December is always a great time for TV. Old favourites return for Christmas specials and because you’re home for the holidays, you can even watch them without those pesky TV licensers sticking letters through your door. What holiday TV isn’t known for, however, is edginess or innovation, which is why Charlie Brooker’s three part mini-series Black Mirror was such a fantastic and unexpected treat.
In the first episode, The National Anthem, a princess is held at ransom. The demands: the prime minister must have televised sex. With a pig. This premise might seem crass but thanks to sharp writing delivered with po-faced sincerity by a fantastic cast, it becomes an oddly believable, amusing and ultimately tragic critique of media led politics. Unfolding like a bonkers episode of The Thick Of It, it’s clearly inspired by the super injunction debacle, displaying a populist government with a slender understanding of social media being completely dominated by it.
Brooker is never one to rest on his laurels and the second episode showed this by trading up political satire for dystopian sci-fi. Even more allegorical than the first, Fifteen Million Merits shows human kind reduced to drones that pedal on machines all day long to earn credits. They spend their credits living vicariously through their on screen avatars, a concise critique of media led consumer culture. Unfortunately, commitment to this dystopian critique comes at the cost of the sharp writing of the first episode and this one trudges along at a deliberately melancholic and unexciting pace. Towards the end things go from allegorical to autobiographical for Brooker, as his protagonist Bing goes from revolted critic to vacuous presenter. Indeed, the X-Factor-esque presenters in this episode were the highlight, but even they were too one dimensional to provide more than a few laughs. It wasn’t bad by any stretch, but it paled in comparison to the first episode.
The final episode, The Entire History of You imagined a near future where all memory is stored in tiny chips in our heads. While this episode arguably had the least to say, it was the most successful in terms of drama, packed with well observed social tension and perfect performances. In short, Black Mirror was crucial televison; a lot of modern dramas omit or awkwardly misrepresent technology to the same extent that Victoria literature used to omit sex, losing believability in the process. It was refreshing then, to see a series tackle the issue so directly and even more so to see it done with a whit like Charlie Brooker’s. Essential viewing.