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'Black Mirror' Provides a Daring, Devastating Reflection

By Courtesy of Netflix
By Michael J. Yue, Contributing Writer

The last episode of the second season of British sci-fi anthology series “Black Mirror,” “The Waldo Moment,” centered on a TV comedian whose cartoon creation, Waldo, enters a local by-election as a joke. Waldo is extremely profane and frequently jokes about certain male genitalia but quickly gains traction due to his outsider status and authenticity; his unscripted rants seem like a welcome departure from the artifice of traditional politicians. The populace is largely entertained by his antics, and fervent groups of supporters develop and quickly become violent in his presence. Sound familiar?

This might seem like a mockery of the events of 2016, but look at the date it aired—Feb. 25, 2013. This episode isn’t merely parody; it’s prophecy. “The Waldo Moment” provides a perfect illustration of the prescient power of “Black Mirror.” The pessimistic vision of Charlie Brooker, the creator of the Channel 4 show and writer of nearly all of its episodes, has consistently infused the show with cutting social satire that is both audacious and eerily prescient.

Now, three years later, Brooker brings us six new hour-long tales. The third season, now on Netflix, has a somewhat different feel to it: The episodes are a bit longer and varied, and the show has largely set its sights on America rather than Britain. But the incisive satire about our relationship with technology and the media has thankfully stayed the same. Nearly every episode delivers a devastating gut punch reminiscent of the best “The Twilight Zone” episodes. The new season of “Black Mirror” fires on all cylinders.

For one thing, each episode is a masterclass in acting; the season’s relatively unknown starring actors and actresses (although some may recognize the main actress of “Nosedive,” Bryce Dallas Howard, from “Jurassic World”) navigate their respective episodes’ dark turns excellently, grounding the show’s abstract ideas and satirical points with genuine human emotion. Each leaves a crushing feeling of despair in his or her wake that underlines the urgency of Brooker’s satire, with one notable exception—the starring actresses of “San Junipero,” who introduce some much-needed optimism to the season. The effects are sleek and often dazzling, perhaps more so than the visuals of previous seasons, and the direction is extremely effective in ratcheting up the tension of each episode.

This tension is often the emotional crux of “Black Mirror” episodes, and with the new season Brooker has proved once again that he is a master of generating and tightening suspense. A constant presence of claustrophobic, maddening anxiety inhabits the darker episodes, keeping viewers glued to the screen in spite of the inevitable doom many of the characters face. “Nosedive” provides a perfect example of this, with the titular fall from grace of the main character grippingly paced across the episode, perfectly capturing the incessant, unrelenting pain of social humiliation. The new episodes’ near Shyamalan-level twists come as turns of the knife, raising the stakes of each episode to a fever pitch and finally driving home a devastating defeat of humanity’s goodness.

This isn’t to say the season is completely faultless. “Playtest” feels somewhat scattered, with a rushed conclusion, and a few episodes—“Men Against Fire” and “Hated in the Nation” in particular—indulge in some uncharacteristically clichéd science fiction tropes. Episodes tend to hit viewers over the head with their morals, which are sometimes rather obvious. But the genius in “Black Mirror” lies in not just what the episodes are saying about society but in how they are saying it. Brooker uses unusual but often brilliant narrative mechanisms to deliver his satirical messages, from swarms of mechanical bees to an online-rating-based social hierarchy to communities of genetically mutated outcasts. The various future worlds of the new season are laid out in meticulous detail, lending real depth and authenticity to each episode. The technologies that Brooker devises are made frighteningly realistic, and there is incredible invention in the uses and social effects of his projected technologies. It all adds up to a triumphant return for the sci-fi anthology show. The third season of “Black Mirror” is astute, unpredictable, and undeniably powerful—a satirical tour de force.

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