SOS! Netflix’s Black Mirror is Getting Too Real

Pop Culture

SOS! Netflix’s Black Mirror is Getting Too Real

Illustration: Arati Gujar

When Black Mirror first put out its pilot, it was 2011, only four years after the first iPhone was unveiled, and only five years after the first-ever tweet was posted. Informally known as the “Charlie Brooker School of Mindfuck”, the show went on to be the predecessor to several modern-day science-fiction titles, from a rehash of our parent’s favourite “Star Trek Discovery” to the more millennial-centric “The 100”. Still, nothing really matched up to Black Mirror, which resembles – in this family analogy – that one 15-year-old nephew who spent too much time on the internet by himself and now asks questions like, “Do you think it’ll bleed if I poke it hard enough?”

The first few seasons showed us how humans were in the process of selling their souls in exchange for a few cool gadgets. We were introduced to technology that could make cooking breakfast an experience straight out of a Mary Shelley novel. There was a device that never let you forget even your lowest moments, a metal creature thing rips straight through humans, and a haunted house that makes Mumbai homes look comfortable. Whether it was “Nosedive” or “Whitebear”, the show brought to life the horrors of living in a world with devices that run on batteries and corporates that confirm every 16-year-old’s most paranoid suspicions.

But the new fifth season of Black Mirror, released on Tuesday, has received some flak from its faithful. Most viewers feel like the show is now straying too far from its initial goal of making us throw our phones into the sea. The main points of contention – not enough freaky tech scenarios, too much humour/cringe.  

Which is a fair point to make after a cursory look at these episodes. The first of the three, “Striking Vipers” explores themes like sexual repression, and the many shades of modern-dating – a plot you’d expect to see on Easy rather than Black Mirror. It did feature some technology, in the form of a VR device that puts you inside a game, but nothing Japan hasn’t seen before.

The second, a hostage drama titled “Smithereens” is one of the more gripping episodes of the season. It features excellent actors, Andrew Scott, as protagonist and Uber driver on a mission, and Topher Grace, as the founder of (not specified, but pretty evident) Twitter. Again, there’s very little epiphanic gadgetry. In fact, the coolest technology you’re going to see on this episode is an alt-Twitter UI and a sniper rifle. The story chooses instead to focus on social-media addiction and the perils of living in a world with constant notifications. It does that by ending on a cliffhanger that’s guaranteed to get you on social media instantly. Classic Charlie Brooker sense of humour.

The third and by far most random episode of Black Mirror ever aired, features two sisters and a Miley Cyrus. Most of the first half of the episode could have been lifted straight from the Disney channel. You’re told the story of an awkward girl trying to impress her school with a dance performance, and who buys a doll because she has no friends. Soon after, you’re watching a scathing critique of the pop music industry that is trying to brainwash children with catchy music and inspirational quotes. Good TV, but hardly Black Mirror. No exceptional tech apart from a slightly advanced Amazon Alexa and an autotune software.

Maybe the show’s creators are slowly losing the plot. Maybe Bandersnatch – the interactive-Black Mirror film that was released on Netflix earlier this year – sucked the life out of them. But that seems unlikely. In all probability, these episodes seem so relatable for a much scarier reason – our reality is quickly keeping pace with Charlie Brooker’s satire. This was probably his plan all along. Start off by showing us situations that seemed to be plucked out of a distant future, when our kids would probably have to deal with the consequences, but we could marvel at guilt-free. And then suddenly, bring it closer to home, by giving you an entire season that reminds you this is all happening in your timeline and not a wild dystopia.

Just look at the show’s track record of being right. In season 1, they gave us a plot in which a prime minister was blackmailed into having intercourse with a pig on live TV to save a princess. Incredible as it seems, three years later, a biography of the then prime minister of the UK revealed that David Cameron had “inserted a private part of his anatomy” into a pig in college. Then there’s “The Waldo Moment” an episode that predicted the iPhone X’s “Animoji” feature, which allows you to control emojis with facial recognition. China has literally rolled-out the exact same software that drives a woman to insanity in “Nosedive”. Snapchat, meanwhile, uses the same general concept for cutesy face-swaps, that the army in “Men Against Fire” uses to brainwash all their soldiers into making war more appealing.

Even the new season features one of those “ahhh” moments, even if it isn’t really tech-related. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced in December 2018 that he would be going on a 10-day vipassana in Myanmar, at least three months after Charlie Brooker wrote the exact same plot in the second episode, “Smithereens”.

Maybe the makers of Black Mirror know something we don’t, but there’s one thing we can be sure about – to keep this season so close to reality was a deliberate move. Blurring the lines between the future and present is one of the traits that made the show stand out from its peers. Let’s hope we don’t start outpacing it soon.