Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
It’s only in the final episode of Black Mirror that the writer tips their hand as to what they’re talking about. In that episode, “The Waldo Moment,” a candidate in an election for parliament bemoans the fact that he’s falling behind a television personality named Waldo—who just so happens to be a foul-mouthed cartoon bear controlled by a cynical comedian. Up until that point, “The Waldo Moment” is the usual, jeering attack on the inability of government to respond to its citizens’ concerns, echoing previous Charlie Brooker-penned episodes of the anthology series, in which every episode examines a different aspect of modern technology through a vaguely futurist lens. But as the candidate sighs about how Waldo is making the whole system look like a joke, he admits that maybe it is. “But it built these roads,” he says wistfully, and the episode turns.
Black Mirror isn’t a show steeped in easy cynicism. Created by satirist Brooker, it’s a call to overcome the ways technology makes it easy to sit back and lob ironic barbs—all the while refusing to truly engage with our fellow human beings or hold the systems of power to account for anything of real importance. Waldo tells dick jokes and makes government officials look like total fuck-ups. And that’s entertaining. But in doing so, he’s inviting people to tune out, turning what feels like honest engagement into just another system that the powerful can co-opt in their own favor.
It’s easy to miss this point, however, because reaching “The Waldo Moment” is a challenge. Though possessed of moments of gorgeous sincerity and horror at the misery humans inflict on one another, Black Mirror occasionally seems steeped in the very cynicism “The Waldo Moment” deplores. The first episode of the series is a darkly comic story in which unknown kidnappers demand the prime minister of Britain have sex with a pig or they’ll kill a beloved princess. Between that installment and “The Waldo Moment,” the series takes the piss out of everything from reality TV to instant messaging, with an acute sense of how these technologies pervade our lives. It would be easy to write it off as a visually stunning, occasionally hilarious diatribe against a world of smart phones and social media, the television equivalent of a stern father asking the kids to put their devices away at the dinner table.
There are times throughout all six episodes when it’s easy to fear that Brooker’s satire is only skin deep. But he and his collaborators have something to say about so many subjects besides technology. Those smart phones and social media apps are simply windows for Brooker to glimpse human strengths and frailties. The show’s cynicism is never directed at individuals, who get to be selfless and heroic in every single episode, even if the acts they perform aren’t worth cheering. Nor is it directed at technology, which is portrayed in some episodes (particularly the second-season premiere, “Be Right Back”) as something that can make lives better. Instead, that skepticism is devoted to systems, to governments, corporations, and business interests that think of people not as individuals but as interchangeable voters and consumers, who can be easily manipulated into doing just about anything. (As such, it’s worth noting that Black Mirror has finally made it to American shores thanks to the largesse of DirecTV.)
The exception comes in the show’s first-season finale, “The Entire History Of You,” and that second-season premiere. The underlying structure of the series allows for the two seasons to mirror each other—starting with broad political satire, continuing to a futuristic dystopia, then continuing to a small-stakes story of a relationship in crisis, before reversing that order in season two—and this turns those two episodes into an of oasis of emotion and vulnerability amid the larger satirical tracts. In “The Complete History Of You,” a husband prone to obsessing over his wife’s former relationships with other men is driven to dark accusations by the presence of technology that allows any person to record every moment of their lives. “Be Right Back,” meanwhile, suggests what might happen if the dead could be resurrected via their social media presence. (It’s more starkly beautiful and much sadder than that sounds.) Both provide the ballast that keeps the series tethered when it threatens to float away, powered by a futuristic dystopian exercise bike.
The obvious comparison point is The Twilight Zone; that Black Mirror is a worthy successor is the highest praise that can be paid. But the similarities extend beyond subject matter. Both shows are handsomely directed and perfectly acted, and both dabble in a variety of tones. But the best trait both share is a willingness to hold the here and now up to the same sort of scrutiny normally turned toward the past. That’s easy to take in The Twilight Zone, which discusses a world decades old at this point. It can be harder to take in Black Mirror, but in those moments of genuine, human emotion amid the bleakness—a woman singing beautifully on a reality show, a husband remembering bittersweet moments with his wife, a message from the dead that prompts tears—the show underlines its true mission statement: We are all connected, more than ever before. Let’s not forget that because the modern world makes it easy.
Created by: Charlie Brooker
Airs: Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on DirecTV’s Audience Network
Format: Hourlong anthology drama
Complete series watched for review