Black Mirror. You want to talk about Black Mirror? I’d love to talk about Black Mirror. I’d love to talk about the odd, patchy season that came before this one. I’d love to talk about the weird, unsettling experiment of Bandersnatch. And most of all, I’d like to talk about why this latest season, out last month, feels like such a downturn for a show which has so often held such a huge place in the cultural zeitgeist.
The problem with shows like Black Mirror is that they rely on an outside perspective on the aspects of society that they’re critiquing. When Black Mirror started out, back in 2011, it felt like a genuinely anarchic and even important take on where technology was taking us. Paranoia and fear about technology and social media was only just starting to really bloom, and Charlie Brooker, with his esteemed eye for pop cultural batshittery, was the perfect choice to explore it in a narrative sense.
But how can you sustain that sense of acerbic outsider-dom when you are firmly inside the system? When Black Mirror shifted to Netflix, and when it started working with Youtube personalities, and when it embraced the involvement of huge pop culture figures like Miley Cyrus and the like, it couldn’t hold on to this sense of being on the outside, looking in, and providing all the cogent commentary you would expect from someone holding that position. Other shows have suffered similair fates over the years; The Simpsons worked as a sharp-tongued critic of other pop culture, but after it became so thoroughly absorbed into the very fabric of what made up the modern media landscape, it just had to resort to sending the family on trips to Brazil and Japan for want of a better idea.
When Charlie Brooker gave up writing his legendary Screen Burn columns in the Guardian, he credited some of that decision to becoming part of the industry that he was trying to critique. His reasoning is pretty unarguable: you can’t poke holes an industry that you have become so deeply entrenched in. As Black Mirror uses modern technology and media to push itself forward, attempts to critique the same become more and more shallow. I mean, I saw Anthony Mackie, star of one of the this season’s episodes, in a Marvel movie just a couple of months ago – unarguably the biggest deal in storytelling since Game of Thones ended. The presence of his celebrity (and the celebrity of so many who have been attached to recent seasons, like Miley Cyrus, Jodie Foster, Bryce Dallas Howard, Letitia Wright, et al) sort of blunts everything the show is trying to achieve. As the show expands to swallow up great swathes of popular culture, it can’t stand outside it comfortably any longer without ringing with some abject hollowness.
And that’s why this season, for me, just doesn’t work. While the show still has some obvious merit – creativity, solid writing, handsome cinematography and talented performers – the central message seems increasingly lost as the meta-narrative of what the show has become in the real world overwhelms the actual narratives that it’s trying to tell us within these episodes. Black Mirror, to its own detriment, just got too good at playing its own game.
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(header image via Cultbox.co.uk)