When the then-very-British Black Mirror was just starting to burst into America’s consciousness via Netflix in 2015, plenty of people didn’t like it. One critic who really hated the show went viral with a tweet that seemed to nail the M.O. of this high-tech scarefest. “Next on Black Mirror,” he wrote, “what if phones, but too much.”
Black Mirror writer and showrunner Charlie Brooker, a scathing TV critic himself, loved that snark so much he wrote the end of the episode “Playtest” specifically to fit it. (One of the reasons the anthology show has gone from strength to strength is Brooker likes to adopt what critics say and turn it up to 11: see also “San Junipero,” given a California-like setting to tweak Brits who said the show was going “too American.”)
But now, when you flick through the coffee table pages of a just-published oral history called Inside Black Mirror and reflect on the global phenomenon the show has become since then, what’s interesting is that snark hasn’t really aged well. Yes, this is the ultimate in cautionary TV for the smartphone age. But smartphones — and the incessant, insta-news and social media feeds we associate with them — actually feature in the show very sparingly. Only when the story needs them, in fact.
What if phones, but just the right amount.
With the help of some exclusive images from Inside Black Mirror, this is a guide to those moments when the show used fake online media to its most devastating effect. Here are the screens that are only seen for seconds, but successfully burrow into our brains like evil nightmare worms.
1. The National Anthem
The power of this 2011 story — better known as the one with the Prime Minister and the pig — relies on taking an absurd premise and turning it into queasy, revealing reality. And as we know all too well in 2018, nothing says queasy reality better than Twitter.
And so, five years before the age of Trump, Brooker gave us an inane Twitter mob of trolls influencing political decisions. The kidnapper of the Diana-like Princess Susannah has demanded that Prime Minister Michael Callow have sex with a pig on live TV. The tweets we see on screen for a brief moment, under the hashtag #PMPig, are as savage as you’d expect.
As Callow’s wife tells him, “it’s already happening in their heads.”
Brooker’s team went the extra mile to make the mob believable. Hashtags that seep into your subconscious when you watch the show include #trottergate and #snoutrage — the latter being used on real-life Twitter in 2015, when Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of having simulated intercourse with a pig’s head while a student.
A whole second page of results includes an Info Wars-esque user claiming the whole affair is a “false flag” and adding the hashtag “#bildeberg,” a conference of European and North American leaders and a frequent target of conspiracy theorists.
Everyone has a pet Black Mirror theory, and I was disappointed to see mine shot down in the book. I’d assumed the title of this episode was a reference to the “unpleasant tone” the government puts before the pig broadcast to discourage people from watching. Everyone watches anyway, so the tone is our true “national anthem,” right? Nope, it just turns out Charlie Brooker likes the Radiohead song of the same name.
2. Fifteen Million Merits
There’s plenty of media-based nightmare fuel in this tale of a future where workers acquire “merits” by playing games and watching TV. Not least of which is its American Idol-like show-within-a-show, “Hot Shots.”
But worst of all is the innocuous dialog box that warns protagonist Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) that he will incur a penalty if he mutes the audio on an ad. In other words, he will lose merits unless his claustrophobic screen-filled box apartment is filled with the unblockable sounds of commercials, including one where the love of his life reluctantly stars in the porn show “WraithBabes.”
In a world where we’re already asked to watch ads to access content, it’s hard not to be sympathetic — and terrified about where the media and advertising industries are heading.
3. Be Right Back
Media interfaces don’t feature in “The Entire History of You,” an episode about the nasty side effects of rewatching one’s own memories. Twisted screens next show up in Season 2’s “Be Right Back,” where grieving Martha (Hayley Atwell) requests a copy of her late boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson).
The physical version doesn’t show up right away; an Ash copy first assembles itself online, based on his social media posts. Their first conversation passes the Turing test, and also manages to be creepy as hell.
4. The Waldo Moment
There is plenty to fear in the tale of a foul-mouthed TV cartoon character that finds electoral success by mocking establishment politicians. But the real gut punch doesn’t happen until the very last scene, where we fast forward into a fascist future.
Screens with inane slogans praising Waldo are set against a filthy inner city, where a homeless man is being tased by shadowy authorities in black helmets. Brooker wrote this episode in 2013, and in 2016 — with a fascist TV cartoon character about to win the presidency — declared that he was now terrified by his own prescience.
Never mind “Playtest” — the ultimate “what if phones, but too much” episode is clearly the Season 3 opener, “Nosedive.” The way Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) struggles to raise her rating from a so-so 4.2 is enough to make you swear off social media forever. (Especially given the fact that China is currently enacting a similar social reputation system: Brooker’s scary prescience strikes again!)
As so often in Black Mirror, the fake screens in “Nosedive” succeed by capturing the utter mundanity of most online interactions. Witness Lacie’s more highly-rated friend Naomi and her perfectly posed “weekend on the ocean” post, complete with comments ripped from every other Facebook post: “SOOOOooo Lucky Sis!” and “invite me next time buddy?”
Notably, none of the screens ever mention what service they’re supposed to be on. They don’t need to. We get it.
When your (hopefully more enlightened) grandkids ask what life in the 2010s was like, this screenshot could serve as the ideal explainer. Just try to keep your sobbing to a minimum when you show them.
6. Hated in the Nation
This uneven murder-mystery episode is probably best summarized as “what if robot bees, but too much.” But at the same time, it returns to the “National Anthem” notion of a social media mob.
This time, the mob gathers around a far less sympathetic figure than the embattled PM: Jo Powers, a character modeled on smug racist British columnist Katie Hopkins. Powers may be a loathsome figure, but screens full of #DeathTo hashtags attached to her name remind us of times when a Twitter pile-on went too far — such as this ugly reaction in 2013 to PR person Justine Sacco’s idiotic tweet about AIDS in Africa.
Sacco’s story was prominently featured in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which in turn inspired “Hated in the Nation.” Sometimes Black Mirror is actually behind the times …
The window through which an overprotective mother spies on her daughter’s life looks like an app that Apple might design for the iPad.
The interface (courtesy of design studio and frequent Brooker client Painting Practice) is elegant and clean: a central “scroll wheel” hosts thumbnails of past videos you can zoom in on (from the inside out, the rings refer to hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades) while buttons down the side allow you to track your child’s location and bookmark favorite “moments.”
It’s all so simple and efficient, like a well-made photo app. You could almost forget this is parental Big Brother, made digital. What if Find My Friends (or “Stalk My Spouse,” as my wife and I call the always-on Apple location app), but too much?
8. Hang the DJ
And finally, it’s the episode that asks: What if Tinder, but perfect matches?
This time, for once, the real-life simplicity of the screens is seen as a positive. A prospective couple go on a date with a device that looks like a Nest, telling them how many hours they are allotted in their time together.
It turns out this pair are among thousands of digital simulations of a prospective couple in real life. They’re supposed to fight back against the limited-hour thing — because if they care enough to break the rules, it contributes to Future Tinder’s percentage chance that these two people are compatible. The sims are saving time and heartache in the real world — just like technology is supposed to do.
True, “Hang the DJ” raises troubling questions about the sentience of simulations. But it is also the most unambiguous happy ending in the Black Mirror canon (even more so than “San Junipero,” which left its lovers as mere simulations.)
The episode leaves us with two uplifting messages: First, don’t just do what the screens tell you, because rebelling is romantic! Second, just do what this app tells you, because it helps predict romance and therefore you’ll be wasting less time on your screens!
Yep, those are kind of contradictory messages. But then again, that’s Black Mirror through and through. What if the dystopian future we fear, but really ambiguous?
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