Despite the move from British Channel 4 to the American Netflix, Black Mirror, as it enters its third season is still the same show many viewers and critics fell in love with. For those who are unaware, the series, created by Charlie Brooker is an anthology science-fiction series in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Each episode is a clever examination of how technology amplifies human flaws.
It’s clear from even the early moments from season three that Netflix has increased the series budget. Whereas many episodes from the Channel 4 we’re often set in just one or two locations – “Fifteen Million Merits”, “The Entire History of You” or “Be Right Back”, there is a vastness in terms of place to these new batch of entries. Perhaps, it’s down to the blend of British and American actors or the result of a multi-national production but the apparently “perfect” world of first episode, “Nosedive”, feels global and lived-in. Even the second episode, “Playtest”, which for the most part takes place in one house, begins with its central character, in montage, travelling around the world.
However, even with this change of locations, Brooker, for the most part, sticks to the formula that made the series a success. He takes things about society that the viewer recognises and warps them to disturbing measure. The tough but rewarding Nosedive, centring around a world where humans rate each other after human interactions, draws upon real-life apps like Hailo or Tinder. Playtest takes the developing concept of virtual reality and spins it into the stuff of nightmares. Third episode, “Shut Up and Dance”, uses growing paranoia regarding Internet surveillance as the jumping off point for its tense and thrilling hour of television.
Brooker is very good at staying ahead of his audience. He doesn’t immediately plunge viewers into his sci-fi worlds. Instead, the creator subtly and slowly doles out the relevant information. It works two-fold because this method of storytelling curbs the need for dull plot-exposition while also causing each new reveal to feel like a surprising twist.
The writer is also skilled at managing to constantly unsettle his audience. Just as one feels as if they understand what direction a story is headed, he throws out a curveball putting the viewer’s theory out of whack. Brooker isn’t afraid of occasionally pulling an M. Night Shyamalan end reveal but generally, most of the twists he employs are minor. In Shut Up and Dance, the lead character (played by a brilliant Alex Lawther – young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) is forced by a shady network to deliver a package. As he peeks inside, the viewer expects to witness something sinister, but all the protagonist sees is a seemingly harmless cake reading “I Love You”. It’s only a small moment but it subverts the audience’s expectations, as well as also making them more curious about why the pastry is important.
Of the four episodes I’ve watched for Black Mirror’s third season (there are six), the first three play very much like the series during its Channel 4 run. This is not a criticism as Brooker’s anthological premise keeps proceedings feeling fresh. However, he is taking risks. Fourth episode “San Junipero” is a departure from anything previously seen on Black Mirror – a positive representation of technology. Starring Free State of Jones’ Gugu Mbatha Raw and Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis (who are both incredible) the episode plays like Todd Haynes’ Carol but with a futuristic spin. It’s intoxicating, sensual and heart-warming, something no person could ever accuse Black Mirror of being previously. It’s good to see that despite a bigger corporation funding Brooker’s vision, he continues to take artistic gambles.