One of the best TV shows of the 21st century has to be the sci-fi anthology black-mirror. The series draws on ideas and technology from the real world and spins them into intelligent (and often terrifying) scenarios. In this regard, it’s the true heir to The Twilight Zonemore so even than the 2019 reboot.
Like much of the best sci-fi, black-mirror uses the near future to poke at the present. Its best episodes explore the impact of today’s dominant technologies—smartphones, social media, virtual reality, drones—but extrapolate them to their logical endpoint. The result is one of the best-written horror shows ever made, which does for computers and the internet what jaws did to the beach.
‘Playtest’ (S3, E2) — IMDb: 8.1/10
Wyatt Russell stars in this episode as a man who gets paid to test an augmented reality video game that taps into the player’s worst fears. The game soon turns more frightening than intended, and the lines between reality and simulation blur. The episode is one of the best straight-up psychological horror pieces in the black-mirror cannon, reminiscent of a David Cronenberg film.
As usual, the fact that the technology is not that far off is what elevates the episode. The Oculus Rift and HoloLens are already here, although they are still in their infancy. “Playtest” raises interesting questions about using technology to escape reality and the effects this will have—is having—on our psychology.
‘Nosedive’ (S3, E1) — IMDb: 8.3/10
Charlie Brooker skewers social media and status games in this pastel-colored nightmare of an episode directed by Joe Wrightthe filmmaker behind Atonement and Darkest Hour. It takes place in a world where people use an app to rate each other on a five-star scale. Your score determines your status in society and how you will be treated. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a young woman seeking to raise her score, but circumstances outside her control conspire to ruin her score completely.
“Nosedive” is a great commentary on the toxic effects of social media, where people are constantly judged in front of the group. It also references real-world systems like the planned Social Credit System in China, which would rate all citizens and accord them advantages or penalties based on their behavior. “Nosedive” is an entertaining hour of TV and a cautionary tale about the dangers of obsessing over society’s approval.
‘USS Callister’ (S4, E1) — IMDb: 8.3/10
Robert Daly (jesse plemons) is a bitter software developer who feels that his co-workers don’t give him the respect he deserves, so he uses their DNA to create avatars inside a star trek-esque game. Robert dominates these digital clones inside the game until one of them (Cristin Milioti) attempts to mutiny against him.”
“USS Callister” is one of the most purely entertaining black-mirror episodes. The performances are great (especially Plemons’s impression of Captain Kirk), and the send-ups of sci-fi shows are spot on. It also ends surprisingly optimistically, with the villain finally receiving his comeuppance.
‘Shut Up and Dance’ (S3, E3) — IMDb: 8.4/10
This bleak episode revolves around teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther), who is blackmailed by a hacker who gets hold of a video of him masturbating. The hacker instructs Kenny to carry out a series of bizarre criminal acts. Kenny meets a middle-aged man (Jerome Flynn) who is also being blackmailed, and the hacker orders them to commit a robbery.
“Shut Up and Dance” is probably the darkest and most unforgiving black-mirror episode. It could have collapsed into a nihilistic mess, but the episode hangs together thanks to solid performances from Lawther and Flynn. They deserve praise for pulling off these difficult roles.
‘The Entire History of You’ (S1, E3) — IMDb: 8.5/10
Ubiquitous phones have made it easier for people to record more and more of their lives, and this episode takes that idea to its logical conclusion: a technology has been invented that can record everything a person sees and hears. Lawyer Liam (Toby Kebbell) suspects his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) has had an affair, so he pores over all his recorded memories for any signs of infidelity.
“The Entire History of You” was the show’s first episode not to be written by Brooker. Instead, the script is by jesse armstrongthe writer behind acerbic British comedy peep show and HBO’s Succession. As a result, it’s smaller in scope than usual but no less sharp in its observations. It’s a clever exploration of memory and self-deception.
‘Hated in the Nation’ (S3, E6) — IMDb: 8.5/10
This spin on a police procedural follows two detectives (Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay) investigating a string of murders. The victims all turned out to be people who were the targets of abuse online. And the murder weapon? Swarms of tiny robot bees were created to pollinate flowers as the real bees teeter on the brink of extinction.
“Hated in the Nation” is a mixed bag, exploring ideas like social media mobbing, environmental collapse, and nanotechnology. While not the show’s best-written episode, it’s worth it for its unique take on the great fear of the internet age: online shaming.
‘San Junipero’ (S3, E4) — IMDb: 8.6/10
San Junipero is a beach resort town inside a simulated reality created for the elderly, where users can live through younger avatars. The story follows the shy Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and the extroverted Kelly (Gugu Mabtha-Raw), who meet in San Junipero and fall in love.
The performances and cinematography are excellent, as is Brooker’s dialogue. “San Junipero” is unique among black-mirror episodes because it features an uplifting narrative and warm-hearted characters. It’s probably the most moving one, too.
‘Black Museum’ (S4, E6) — IMDb: 8.6/10
This episode follows Nish (Letitia Wright), a woman who visits the Black Museum and hears stories about some of its most intriguing artifacts. However, Nisha secretly has unfinished business with the museum’s curator.
The episode supposedly includes Easter eggs and references to every black-mirror episode made up to that point. Items on display at the Museum include a robot bee from “Hated in the Nation,” the tablet from “Arkangel,” and the bathtub from “Crocodile,” among others.
‘Hang the DJ’ (S4, E4) — IMDb: 8.7/10
“Hang the DJ” revolves around a dating app that matches people together for a fixed amount of time. Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are matched but promise not to check the app’s expiration date for their relationship. Things escalate from here, with Amy believing that they are trapped inside a simulation conjured up by the app.
The episode is a romantic comedy and Black Mirror’s take on online dating. It’s reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos‘s movie The Lobster, also a sci-fi about people being matched with partners, sometimes against their will. It’s not the show’s most mind-blowing premise, but it succeeds thanks to touching performances from Cole and Campbell.
‘White Christmas’ (S2, E4) — IMDb: 9.1/10
White Christmas is black-mirror‘s 2014 Christmas special, although at 74 minutes long, it’s almost a feature. It stars Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall and tells three interconnected stories. The key technologies in the episode are “cookies”—digital replicas of people stored inside an object and used as personal assistants—and “blocking,” where somebody can block a person in real life so that they cannot hear that person, and they only see them as a gray, distorted silhouette.
Like most black-mirror episodes, “White Christmas” weaves in horror elements, turning these intriguing innovations into sources of abuse and terror. For example, the digital replicas inside the “cookies” can be made to experience several months in a few seconds, an undeniably brutal form of torture. The concept of “blocking” is also well-executed and haunting, with Hamm’s character unable to communicate with his ex-wife or daughter. Fundamentally, the episode is about human connection and the lead characters’ frightening failure to find it.
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