Black Mirror may be the single hardest show in history to describe to someone who hasn’t yet seen it, which is maybe why so many — from fans to critics to the creators themselves — fall back on the same familiar description: a show about the negative effects of technology on the world. The problem is that this description, while tidy and ultimately effective enough, wildly misses the nuance and precision that the show continuously achieves. Black Mirror is less about the horrors of technology and more about the opportunity technology presents to explore the new and sometimes frightening ways for the bleakest aspects of human nature to rear their ugly heads.
The series has done this since the beginning when, in the very first episode, “The National Anthem”, Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is forced to perform sexual acts on a pig because of both terroristic threats and intense public pressure. Technology allows for live streaming, viral madness, and Twitter hashtags, but it’s the profound ways these affect the public, the prime minister, and the government officials that make it both interesting and excruciating.
This theme continued through the first two seasons of the series and into the excellent Christmas special. Technology may be the vehicle, but we’re in the driver’s seat, often propelling humanity into oblivion or, at the very least, grim absurdity.
The third season of Black Mirror, which arrived exclusively on Netflix on October 21, 2016, returns with a few things entirely absent from its first two seasons. One is the wide episodic breadth that working with Netflix allows. They no longer must adhere to runtimes, sometimes to detrimental effects, and likely have a much thicker wallet than for previous installments. On the other hand, this season comes with expectation and attention, something that a cult show like Black Mirror must deal with when cult invariably evolves into mainstream — ironically due in large part to social media.
These factors don’t always work to the show’s benefit, as some of the episodes in season three suffer from excess of self-indulgence, burying the always-intriguing hooks in over-stuffed plots. This is true of the opening episode, “Nosedive”, an episode that, interestingly, has perhaps the rawest star power of any in the series. In front of the camera is Bryce Dallas Howard (of Twilight fame) as Lacie, a young woman who must traverse a world similar to our own, but with the volume turned up far past 11. The universe of “Nosedive” is one that takes things like Instagram, Tinder, and Twitter and transforms them from annoyingly pervasive social media fads into essential factors of societal infrastructure.
The story, written by American comedy writers Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, follows Lacie as she tries to get her rating, a point scale from 1 to 5, up to a 4.5 so she can qualify to live in a gated, high-end community. Rather than the simple like or swipe on a picture, in this world each and every social interaction is rated and becomes essential to one’s social standing. A good enough conceit, and at times a sharp criticism of our current culture, “Nosedive” simply doesn’t have the bite that has always made Black Mirror far more than social commentary. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the outside forces involved, but “Nosedive” feels almost more like Black Mirror fan-fiction — that is, something cooked up to give fans exactly what they expected — making it a disappointing start to the season.
Conversely, “San Junipero”, the fourth installment in season three, is so unlike every other episode of the series that it’s nearly perfect. Here we have a story of few twists, and even fewer instances in which we can be collectively horrified by our impending technological future. Instead, we have a blossoming love story, a tale of self-discovery and hope, and enough mystery and brain-tickling originality to satisfy even the most cynical Black Mirror fans.
Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw carry this two-hander with impeccable honesty, even when the script calls for almost maddeningly enigmatic scenes of dialogue. Although we do eventually figure out what’s going on, it isn’t the kind of the go-for-broke reveal that makes the episode hinge on its effectiveness. It’s simply part of the large story of “San Junipero” that feels natural, and one that makes the beauty of the story more palpable rather than more elusive.
One thing that Black Mirror has always done well is to switch genres, changing the mood of each installment while keeping the general thesis at the spine of the show intact. Season three shows us, more than ever, how many ways they can tell the story of how emerging technology will forever affect the human psyche. Within the season, you’ve everything from the horror of “Playtest”, which attacks the very real technology of virtual reality and injects it with all the jumps scares of the next Paranormal Activity installment, to the action/adventure-infused “Men Against Fire”. While these episodes have wildly different characters, settings, and ideas, they hold together because of very distinct feelings of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that creator Charlie Booker has made Black Mirror‘s hallmark.
While Black Mirror has always been imaginative, innovative, and endlessly interesting, it’s never been perfect; season three is no exception. There are moments where the conceit is stretched too thin, the characters reactions seemed forced, or the theme of the episode is lost in all the twists and turns, but that comes with the territory of aiming so high. Black Mirror is unlike any show on television and thus doesn’t have some of the safer places to fall back on, but I, for one, am more than happy to watch them continuously experiment, even if some of these attempts occasionally miss the mark.