If you’re a subscriber to Netflix, you might’ve felt the same thing that I have countless times. You go into your Netflix account, browse for something to watch, and stare perplexedly at your options. What should you watch, and how do you know it’s a quality program?
Sometimes I spend more time browsing than watching, which is why I have cancelled my Netflix subscription several times over the years, only to re-subscribe with hope that I might find something new and good.
But quality has become a major problem at Netflix, in spite of the company throwing billions of dollars at movies and TV shows with (in my humble view) more regard for algorithms than for artistic excellence.
What brought me back in the summer of 2019 was a familiar standby, the release of a new season of Black Mirror, the provocative science-fiction anthology series.
With Season 5 of Black Mirror, I happily re-subscribed to Netflix.
I was happy for about thirty minutes, until I realized that Black Mirror had changed substantially.
As in, it turned into a series of cheesy afterschool specials.
Here’s what Black Mirror, originating on the BBC, used to be: the most biting satire of technology in 21st century society society. It’s rightly been called the heir to The Twilight Zone, a high compliment because Twilight Zone remains the best science-fiction anthology series ever made.
In Season 1 of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator and writer, boldly compared our lives to an America’s Got Talent-style reality show (“Fifteen Millions Merits”), and he told us that we are such uncritical, hedonistic viewers that we might savor watching a politician perform a perverse sex-act on live TV (“The National Anthem”).
That season remains shockingly apropos for us eight years later, as we enter the decade of the 2020s.
Capping Season 2 was the shortish film “White Christmas,” perhaps the best of all Black Mirror episodes, in which surveillance technology revolutionizes dating, human vision, and even the entire criminal justice system. It’s a wondrous Orwellian nightmare about, among other things, how ridiculous it is for us to uncritically accept the fact that we are rejecting our shared humanity in favor of becoming idiotic cyborgs, blending with our devices and thereby being controlled by them.
At the end of Season 2, Brooker, for me, had the potential to enter the ranks of the greatest English satirists, including Jonathan Swift, Evelyn Waugh, and Orwell himself. Since the show moved to Netflix for Season 3, it has been less remarkable, yet it has continued to produce several excellent episodes (e.g., “Nosedive,” “Hang the DJ”). Each season has delivered thoughtful fare at a 50% success rate or higher.
I highly praise the entire run of Black Mirror because I want you to know that I don’t hate it. Because when you read what I have to say about season 5, you might think that I do.
But, oh man, Season 5. Do those of you who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s remember after-school specials? These were one-hour-long TV movies that aired at 3 or 4pm, right as we got home from school. They effectively functioned as social propaganda.
A standard plot usually went something like this: sixteen-year-old Johnny has everything going for him. He’s handsome, smart, and rich. But one night he goes to a high-school party, gets blasted, drives himself home, and crashes into another car.
From that point, several things could happen. Either Johnny dies, he’s in a coma for life, or he kills the people in the other car.
No matter what, the point of the entire movie is so blindingly obvious that it is no different than a typed all-caps message: DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE OR ELSE YOU WILL DESTROY YOUR LIVES FOREVER YOU IMMATURE ADOLESCENTS YOU!
Of the three episodes in Season 5 of Black Mirror, one is a full-fledged afterschool special. The other two have several flavors of said specials, including badly-written dialogue, cheap clichés, and inexplicable events inserted just to move the plots forward. Also, against the spirit of the previous four seasons, two of the episodes have relatively happy endings. (Nothing wrong with happy endings for tech-nightmare stories, but in this season they cheapen what’s already cheesy.)
Of the three episodes, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” shows the most promise, and if you were to try one of the episodes from Season 5, this is the one.
The other two, “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens,” would’ve been booed out of my college’s entry-level screenwriting class.
No, wait. Not just booed out of the class. Set on fire, burned to ashes, pulverized into atomic dust, and shot into space, while Congress makes a law banning anyone from writing screenplays like that ever again.
(Warning: spoilers follow.)
Let’s start with “Striking Vipers,” which features a single kinky question that would require me to think as perversely as I could in order to dream it up: if your avatar in a virtual-reality (VR) videogame could have virtual sex with someone else’s avatar, how would that affect your real-life relationship with the other person?
The episode features two gaming buddies in a long-time friendship (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). One is married, the other is a philanderer.
One night, they start to play a new VR fighting game called “Striking Vipers.” Their avatars fight, but somehow they get on top of each other and end up kissing. That’s too weird for them, so they quit playing. But the next night, when they play the game again, one thing leads to another and the two avatars have sex.
Since both men are heterosexual, this leads them to several problems. Is VR sex the same thing as sex? Is it cheating? Are they secretly homosexual? Because of this virtual relationship, the married friend stops having sex with his wife, while the philanderer is no longer a good philanderer .
Having some potential, this premise is dragged out over 60 minutes. The characters agonize endlessly, try to quit each other, then slip and have VR sex in the game again and again, only to keep agonizing endlessly about this problem. Eventually one of them declares—hilariously, in my judgment—that not only is VR sex the “best sex they’ve ever had,” but that other avatars of other players just somehow aren’t as good sexually as his friend’s avatar. (Keep in mind that both men are merely stimulated by a tiny device placed on the sides of their heads.)
The episode of “Striking Vipers” concludes with the point that some people might prefer physical sex, and some might prefer VR sex, but whichever your preference is, it’s all good. Oh, and hedonism and open marriages are fine if that’s what you need to fulfill your sexual needs.
