Bleak and Black

During the final days of the election season, I needed something else to focus on. Given the hubbub around season three, I settled on the Netflix series Black Mirror. Each standalone episode looks at a story set in the not-too-distant future, demonstrating how various technology can impact individual lives. The worlds created by each episode are, in general, demonstrably bleak. But, given the news today and what might be coming, it's a walk in the park! Spoilers below.

Post-election necessities: comfort food and apocalyptic Netflix.

Post-election necessities: comfort food and apocalyptic Netflix.

Let's be upfront: I wasn't going to do a separate post on this. The plan was to just briefly mention it in a weekly links roundup but then I realized I had so many Feelings and Opinions about the show. So let's go to it!

Season One

1. The National Anthem. Basically, Britain's Prime Minister is blackmailed into fucking a pig (this was before the David Cameron rumors). It does a great job of demonstrating the fickle nature of public opinion. It's also a great introduction to the show itself - mostly believable world with interesting and complex characters.

2. Fifteen Million Merits. There's two types of Black Mirror episodes - ones that could happen next year, the technology and social changes are so minor, and ones that seem to be a couple hundred years in the future. This is the latter. Most of the population bikes all day, powering some complex and earning points for each cycle. These points are then used as a currency. And everything costs money, including auditioning for talent shows and turning off porn. This is one of the series' more troubling realities as everyone has been delegated to worker bees. The creators clearly aren't fans of the reality entertainment industry. It's an interesting episode, but not the most memorable with thin characters who mostly exist to explore this world.

3. The Entire History of You. This one is my favorite of season one. This episode's nifty gadget is a device that records memories and allows anyone to review and replay moments, either personally or to a room. The plot itself is classic - a man thinks his wife might be having an affair and discovers he's correct, losing his wife and child along the way. He uses technology to verify these claims; today, it would be recorded gchat history and emails. While the story itself isn't anything new, the writers do an excellent job of weaving the technology into the story and creating a world - the woman who has had her device removed is a conversation piece at dinner, everyone suggests reviewing his meeting at work via the device, etc. The pacing is also excellent, introducing the technology without seeming pedantic or patronizing and also believably ramping up the husband's paranoia.

Season Two

1. Be Right Back.  We're introduced to a young married couple only for the husband to die a few minutes into the episode. An avid participant in social media, his widow finds a way to recreate him based on his web footprint. Ultimately, this imitation of the real thing only underscores its futility. It's an excellent episode, one of the best in the series. Yes, the technology is impressive and creepy, but the real wallop of the episode is the relationship between the couple and the widow's dilemma at the end. The writers and actors also do a great job of swiftly exploring these various emotions (love, grief, hope, despair, acceptance) in a deft hour. When the show is at its best, it's the people, not the technology, that shine. It's their story in this episode that will stick with you long after the details of the technology are forgotten.

2. White Bear. This episode is not as successful. A woman wakes up with no memory, a group of people are chasing her, and everyone else is silently filming her every move. What the hell is going on? The twist - she's an attraction at a theme park. She and her partner tortured and murdered a little girl. He hung himself, leaving her to take the punishment. And it's the definition of cruel and unusual - each day, her memory is wipe and she goes through this chase. Those people with their phones out are guests. This was tough to watch. First, it really did not make much sense. Another woman shows up to explain the people with the guns and people with the phones but it isn't satisfactory. There's a 'something is off, here' feeling the whole way that never let me get into the actual story. The reveal at the end was a total surprise. Not only is this all an act, but look at all these people getting their rocks off by recording her! Yes, everyone's terrible, what fun. Mostly it just made me feel bad for the woman. No one deserves that.

3. The Waldo Moment. This is probably my least favorite episode. A cartoon character, initially a bit on a political satire program, runs for office and yells at people. That's mostly the plot. I watched this the day before the election and I'm guessing part of the reason I didn't enjoy it was that it hit too close to home. But also there was something lazy about it. The cartoon character was never that funny, insightful, or smart. Given that we just put a reality TV star with zero experience in the White House, it is totally possible that a fictional character winds up behind a desk, somewhere, in the near future. But it will be one that is at least drawn better and with something more interesting to say.

