PM have sex with a pig, and then they are all forced to watch the true consequences of their action. At the very end of it all we see the PM vomit until there's nothing left in his stomach and then he vomits some more. He just had to endure the single most degrading thing that anyone would have to do. And that's the downside of technology. We all love to spew our garbage into the world but we never truly see the consequences of our actions. The horror on the people's faces watching the PM on that television screen is the worst of us.


"Fifteen Million Merits" is the only Black Mirror episode that feels like it could have aired on The Twilight Zone because it's the only episode that takes place in a fictional world and doesn't feel like it could happen tomorrow. However, the statement this episode makes involving our addiction to technology is spot on. Whereas other episodes seem like the side effects that is the drug of technology, "Fifteen Million Merits" is what happens when we all become full blown addicts.

We first are introduced into this world through the episode's main character Bing. Bing spends every day doing the exact same thing over and over again. He wakes up, he rides his bicycle, he eats his green apple, he watches TV, he goes to bed, he wakes up, and he does it all over again. The world we see Bing live in is a pretty wild and crazy world. It's a world in which his avatar in this virtual world is more active than he is. It's a world in which he's constantly bombarded by commercials. In today's society, we at least have movies and TV shows to watch to mask our commercialism, but in Bing's world, there's no pretenses. It's just all commercials and you MUST watch commercials all the time. This is also a world that doesn't pretend to hide its porn. We all know that pornography is the #1 reason we all use the internet, but in this world, there's commercials for "Wraith Babes" every few minutes. Further, you're encouraged to watch porn, right in the middle of everything, although it's not THAT big of a deal considering there's little to no interaction between other humans. Bing doesn't even realize it when a cute girl hits on him.

The genius behind "Fifteen Million Merits" and the purpose of this episode is that the plot is just a pretext for the commentary on our society. Everyone in society is just people riding on stationary bikes. We're all working to be fit and to be the Prettiest Girl in the Room. If you're not pretty or good-looking you're ostracized. You're just a Worker Bee and a Punching Bag for the good looking people who are actually contributing to society. The people on the bikes are the ones that seem to provide power and energy for this society.

Yet for the importance of what the bicyclists are doing, it's not enough. Nor should it be. Life is boring and meaningless. There's no reason to go on unless you get sucked into the commercialism like Bing's asshole bike mate. It's not enough for Bing to be apart of this rat race so he convinces Abi to go on a reality show where there's a literal price for fame (and where the episode gets its title from).

While on American Idol Hot Shots, Abi sings a beautiful rendition of Luca Noise's "Far Away" that feels eerily reminiscent of the opera Andy Dufresne plays for the prison yard in The Shawshank Redemption. It's a moment of freedom and a moment of clarity to open our eyes to the shit we all call life. And it's not enough. The Judges tear Abi a new one because we expect more. Or rather, it's not enough to truly dispel escape from The Matrix. In the end, Abi does become famous, although not in the way she expected. She becomes one of Wraith's babes and becomes porn star. But heck, that's the price for fame, and it beats riding the bicycles right?

This sends Bing into a tailspin. By giving Abi all of his credits, Bing is now forced to live in this world in which he never wanted to live in to begin with. He now has to watch these commercials and watch these programs that he had the luxury of skipping before he met Abi. This causes Bing to buckle down and earn enough credits so that he can get onto Hot Shots and show these Judges just what's what and to make sure they learn their lesson for what they did to Abi.

Bing does get on to the reality show and gives an impassioned speech to not only open the Judge's eyes but also open the eyes of everyone in this world. Everyone, I mean everyone, watches Hot Shots so by Bing speaking his mind, he hopes to start a revolution- or something. Bing is the mouthpiece for us all. No matter how you feel about technology, you can agree that there are many problems with it. Whether you're an avid consumer of pop and reality culture or you wish everyone could just go back to reading books and talking to each other, you can't help but nod your head at what Bing has to say.

