Sunday, September 16, 2018

Black Mirror, Season 1

This is 100% my kind of television. It's like The Twilight Zone but different. Edgier. And, to be honest, examples of the exact kinds of situations I envisioned back in 2007 when everyone started getting all OMG so into Apple Phones and Ipads and YouTube and Facebook. Yes, I am writing this from a computer and sharing it on social media, so I guess that means that I'm self-aware enough to be able to discuss the destruction of humanity while actively participating in its downfall (but I'm also the one who's been telling everyone "IT'S A COOKBOOK!" too, so lay on, haters). Anyway, full disclosure warning, this show is disturbing (psychologically on the level with the Saw films but not quite reaching The Human Centipede); these stories are not likely to be everyone's cup of tea, but they're still important stories.

Episode 1, The National Anthem, takes on YouTube and social media by exposing just how easy it is to ruin someone's life: a member of the royal family is kidnapped and will only be released if the prime minister has relations with a pig on live television. Yes, A PIG. Our initial reactions as viewers echo those of the PM's---this has got to be a joke (it isn't), and there has to be a way to keep this private (there isn't). Nothing is containable anymore, especially where American news media and Facebook users are concerned! An early version of this idea may have been presented by Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and the conversation about the telephone ransom in Pulp Fiction back in 1994, what's to stop some random person from robbing/blackmailing/harming someone else? These days people are not only more ruthless and righteous in their sabotage of others, the sabotage, the ridicule, the dehumanization are all completely public and broadcasted everywhere for the world to see. The motivation for it is simply to destroy a public figure in the most humiliating way possible, and it works.

yeah, this is us.
This narrative is different than the by-comparison tame Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or even X-Files episodes that explored unexplained phenomena or the evil men do. In the first place, the self-reflexivity used here is significant (and I think, the point of it all). Cleverly, the camera lingers many times on the horrified reactions of citizens during the main event, as it were, and we, the audience, are also implicated as watchers of this disturbing act as we have also chosen to participate and are just as guilty. It's a strange, unpleasant viewing and again, definitely not for everyone, but the experience of watching speaks very effectively to the real-life horrors made possible through technology. We don't like to think about it, but this sort of thing is possible. Second, the unflinching way this dark material is presented, straight up, head-on, and without frilly editing or ceremony seems to thrust the realization at us that THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE NOW. It's accepted----dissected and dealt with I suppose, but accepted. Yikes.

Episode 2, 15 Million Merits explores a contained civilization where young citizens pedal on stationary bikes to presumably provide a sort of fuel for life. Reality television is everywhere: it surrounds each individual living space, it's in the bathrooms and on display in front of the bikes, it even serves as a source of redemption or a threat, depending on how the cyclists perform (the good ones can get out by becoming famous, the bad ones become the targets for a hunting program). Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) has managed to accumulate over fifteen million merits but is bored with his life until he hears Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) sing in the bathroom. He uses his merits to gift her a ticket for a talent show, Hot Shot, explaining, "I want something real to happen." Something real does happen, something really terrible.

This is really just an updated, re-telling of Orwell's 1984 where everyone looks good and already loves Big Brother. Fittingly, everything is wrapped up in the television screens. A single look away brings about a flashing red warning (with the threat of more punishment to come); pornography is offered up constantly based on each cyclist's inner emotions, reactions, and vital signs. Violence and rage are encouraged while objectification is not only accepted, it's the only thing that can save the cyclists from a life of pedaling. Bing's fate eventually speaks to the cleverness of those who have created this civilization----even when someone exposes the evil inherent in such a system, the powers that be know exactly what they're doing and the system continues to work.

Episode 3, The Entire History of You, provides a look at a future where implanted memory grain devices allow everyone to rewind and review anything that's ever happened to them with the touch of a remote button. Memories can be played back within (inside) one's own vision or shared with others on a screen, and this is what serves as entertainment and underscores all interactions. This open access to the past isn't all it's cracked up to be though, a young married couple (Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker) learns that there are some pretty serious consequences to hitting life's "rewind" button.

Is this us?
In 2011, the year this program debuted, it may have seemed like more of a reach--- a future where everyone is wrapped up in themselves, their memories, or the sharing of memories with others, but in today's world this kind of absorption barely garners a reaction. We see it happening on the regular, not with grains but with our phones (note the glassy, removed effects in the watchers' eyes when they "dial in"). Miraculously, one of the story's characters willingly chooses to have her grain removed ("I've never felt better!") but is shunned by the others who are confused as to why anyone would want to live this way.

Obviously not everyone is going to like these negative takes on technology and the hazards of our connected world; technology and being connected have made a lot of positive things possible after all. But has social media improved our lives? Are reality television programs positive experiences for the participants and those who watch? How is all this knowing affecting our physical and mental health? How are the children dealing with it? The series' title is a roundabout way of getting at these questions and the answers don't seem very reassuring.