In the first episode of Black Mirror, the Prime Minister is faced with a rather unusual dilemma. After learning that the royal Princess has been kidnapped, he discovers that she will executed unless he agrees – wait for it – to have sex with a pig on live TV at 4pm. The reaction online implies that the citizens do not think the Prime Minister will comply, but when new developments give rise to public mood shifts, his trusted advisors urge him to reconsider.
On paper, this premise sounds fairly ridiculous. Crucially, though, showrunner Charlie Brooker plays it completely straight, using the warped situation to say something about politicians and the extent to which they are swayed by public opinion.
Importantly, the same could be said about the series as a whole. Black Mirror offers an assortment of cynical, self-contained stories. Each episode features a new cast and a different setting, but they all use surreal scenarios to reflect and explore certain aspects of modern life.
Take the second instalment, for example. Set in the near future, it imagines a dystopian society where everyone spends their days on exercise bikes, earning merits that they use to purchase various forms of disposable entertainment. The only escape from this monotonous, soul-crushing existence is a Britain’s Got Talent-type reality show, which costs a whopping 15,000,000 merits to enter.
The problem, however, is that the sleazy, superficial judges aren’t really interested in genuine talent. When one contestant shows her incredible singing abilities, she is swiftly coerced into becoming a porn star for the erotic entertainment channel. A different participant shortens his routine so he can unleash an angry, impassioned tirade at the judging panel.
“You don’t see people up here”, he barks. “Its all fodder.”
Interestingly, Robert Downey Jr. recently purchased the film rights to the third – and arguably best – episode, which was written by Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong. In this instalment, nearly every character has a small implant, known as a ‘grain’, that allows them to record their memories. With the aid of a small, handheld controller, they are able to rewind and re-watch everything they’ve seen. This process, which is referred to as a ‘re-do’, can be viewed in the person’s head, or on a nearby screen for all to see.
Happily, this fantastical premise is grounded in reality, resulting in a story that is deeply relatable. The implant is depicted as the sort of everyday device that people use constantly – like, say, an iPhone – while the memory stream it generates is represented as, in Brooker’s own words, “a kind of Sky Plus system for your head.”
If all this makes the series sound bleak and downbeat, that’s because it is – but in the best possible way. Unlike other TV shows Black Mirror is actively designed to unsettle its viewers. It is, quite simply, unlike anything else on television at the moment.