The most obvious analog to Charlie Brooker’s brilliant anthology show Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone, and it’s a comparison he’s made himself—the series is made up of disconnected single-episode stories, exploring issues of morality and society’s relationship with technology via cutting satire. But the first episode, “The National Anthem,” shows what a difference 50 years makes in the creation of a television show. The premise is devastatingly, horrifyingly simple: A member of the royal family, Princess Susannah (analogous, one imagines, to Kate Middleton) is kidnapped and held hostage. Her freedom is guaranteed on one condition: The prime minister must have sex with a pig, live on national television.
It’s an unspeakably smart hook, and it’s too bad that Black Mirror is airing on DirecTV in the US, which will limit its audience (although props to DirecTV for bringing an undoubtedly challenging program overseas). Charlie Brooker is well-known in the UK as a satirist, dating back to his wonderful fake listings site TV Go Home—which inspired his collaboration with Chris Morris, the brutally funny sitcom Nathan Barley. For years, he hosted acerbic shows like Screenwipe that cast an askance glance at British television—sort of like a more brutal The Soup largely hosted from his living room.
Black Mirror takes Brooker’s finely-honed skills to a whole new level. It’s satire, yes, and it’s comedy, yes—the blackest that comedy can be. But it’s pitched right down the middle as a straight drama, doing its best to closely follow how this absurd scenario might actually unfold. The PM, played by Rory Kinnear, is awoken by his staff, including a soft-spoken but steely press secretary played by Lindsay Duncan and a grim-looking Donald Sumpter. He’s told that the viral video of the kidnapped princess making the demand is real and leaking out through the internet, no matter how hard they try to scrub it away.
The effectiveness of the demand, of course, is all in the demand itself. Yes, the princess is kidnapped, and her life at stake. Her celebrity is crucial. The “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” line is easier to swallow among the general public when the hostage is fairly anonymous; the fact that a beloved, beautiful celebrity is at risk would make the stakes higher. But even then, if the demand was for the release of prisoners, or the cessation of bombing, or something we could wrap our heads around as a terrorist demand, then the public resolve would be stiffer.
But the minute the concept of the PM fucking a pig on national TV is in everyone’s head, they can’t get it out. The initial reaction is confusion and disgust, but when attempts to green-screen the PM’s head onto someone else’s body are discovered, the Princess apparently loses a finger. That’s enough to sway opinion the other way. The PM’s humiliation and brief suffering is nothing compared to the Princess’ actual suffering; we watch as the barometer swings on news networks and what seemed almost impossible at the beginning of the hour becomes chilling reality by the end of it.
The genius of Black Mirror is how subtly it builds, keeping you from ever questioning the insanity of the premise or any minor plothole. Every twist seems organic, every decision rational. Every effort is made to find the kidnapper, of course, but that necessarily has to fail. The press initially struggles with how to report on such an insane story sensitively, but its hand is forced by social media and the ineffable power of the internet. By the end, as the prime minister prepares for his ordeal, he swallows some pills (Viagra, one assumes) and is calmly told by his press secretary, “The suggestion we're getting from psychologists is to take as long as you need.” Rushing it, she says, might give off the impression that he’s enjoying himself.
Things move so gradually, it’s almost hard to detect the humor, but it’s there, lurking quietly. A special-effects wizard is brought in, renowned for his work on “that HBO moon-Western thing.” “Sea Of Tranquility,” the effects man helpfully interjects. As the PM is driven to the filming site, he’s told that it will be a criminal offense to record or store any images of the event, a somewhat laughable concept given what we’ve just seen unfold. The government has such a tenuous grasp on its people, and especially on their interactions with their screens—the titular black mirrors.
The audience, similarly, has little control over what it can do about what’s happening. We see people around the country contemplating the event; when her kidnapping is initially reported, one nurse says, “If it's terrorists, they'll take her head off,” with remarkable but understandable casualness. We’re used to these things at this point. When the PM begins his ordeal (which largely happens off-screen, but the build-up is almost impossible to bear), the audience can’t turn away. Someone tries to turn it off after an hour and is stopped—“this is history!” her friend says.
The magic of the technology we all possess is that we don’t have to subscribe to a monoculture—we don't have just three television networks anymore. But there are still going to be some trainwrecks that unite us. “The National Anthem” confirms about us is that even when it's the right thing to do, there are just some times we can't look away.
The final twist of “The National Anthem” is that the crime was perpetrated by an artist, maybe intending to make a statement, or perhaps viewing the PM’s sex tape as a new form of artistic expression. The Princess’ severed finger was, in fact, the artist’s, and she is released before the PM enters the studio, let alone the pig. But that almost feels beside the point by the end of it all. The intrigue comes not from who perpetrated the crime, but what happens because of it.
- We'll be covering all six episodes of Black Mirror as they're broadcast on DirecTV, which includes both its first and second series.