Monday, November 7, 2016

"Black Mirror," Series 3

Charlie Brooker's dark science fiction anthology series "Black Mirror" has moved to Netflix, with a greatly expanded scope and budget. Six new episodes premiered in October, almost doubling the show's episode count., and six more will follow in 2017. Time constraints have also been lifted, so episodes can run anywhere from 50-90 minutes. Most of the new installments also star Americans instead of Brits. Any of these factors could have tripped up the show, which is known for its intensely bleak visions of the future and technology. However, I'm happy to report that "Black Mirror" has retained everything that made it a cult favorite. It's stil a mixed bag, though, like it was from the beginning, and the quality of the episodes vary wildly.

Before I start talking about the episodes individually, I want to be clear that I watched them out of the listed order on purpose, avoided all the hype and discussion I could, and didn't marathon them, so I could consider each episode separately. I initially intended to do a ranking list of the six new installments, but I quickly realized that I wanted to talk about some of the episodes far more than others. For me, there is a very clear divide between the three stronger episodes, and the three weaker ones. And I suspect that there is some bias on my part that the ones I liked all star women, all have bigger name actors involved, and all have the more hopeful, ambiguous endings.

First, let's talk about the weaker ones. "Playtest," about a thrill-seeker (Wyatt Russell) testing new gaming technology, and "Shut Up and Dance," about two victims (Alex Lawther, Jerome Flynn) of a blackmail scheme, both come across as unfinished thoughts, similar to the "Waldo Moment" from the second series. There are some interesting ideas, characters, and concepts here, but put in service of very limited stories. Unlike other installments, both don't concern themselves with much worldbuilding, and don't offer much social commentary. Thanks to the series' consistently high production values, they look great, especially the animated graphics in "Playtest." However, all they offer is some basic action and thrills that you might expect to find in any typical genre feature.

A better outing is "Men Against Fire," about a soldier (Malachi Kirby) with some fancy technological enhancements hunting opponents called "roaches." It's a very old premise, something straight out of Golden Age science-fiction, but the execution is very good, so I feel better about recommending it. The episode also has one of the strongest casts, with Michael Kelly, Sarah Snook, and Madeline Brewer in supporting roles. The longest episode of the bunch is "Hated By the Nation," a ninety minute murder mystery starring Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay as a pair of detectives. I think it works about as well "Men Against Fire," but "Hated By the Nation" gets extra points for combining several interesting concepts together, including robot bees and the dangers of online hate mobs.

That leaves the two clear standout episodes, which are as good as anything that "Black Mirror" has ever done: "San Junipero" and "Nosedive." Both offer highly detailed new universes to explore, with lots of subtle effects, and some amazing production design. "Nosedive" is the flashier episode, directed by the biggest name on this year's roster, Joe Wright. It envisions a world that runs by star ratings. Eveyone is ranked, and obsessed with rankings, including our main character Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a social climber who reconnects with a higher ranked childhood friend, Naomi (Alice Eve). "Nosedive" is the funniest "Black Mirror" episode to date, sending its heroine through one calamity after another, and culminating in an absolutely spectacular social media meltdown. No surprise that "Office" vets Mike Schur and Rashida Jones co-wrote it. And this is the best performance I've ever seen Bryce Dallas Howard give.

Howeveer, "San Junipero" tops it. This is the one episode of "Black Mirror" so far that isn't dark or grim or satirical. Instead, it's a perfectly poignant, humane romance about two young women, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who meet at a club one night in the town of San Junipero, in 1987. Of course, all is not as it seems. The period recreations are a lot of fun, especially the fashion choices, but it's the actresses who deserve the bulk of the credit for making the central relationship work so well. Some of the other episodes felt like they were trying too hard to deliver the dark, twisty stories that "Black Mirror" is known for. "San Junipero," by contrast, is wonderfully organic in the way that it explores a new technology through a well-grounded, personal story.

So, in short, "Black Mirror" remains well worth your time. I look forward to more, but I'll be happy dissecting this batch of episodes for a long while.

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