Midway through “Be Right Back,” the soul-cleaving fourth episode of the British anthology series Black Mirror, I sought refuge in a second screen. It happens sometimes when I watch TV, usually when things get too emotional, too painful, too intense. The mind can’t wander, so the hands do, fiddling with pens and scraps of paper, drumming on the desk. Eventually — inevitably — I found myself lifting up my iPhone, my thumb moving circles across its screen as if it were a rosary. The mindless swiping of Candy Crush Saga didn’t help me process my feelings about “Be Right Back,” didn’t make it any easier to see Hayley Atwell’s face shattering like a dropped wine glass. But I guess it didn’t hurt much, either. Distancing myself made the experience of watching seem less passive. It restored a flickering feeling of control. I couldn’t handle what was coming at me, so I threw up a wall to stop it.
Modern life is full of little walls like that, tricks we can pull to blunt unwanted or unexpected impact. There’s always a game just a click away. Or a photo. Or a “friend.” It’s actually what “Be Right Back” is about. The episode begins by toying with our natural need to be distracted, placated, and protected from the world before demonstrating, in disturbing ways, how the world is increasingly designed to meet that need. It’s about how we’re willing to submerge ourselves in the comforting warmth of denial right up to the moment reality sidles up beside us and rips our hearts out of our chests. So was it ironic or inevitable the way I was idly crossing striped candies when Atwell yelled at Domnall Gleeson for not being fully present? (Gleeson played her boyfriend, or at least he had earlier in the episode. The specifics are both too confusing and too important to the overall experience to discuss here.) I was hovering on the edge of two screens, fully engaged in neither. Did that make me the viewer or the subject? Which one was the game and which was the drama? Was I consuming media or was the media consuming me?
Just then, an IM window popped up: an editor asking which episode of Black Mirror was my favorite. I hit pause, grateful for the interruption. It was only then that I realized I had been crying.
Black Mirror gets you like that: First you’re giggling, then you’re sobbing. It’s the rare show that unsettles just as much as it entertains. It rejects easy descriptors, but a first step might be calling it a Twilight Zone for the Information Age; the episodes are all stand-alone, but themes and ideas wriggle between them like the Stuxnet virus. There are ransom demands that hinge on humiliation instead of money, brain implants that turn memories into media files. The world of Black Mirror is very much our own, just fast-forwarded: The phones are thinner, the interfaces smoother, the temptations greater. Instead of cheerleading the glorious future, the show picks at the accumulating scabs we’d rather ignore: That the same gadgets that keep us from ever feeling alone also guarantee we never have to leave the house. That “favorite” has become a verb, and a meaningless one at that. That we now like things without liking them, know people without meeting them. That we give away every part of ourselves and call it sharing.
I’m not going to say much in detail about any of the six episodes. I don’t want you to be spoiled; what I want is for you to pay attention.1 Just know that every hour of Black Mirror asks rough, unsympathetic questions about the world we’ve made and the one we’re in the process of making and then, before you can even reach for an answer, it makes you complicit: After all, you’re the one sitting there, fumbling with your phone and watching. You may not like what you see, but neither are you turning it off. With the second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” about reality shows and mini-Miis and the ugly sting of media hypocrisy, it even implicates itself.
If none of this sounds like conventional television, that’s because it isn’t. Black Mirror was created by Charlie Brooker, a viciously smart English satirist who got his start writing video-game reviews so absurd and scathing the magazine that employed him would occasionally be pulled from the shelves. (Here he is on the immortal PC title Euro Truck Simulator: “You don’t get to do any of the other things truck drivers are famous for, like wanking over porn in lay-bys or knifing 19-year-old hitchhikers, so the tedium quotient remains fairly constant.”) Brooker’s Guardian column was canceled when he openly wondered who might assassinate George W. Bush. He contributed to an episode of the turn-of-the-millennium news parody Brass Eye that was expressly devoted to pedophilia. When, in 2006, he was somehow given his own series, titled Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, he opened it with the hope that the show might prove to be “just entertaining enough to stop you slashing your own throat open with a bit of old tin.” Later, he used his new status as a TV star to placidly inform the audience that “no one on TV cares whether you live or die.”
