Review: Black Mirror
TV Editor Matt Looker reflects on the new nightmarish drama Black Mirror, created by famed journalist Charlie Brooker.
Known primarily for his regular columns in The Guardian that provide an often-savage social commentary on all things concerning the modern world, Charlie Brooker has become a journalist whose articles are sought out by his readers. Fans enjoy his usually pessimistic world views laced with sarcasm and profanity and, with this new three-part drama series created by the man himself, expectations are high for a searing indictment on new media and popular culture. Luckily, that’s exactly what we get – and it is better than we could have imagined.
Likened by Brooker himself to The Twilight Zone, in that each episode is a self-contained ‘what if’ scenario exploring the darkest corners of modern society, Black Mirror sets out to highlight the ridiculous and potentially destructive nature of everything from The X Factor to the ‘majority rule’ hive-mind created by social media applications like Twitter. With this first episode’s sharp script and jet-black wit, Black Mirror goes straight for the jugular in showing its audience exactly what they have become. And, sadly, it all rings true.
What’s it all about?
In this first episode, entitled The National Anthem, Prime Minister Michael Callow (played by Rory Kinnear) is placed in an impossible situation when the much-loved Princess Susannah is kidnapped and held to ransom. The only demand? That Callow has intercourse with a pig live on air later that day, or else she dies.
Despite a ludicrous set-up, what happens next is a very true-to-life portrayal of what might occur if this situation ever actually arose: the PM’s team tries – and fails – to prevent this from getting out to the public, newspapers and newsrooms struggle with how to describe the kidnapper’s demand (“make love to a pig?”) and, all the while, public opinion about Callow’s decision is constantly monitored.
As the episode proceeds, the kidnapper is hunted and the PM’s closest employees brainstorm ways to get around presenting the live footage – something made almost impossible by the kidnapper’s very deliberate and specific instructions. Meanwhile tension mounts as we get ever closer to Callow’s deadline. Surely he won’t go through with it – can they even show that on TV? It’s an upsetting dilemma with no easy way out.
The key to the genius script is in keeping everything true to life. It may be an utterly absurd and ultimately disturbing premise, but everything else is played completely straight, adhering to realism rather than going for cheap laughs. There’s no need for crude gags or showy one-liners – the situation is hilarious in itself so we just need to see it through to the end, and that includes watching as the Prime Minister’s team ponder superimposing Callow’s head on to another man carrying out the deed.
As the title suggests, the show is designed to reflect the worst aspects of society. There’s humour to be found in even the most unsettling of circumstances, and all this show does is hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves for who we really are: a public too general to make a difference. And so, after the episode, we’re left with a feeling of being entertained while simultaneously reviled, as though we have just received a very funny but stern telling off. After all, can any one of us say that, were such a scenario to present itself in real life, we wouldn’t be the ones staying at home to watch unprecedented history get made live on our TV screens?
Black Mirror continues on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.