Tuesday, December 20, 2011

None More Black


A delayed response to the Black Mirror series which has aired over the last three Sunday nights on Channel 4. Executive producer, Charlie Brooker, has already written at length about his thinking behind the series, and any regular visitors here will know that I’ve always had a soft spot for his own brand of cuddly misanthropy. So what more is there to say?

Most reviewers, both mainstream and blogwise, have approached these broadsides at the way social media has changed our lives from the viewpoint of its status of a TV drama/comic satire; admiring the intelligence behind the plots but focussing mainly on their entertainment value. Possibly because they’re aired at a time that’s usually reserved for more escapist fare (it being a school night).

This is all well and good - both acting and scripting have been variable throughout, with episode one (The National Anthem) being the most tightly written and performed – but it’s the concepts behind the series that have been the most thought-provoking and have yet to be fully digested. To describe it as satire is possibly underselling it. While Brooker IS an arch-satirist, the idea of this being black comedy (along with Brooker’s recent nomination in the British Comedy awards) seems to be the media’s attempt to water down his messages.

Basically, Black Mirror fulfils all the criteria for perfect science fiction. It takes current trends, contemporary attitudes and up-to-the-minute moral dilemmas and explores those themes in the context of a near future where technology has either grown to its logical full potential or in an alternate universe, with just the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

The second ‘episode’, Fifteen Million Merits (co-written by Brooker and partner Konnie Huq), gave us a derivative/Orwellian dystopian future which obviously drew from Brooker’s own background as a gaming critic/reviewer. Weirdly it was this episode which made me laugh the most. It was not just a swipe at the freak-show complicity of reality talent shows but (more importantly) also at the way in which we now filter our ‘reality’ through technology that has become so invasive as to make us unable to recognise true feeling or emotion. The central rebellious youth was, of course, finally subsumed into the system, just as Brooker sails close to mainstream acceptance (more of this later).

But it was parts one and three that were most brutal in their dissection of the ways that our inner lives have become inextricably linked with the body politic and simultaneously ripped away from the previously cosy notions of personal privacy.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those carping troglodytes that see social networks as merely ciphers for invidious corporations stealing our souls (and PIN numbers) – we have more control than the Dail Mail would have you believe. Yet the main thrust of these two episodes was the way in which we have walked through a door that may well have closed behind us and what social media may have consigned us to.

The National Anthem was, perhaps the wrong episode to start with, focusing as it did on the ratings-winning idea that there could very plausibly arise a situation wherein the Prime Minister would be forced to have sex with a pig, live on UK television. That sentence looks all wrong, but anyone who watched the show will know that it was ultimately pretty believable. Here the brush of satire WAS used, mainly as we learned (SPOLER ALERT) that it was all a huge performance art piece, created by some nihilistic Banksy-clone (who, to be fair, did commit suicide at the close).

No one really came out of this well – politicians, the BBC, Youtube - but (as with a lot of Brooker’s own work) there was a kind of romantic sadness in the story’s conclusion: the public’s natural response (following the initial knee-jerk pointing and laughing) was to finally turn away in disgust, while a premier, forced at virtual gunpoint to perfom the unthinkable by his party, won public approval but lost at a personal level (the love of his wife). Unfortunately such a high bench mark couldn’t be matched by the rest of the series, thus losing viewers who would have benefitted from the dark messages contained therein.

The Entire History Of You (the finale) suffered from lesser acting but carried the most deeply personal warning – ie: how much do you REALLY want others to know about your life, especially when it comes to personal relationships? A glossy, ultra-irritating world of 30-something aspirational clones bicker over previous flames and flings while being able to record each moment of their lives in horrid HD quality. While you hated all the characters, you squirmed at the recognition that we now inhabit a world where someone is Googling you. Now. Innocent memories are fast becoming damning indictments in a world where hypocritical moral codes replace true depth of feeling. Maybe the cyber stalker you fear is lying right next to you… It’s a chilling thought.

But what has really been the most fascinating aspect of the reception to Black Mirror? Why, the seeming inability for social media itself to refuse to engage with the subjects raised. When I say ‘social media’ I mean in fact the peers that comment on, make a living from and theorise on those platforms that we currently call social media. I say’currently’ because it’s fairly obvious that what we used to call the internet or indeed barely any media which we now consume or create has a social aspect to it, of course, making the term almost meaningless.

A few reviews point to the fact that the series has ‘split critics and viewers’. Well, quite right, too. Because the real punch of Black Mirror is that of a mouth definitely biting the hand that feeds it. A snapshot of the reaction across twitter, blogs, facebook etc. reveals that while discussion online following the first episode has exponentially dropped there were still 35,500 mentions of the show during its run. 95% of those were on Twitter, but tellingly very few were from anyone who’d be remotely classed as ‘influential’ in social media (or in fact plain ‘media’) circles. The most notable comments came from either stars such as Gavin and Stacey’s Matthew Horne or from people who were actually in the show (MC Bashy – who played one of the reality show judges in Fifteen Million Merits). It really seems as though most media commentators have shrugged or faintly applauded and moved rapidly on.

This looks like the result of one of two scenarios: either the uncomfortable feeling that letting Brooker (a former TV critic) too close to the inner circle of taste arbiters would be dangerous, or that these home truths about the deeper sociological effects of society 2.0 are not worth considering in a world that runs on notions of progress (and marketing potential) above all else.

Either way – I hope that on the day that we finally realise what it is we’re doing (or stop to consider it properly for a second) we’ll remember these three nuggets of truth and alarm.

2 comments:

pauldmorgan said...

I thought Black Mirror was brilliant, images and themes that will continue to live with you long after in a way that Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected stories did. Ep3 was my personal favourite - a fantastic extrapolation of the way we capture and post our lives in almost real-time - be careful what you wish for etc etc (like the Monkey's Paw).

I'd love to see the show have an extended run but I fear for Mr Brooker's sanity even after these three. Opening it up as a strand for new and established writers with him as Exec would be great.

Matt Conrad said...

Just watched all three in a row - possibly a bit too much, but came away very impressed if somewhat fazzled. In many ways they reminded me of BBC drama of the 60s and 70s, with their clear attempt to take on issues without too much irony on the side. Nigel Kneale's Year of the Sex Olympics must of been a conscious reference, especially in the second episode.The third episode reminded me of the ideas about sex in Kim Stanley Robinson's dystopian The Gold Coast.

Enough train spotting! I found all three very effecting and real and will be turning them over in my head for some time. Charlie is a clever man, with lovely hair to boot.