4. White Christmas. This is really three stories. And it stars Jon Hamm at his Hammiest. He plays a coward really good at manipulating people. It's also a reminder of how much I miss Mad Men (it's not available on German Netflix). Someone, please, give Jon Hamm something to do. Anyway, the three stories. First, Jon Hamm directs a geek through a date that ends up with the geek getting poisoned (this is nothing new - this story has been told dozens of times with various forms of technology, usually without the killing). His role in this murder-homicide gets him in legal trouble and leads to his wife leaving him. Second story, Jon Hamm describes a day at work. A woman is implanted with a device that essentially copies her consciousness. That device is then removed and used as a slave/assistant. The 'cookie' thinks it's a real person. Jon Hamm is the guy that tells the cookie, just kidding, you're code. This is your life now. He uses time (three weeks, then six months) to 'break' the cookie into accepting its fate and being productive. Third story, a guy's wife 'blocks' him after a fight (honestly, it did not seem worth blocking, though I guess she was going to leave him anyway? Still, not worth blocking) and he spends years watching her silhouette from a far, along with the what he thinks is his growing daughter (blocking is inherited, turns out). The ex-wife dies and the block is lifted, only for the guy to realize it's not his daughter and his wife was having an affair. In a fit of rage, he murders his ex-father-in-law and inadvertently kills the girl he thought was his daughter. And then we find out this whole discussion between Hamm and murderer was a simulation to get him to admit to this murder. Afterwards, he spends an eternity in a guilt-ridden cabin while Hamm is blocked by everyone because of his part in the earlier murder-suicide. Whew, that was a lot of plot summary. I really enjoyed this episode. The blocking thing didn't really work for me. The idea was fine but the execution seemed sloppy. Also, Jon Hamm's punishment does not seem fitting. How is he going to get through every day life? As for the stories, the middle one was absolutely my favorite and really merits its own episode. Side note: the writers initially gave the cookie character a child and she has to see her real self interacting with the child. It was deemed too bleak.

Season Three

1. Nosedive. This is the one all over the ads for season 3 - Bryce Dallas Howard plays an annoyingly-friendly woman in a not-too-distant future where everyone is rated by anyone else and the ratings are then used for pretty much everything. Bryce has a really bad week and she goes from a respectable 4.3 to a disastrous 0.something. It's a well-made episode. Howard is excellent throughout the episode, starting with maximum perky and slowly becoming deranged. The overall tone and palette of the episode are successful. The scenes with the truck driver is particular poignant.

2. Playtest. One of the scarier episodes, a stranded tourist sings up to test a VR game in a haunted house. The game pulls from his memory bank to create monsters to populate the house. The episode would make for an interesting scary movie. As is, it falls flat. The guy is not someone you want to root for and there are too many false endings. Someone buy the rights and put together a good horror film: make a more likable main character, give him a better (and spend more time on) backstory, and find a better ending. There's a good idea in there.

3. Shut Up and Dance. Of season three, this is the one that could happen today. An awkward teenager is blackmailed (thanks to a seemingly-innocent masturbation video) into nefarious acts, including robbing a bank and eventual murder). This is another 'everyone is terrible' episode. At first, the villains seem to be the guys behind the blackmailing, entertaining themselves with the suffering of others. The ending is probably the best part of the episode: our supposed hero walks along a dark and lonely country road, beaten and bloody, and he gets a phone call that confirms something suggested previously: he's not our hero. Instead, he's a pedophile and whatever images he used at the beginning of the episode were horrific. Then, as the music crescendos and we see all our other blackmailed foes realize the worst happened, police lights come on. Everyone is terrible, there's no one to root for. And we're still using that idiot and dated 'you mad' cartoon.

4. San Junipero. A somewhat happy episode! This is the ultimate palette cleanser. It's the 80s and everything is out of a John Hughes movie. We meet two women, who quickly fall into friendship and then something more. We get hints along the way that things aren't quite what they seem, to be confirmed when our heroine starts to explore the eponymous town in a variety of time periods, there's talk of a 'pain setting' and ghosts. The women promise to find each other in the real wold. And here's the rub: San Junipero is a virtual reality for those who have died and our stars are tourists checking out the place before their own time comes. Both are old women; one, a widow with a few months left and a husband and child long gone, the other still young at heart after a car accident at age 21 has left her in a forty-year coma. It's a heartbreaking story, beautifully told in a picturesque setting with two great actresses that have a natural chemistry. Like the other great Black Mirror episodes, the technology takes the back seat, a vehicle rather than the star itself.  I watched this episode a few days after the election and it was nice to get totally lost in something and cry about anything besides real life.

5. Men Against Fire. In Britain, army troops track down and kill mutated humans, called roaches. The roaches must be pretty bad - their faces are contorted (think Buffy-style vampires), anything they touch must be destroyed. Despite this, some people try to save them. And then we discover the truth - the faces are contorted for the troops via software (very similar to the technology in "The Entire History of You"). They look just like normal humans because, surprise again, they are. Turns out that bad blood everyone keeps talking about is just your run of the mill disease and cancer. This doesn't sit well with the other episodes. It's too violent. Much too violent to the point of distracting from the plot itself. Which is ham-fisted and too obvious. The actors do a good job (hey, dude from House of Cards) but they don't have a lot to say.

6. Hated in the Nation. Clocking in at ninety minutes, this is one of the longer endeavors. On a site like Twitter, people vote daily using a hashtag on who should die. Robotic bees then track down this person and kill them. Today, we've got the hashtag and the abusive social media. Now all we need are the killer bees! The plotting of the episode is good. There's a big hearing, so we know some serious shit went down. We are slowly introduced to the killings. There's a great sequence in which are stars try to ward off the bees in a small house, and I enjoy the ambiguity of the ending. It isn't the strongest episode but it is a very well made one. And Kelly Macdonald is always welcome.

That's all we have for now. An interesting show. Afterwards, between this and the election, I needed something positive. So I watched Fuller House on Netflix. Yes, really. It was everything I expected - stupid, plodding, cloy. But it was bright and sunny and no one died.