Overlooking the faulty premise that VR-sex can be better than physical sex—as if Silicon Valley programmers could really do better with their programmed 1s and 0s than your husband or wife—“Striking Vipers” is the first Black Mirror episode I recall where seeking pleasure from machines, escaping reality, and becoming addicted to gaming might be all well and good.
This makes little sense when contrasted with Season 5’s second episode, “Smithereens,” a top candidate for the worst Black Mirror episode ever made because of its tediousness, strong judgmental moralizing, and lunatic plot.
“Smitheereens” is an afterschool special. It’s about a single message you’ve heard many times, spelled out in all caps for you: DON’T CHECK YOUR SMARTPHONE AND DRIVE OR ELSE DEATH WILL ENSUE AND BY THE WAY TECH COMPANIES ARE OUT OF CONTROL!
This is a fine message, really, but the delivery of it is ham-handed. The episode contains a 70-minute-long kidnapping story featuring a taxi-driver (Andrew Scott) who hates a Facebook-like company named Smithereen because it contributed to the death of his fiancé. Grieving badly, the driver kidnaps a Smithereen intern. After a police chase, he holds the intern hostage at gunpoint.
This hostage scenario drags on for the entire episode, featuring bumbling police negotiators, snipers who can’t aim or shoot straight, and a multi-billionaire tech CEO (Topher Grace) who feels so badly about this miniscule incident on the other side of the world that he gives into the kidnapper’s silly demands.
Fifteen minutes in, the plot could’ve been resolved by a well-positioned sniper. But no, the sniper chooses the one and only position where he can’t get a clear shot at the kidnapper.
Nothing could possibly describe how dumb “Smithereens” is, an episode whose every image and message have already been used in far better ways in previous Black Mirror seasons. What I couldn’t get over was how “Smithereens” moralizes about how we shouldn’t be so hedonistic when it comes to using one kind of device (i.e., smartphones), but in “Striking Vipers” we should be hedonistic when it comes to using another kind (i.e., videogames for sex).
All told, these two episodes stole 130 minutes of my life. In the spirit of afterschool specials, my single message to you is: DO NOT LET THEM STEAL YOURS!
The last episode of the season, “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too,” has the potential of older classic Black Mirror episodes such as “Be Right Back” and “The Entire History of You.” Instead of the single-minded focus of “Striking Vipers” and “Smithereens,” this episode immediately mixes together several ideas involving AI-enhanced robot toys, the pop-culture fantasies of teenagers, mass-media mind-control, and the production of music via computer algorithms.
The story focuses on Rachel (Angourie Rice), a teenage girl who loves a mega popstar named “Ashley O” (Miley Cyrus). Ashley O’s dance-pop music helps Rachel survive a transition to a new high-school and the recent death of her mother.
Juxtaposed with Rachel is her older sister, Jack (Madison Davenport), whose gothic sensibilities and preference for music with minor chords contribute to her mocking of Ashley O. The sisters’ relationship is further strained when Rachel gets a cute, small robot named “Ashley Too,” which is an AI-simulation of Ashley O, annoying Jack to no end.
The first forty minutes of this episode work pretty well in asking questions about how brainwashed we can get from pop music, mass media, and consumer merchandise like the “Ashley Too” robot. (The girls’ father programs the brains of mice in his basement, which is an obvious metaphor for humans like Rachel who are programmed by mass media and popstars like Ashley O who are the mere products by giant corporations.) The story of Rachel is intercut excellently with scenes from the private life of Ashley O, whose pop-star exterior is a façade for a troubled artist who is manipulated and controlled by her handlers.
All along I was thinking that this was the episode that would salvage Season 5.
And then, at about that forty-minute mark, this episode takes a bad nosedive into the forgettable trash-heap of Black Mirror clunkers. It turns into a silly heist plot involving teenagers breaking into a heavily-secured mega-mansion and then breaking into a heavily-secured concert venue. Aiding the heist, the creepy “Ashley Too” robot turns into a protagonist who talks like Ted, the ultra-vulgar toy bear in the Ted movies.
In the end, teenage girls defeat bad corporate people, save Ashley O’s life, and become the friend of a rich popstar celebrity, their wildest fantasies being fulfilled in the lamest of concluding scenes imaginable. Meanwhile, I lose IQ points by watching this.
What happened with Season 5 of Black Mirror I can only speculate about. One possibility is that Netflix offers few hard boundaries to artists. When someone creates for Netflix, there are no commercial breaks, few financial constraints, no picky or demanding studio executives, and no marketing needs.
I don’t think this extra freedom has helped many creators of TV shows and movies. It’s my belief that most artists need boundaries to flourish, even if they hate and complain non-stop about them.
At the least, someone definitely needed to edit Brooker’s Season 5 screenplays, a lot. That someone also needed to tell him that he had to cut all three Season 5 episodes down to 40 minutes. Further, my English-major students needed to tell him to completely rewrite “Smithereens.” Maybe then these episodes would be tolerable.
As it is, regarding this latest season of Black Mirror, I’m reminded only of the abominable afterschool specials of my youth, the awful TV movies that were more propaganda than art.
Is it time, once again, for me to cancel Netflix?
Probably. I’m stuck browsing endlessly for something thoughtful and creative, hoping to find it. But all in all, I never know what to watch.
At least we’ve got Black Mirror’s Season 1, and “White Christmas,” and the other fun episodes from the past.