And then, in a delightfully dark and twisted turn of events, the Judges love what Bing has to say and Bing accepts their offer for his own reality show and to have his own commercials about him. Bing hates all the commercials in this world and then becomes a part of it. The implications of this ending is twisted and brilliant. For all that these characters may hate about this world, they want to be sucked in by it. For all of our complaints about technology and consumption, we need more. We would gladly mock Anerican Idol and also become rich and famous from it. I have a friend that fundamentally hates the Government handing out unemployment benefits, but when he lost his job, he gladly accepted his "hand out". That's both the world that Bing lives in and the world that we live in now.

"Fifteen Million Merits" could have ended with Bing killing himself or the Judges. Or it could have ended with the citizens in this world finally coming to an epiphany. Or it could have ended a variety of different ways to make Bing's proclamation ring true and to make him become the hero. But if it did that then it wouldn't have been honest and it wouldn't have been a true reflection of our society and culture.


"The Entire History of You" is by far away my favorite episode of the series and is an all-time great single episode. Whether you like science-fiction, drama, theater what-have-you, you'll enjoy "The Entire History of You".

Starring up and coming superstar Toby Kebbell (Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Johnny Quid from Rocknrolla, and frankly a butt load of other projects that you've seen), "The Entire History of You" is set in a world where almost everybody in the world has a "Grain" implanted in them. A Grain is a small device that records everything that you see and hear in perfect HD and allows you to record and store all of the information. If you'd like to play back anything, you can see it on your eyes, or you can "cast" it on any television. Frankly, I'm surprised this technology doesn't exist already. We have the ability to record everything we see (Google Glass) and we have the ability to cast from different devices (Chromecast). All you need is to add a few tweaks, and viola, you have yourself a Grain.

In theory, this technology sounds amazing. I don't know how many times I've had arguments with my wife where all we had to do is to pull up an audio/visual file of the incident in question to determine who was correct. Dave Chapelle had a joke a few years ago on his T.V. show about this very same concept. I'm sure you've wished you had a Grain at many points in your life; this sounds intriguing to us all. That's where Black Mirror comes in.

In "The Entire History of You", Toby Kebbel plays Liam, a young attorney who attends a dinner party hosted by friends of his wife Fi (Jodie Whittaker). At this dinner party, Liam suspects that Fi has a thing for one of her old friends- Jonas (Tom Cullen). As Liam starts to get more and more suspicious of Fi's involvement with Jonas, Liam starts to get more and more drunk and starts to ask more and more questions. When Fi starts to give him the answer he doesn't like or when he thinks she's lying, all he has to do is bring up footage from his Grain to prove her wrong.

As the episode progresses, Liam starts spiraling out of control. He starts to notice minute details from his Grain. He's able to start piecing together the truth. By the end of the episode, Liam ends up proving that he's right. He proves that Fi lied about her feelings for Jones and that she did sleep with him. But really, what does that matter? At the very end of the episode, Liam is alone in this world. He was right about his suspicions but went about it in absolutely the wrong way. That's what the Grain did to him.

Despite having the perfect airtight script that crescendos to a brilliant climax that should be taught to film students for generations to come, the genius of "The Entire History of You" is the little nuances that are slipped in to this episode about what would happen if almost everyone in this world had a Grain. From the extremely obvious stuff of going through old flings while masturbating (or while actually having sex) to little details such as revealing the contents of your Grain to gain security clearance while going through the airport, the implications of having a Grain in this world is staggering. Women are literally physically assaulted just so their memories can be sold on the Black Market. A Grain can be used for good such as warning us of the dangers of drunk driving and assisting police officers while a crime is taking place, but there's obvious negative implications as this episode reveals.

While everyone is sitting down and eating dinner, a conversation occurs between a women without a Grain and a women who works for Grain research development. The women without a Grain is condescendingly applauded by everyone at the table "for her bravery" while the women who works in Grain research outright looks down at the Grain-less proclaiming how horrible actual memory is and how almost perfect Grain memory is. While having a video recording of your entire life is obviously more dependable than your actual shitty memory, that's completely missing the point. It's why at the end of the episode Liam takes a razor blade to his head and cuts himself open to remove his Grain. It's not about being right, it's about going about it the right way. We're not meant to have a recording of every dumb thing and every little conversation of our entire lives. We're not meant to live in a world where we can be recorded the entire time. Sometimes, we just got to let our shitty memory take us where we're supposed to go.

Check back in soon for a recap of Season 2 coming soon



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