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Reflections on ‘Black Mirror’

| Friday, November 11, 2016

blackmirror_webJoseph Han | The Observer

It’s trendy to compare Netflix’s British techno-dystopian series “Black Mirror” to the classic American horror show “The Twilight Zone.” The comparison is fair, as both feature psychological horror plots with a concluding moral lesson, but it’s a comparison that is probably increasingly irrelevant today. I’ve seen maybe three episodes of “The Twilight Zone” in my life — all of which have been at my grandparents’ house, who seem to have only four channel options: local news, public broadcasting, “The Big Bang Theory” and black-and-white television programs. The first and most influential run of “The Twilight Zone” ended in 1964, though it was revived in the ’80s and (very briefly) in 2002, meaning that most people today remember the show as a piece of television history rather than the biting critique on contemporary culture it offered in its heyday.

The premise of “Black Mirror” is probably best explained in the show’s name. The show reflects a dark image of our own society. In particular, “Black Mirror” focuses its criticism on the more alarming facets of our constantly-connected digital age. It extrapolates trends to terrifying levels. The first episode of the new season — one of the show’s most poignant to date — provides a prime example of this. It features “Jurassic World” star Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie, a young woman looking to move up in the world. In this world envisioned by “Black Mirror,” one’s place in society depends on that person’s rating on a scale ranging from one to five stars. People rate every social interaction using their phones, from the way you talked to the cashier to the conversation you had with your boss. Essentially, a caste system has emerged, and one’s social media profile determining which caste you fall into. People with high ratings, 4.8 or above, are eligible for better jobs and friendlier mortgages, which is important because Lacie needs some help to afford her dream house. She is invited to be the maid of honor at her old frenemy’s wedding, who just so happens to be a 4.8. Lacie plans to give a great speech and impress everyone on the (very affluent) guest list, propelling herself into a new social class. Unfortunately for Lacie, this is “Black Mirror,” so things don’t go the way she hopes.

The great thing about this show is that what scares you the most isn’t the grotesque monster or the gruesome death, but the implications of a society that permits these events to happen. The idea of a world where your social media profile determines how successful you are is vastly more disturbing than Lacie’s psychotic breakdown. Aren’t employers already looking at what potential employees post? Isn’t LinkedIn vital for making professional connections? Don’t we “stalk” people on social media to determine if we’ll get along or not? The worlds brought to life in “Black Mirror” are terrifyingly real.

One of the most amazing aspects of this series is its consistency. From its start back in 2011 to the recent release of the third season, none of the 13 hour-long episodes have fallen flat. To be sure, there are better and worse episodes, but that depends more on personal preference and less on narrative or stylistic shortcomings. Personal opinions about each chapter largely stem from one’s personal relationship with our screen-centric society, ranging from disgusted to amazed to disturbed. That emotional potency, combined with the show creators’ striking visions of the future, makes “Black Mirror” one of the most engaging shows on television.

It would be easy to call “Black Mirror” a modern “Twilight Zone” — easy, but unfair. The show falls only a hair’s breadth from the realm of science fiction and it uses stark realism in a way that its sci-fi ancestors never did. “Black Mirror” is must-see television today because it might be reality tomorrow.

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