One of the reasons Black Mirror arrives like a slap is because of its unfamiliar format. The first season, originally broadcast on the U.K.’s Channel Four, consists of only three episodes. The second season, which aired in February, offered but three more. (Domestically, all six have been airing on DirecTV’s “Audience Channel,” a wonderfully Orwellian name that seems lifted from an unproduced future episode of Black Mirror. I’m told there are … other ways to watch all six episodes online, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Though the cast changes from week to week, the call sheet is peppered with recognizable faces: That’s Downton‘s Bolshevik chauffeur Tom (Allen Leech) as an orderly in “The National Anthem”; there’s Tom’s upper-crust bride Lady Sybil as a drone who dreams of greatness in “Fifteen Million Merits.” Daniel Kaluuya, Posh Kenneth on Skins, is electric in that same episode, and Jodie Whittaker, so devastating on Broadchurch, is equally affecting in the wrenching “The Entire History of You.”2 What unites them all is a remarkable lack of ego. It’s easy to buy the pitfalls and stakes of six different realities, each with their own context and potentially confusing tech, primarily because the actors are so enthusiastic about selling them.
But the main reason Black Mirror leaves you reeling is Brooker himself. American TV generally shies away from anthology series, where the lack of consistency makes it harder to attract steady fans, and it’s hard to imagine a network green-lighting a season of only three episodes, not nearly enough time to build an audience or, more importantly, turn a profit. And it’d be downright impossible to envision any domestic channel empowering a subversive satirist like Brooker to this degree. Mirror doesn’t flaunt television conventions, it regards them with roughly the same level of disdain Guy Fawkes showed Parliament. The first moments of “The National Anthem” had me covering my mouth first with laughter and then with slowly dawning horror. It’s impossible to predict the places it goes next because TV has never dared even to feint in that direction. Each installment of Black Mirror is equally disarming, one perfectly sculpted tinderbox of provocation and dissent after another. Brooker, who wrote or cowrote all but one of the six episodes, has no interest in franchise-building or the golden parachute of syndication. He reminds me less of a TV showrunner and more of some sly Dutch master, the type who could perfectly imitate life on a canvas but made sure to leave behind evidence of every stroke and glop of paint. He’s letting us in on the joke and simultaneously making us the butt of it.
Over the past decade, television has become the dominant cultural medium of our lives. We watch it on phones and tablets, we obsess over it online. TV and the Internet have come of age simultaneously, twisted up like stalks of ivy. Together they spackle over the gaps in our days and the distances between us.
Yet the content that we binge on remains oddly uncurious about the way we’re actually living on the other side of the glass. Cable channels have taken years of soaring budgets and acclaim and poured them into escapist fantasies that either glare morosely at the past or grasp desperately at the impossible. Black Mirror may traffic in extremity — robots, porn-strafed dystopias — but nothing about it is implausible. That’s because Brooker understands the fundamental, if oft-ignored, rule of science fiction: Technology has the power to change our lives, not who we are. The savage brilliance of Black Mirror lies in the way its protagonists are no different from any of us: venal, coarse, hopeful, bored, romantic, and above all, scared. The very best episodes (“The Entire History of You,” “Be Right Back”) are the least cynical; they’re simply unflinching in their depiction of how the world is evolving at a far greater pace than we are. We’re not wrong to like, fave, tweet, and ‘gram. The impulse is entirely natural, even if the tools are anything but.
In Brooker’s view, there is no utopian wisdom to be gleaned from crowds or machines, just the same old terror and appetite. We aren’t enslaved to our gadgets; the bond is entirely voluntary. We’re in their thrall. Every one of us has a black mirror hanging on our living room wall, charging on our bedside table, or vibrating in our pocket. We gaze into them for hours, without pause, without shame, and without reflection. But don’t take my word for it: You’re the one staring at a screen, reading about a TV show that, should you choose to submit to it, will make you reconsider why you’re staring in the first place. But it won’t be nearly enough to make you stop.