Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rank 'Em: The "Black Mirror" Episodes

After two series and one Christmas special, we now have seven installments of Charlie Booker's fantastic anthology series, "Black Mirror."  More are reportedly in the works, but who knows when they'll actually make it to the screen.  So it's a good time to take stock of the series so far.  And thanks to the anthology format and low episode count, it's a good fit for one of my lists.  So, without any further ado, here's my ranking of the episodes of "Black Mirror" that have aired so far, from best to least-best.  It's hard to pick a "worst" with a series this good.
"Fifteen Million Merits" - The reality-TV obsessed, video-game integrated dystopia is a lot of fun and provides some memorable visuals, but the story is what sets it apart.  "Merits" feels like Charlie Booker examining his own place as a media critic and what that means.  Daniel Kaluuya also delivers a great performance as our hero, particularly a scorching monologue on the despair of life in a world where nearly everything has been reduced to virtual reality. 
"The National Anthem" - Shock value can have plenty of value when it's used in the right way.  "The National Anthem" is the only episode so far that only relies on already existing technology, namely social media like Twitter and Facebook, and it's not hard to imagine the events depicted could actually happen in the present day.  I'm impressed not only with the embrace of a potentially disastrous concept, but that the creators were willing to take it as far as they did. 
"Be Right Back" - I love this one for the performances of Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson.  The concept is simple and the narrative doesn't offer many surprises to anyone remotely genre savvy, but the execution is lovely and the intimate moments hit just right.  Quiet and lachrymose, this is a bit of an outlier for "Black Mirror," which usually leans toward horror and black comedy, but it's every bit as effective in hitting its target as the louder, showier outings.
"White Christmas" - A nice triptych of stories show off a little of everything that "Black Mirror" is know for: intimate relationship stories, flashy dystopias, and some really biting social commentary.  Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall do a lot of the heavy lifting to pull off a complicated, exposition-heavy narrative with a lot of twists.  There were definitely some sections that worked better than others, and some of the ideas could have used more fleshing out, but this was a wonderfully nasty holiday surprise.
"White Bear" - This one feels like something made for a straight horror anthology, as social media only plays a small part here.  The bulk of the episode played out fine, but it was the epilogue that really got to me, showcasing the systematic inhumanity of everyone involved in creating the illusion.  "White Bear" is lower on the list for being very heavy-handed and not taking some of the satirical opportunities it could have, but the nightmare scenario it presents is extremely effective.  
"The Entire History of You" - This is a favorite for many viewers, but I thought it was a pretty average story.  I think this is because I've seen the concept before in other sci-fi media and because the salacious elements struck me as far too unsubtle and gimmicky.  Like "White Bear," the characters don't feel like real people, and the structure feels far too mechanical.  It's certainly not a bad episode, but one that feels limited by its fascination with its own premise.
"The Waldo Moment" - I don't think this is a surprise, as many others have pointed out that "Waldo" has some serious story problems.  It's certainly an interesting idea, but I don't think Booker worked out what he really wanted to say here, or where the concept was supposed to go.  The ending in particular is infuriating because it fails to land the final punchline with nearly enough oomph.  It's a rare example of the series pulling back when it should have gone for the throat.

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