Thursday, March 1, 2018

Rank 'Em: "Black Mirror" Year Four

It took me longer than expected to watch all of "Black Mirror," in part because I really haven't been in the mood for bleak, nihilistic media lately. Fortunately, this run of episodes had fewer shocks, and there was only one episode that I would describe as properly disturbing. The quality of the show remains very high, but it's inevitable that some of the stories are beginning to feel repetitive. Several concepts from prior episodes are revisited or expanded upon. Still, there wasn't an egregiously bad one in the bunch, as there have been in previous seasons, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

Episodes below are ranked from best to least, and I've tried to keep spoilers to a minimum.

"U.S.S. Callister" - How could it be anything else? You have a screamingly funny parody of "Star Trek" and MMOs, with references to Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," lead by a rocking girl geek who gets to kick workplace misogyny's butt. The climactic ending, wry humor, pop-culture references, and star-studded cast my strike some viewers as "Black Mirror" getting too mainstream, but this is as smartly written and darkly ironic as any other installment. It also looks absolutely gorgeous, with instantly iconic production design and costuming.

"Metalhead" - The closest thing to a pure horror episode this year pits a woman against a robot "dog" in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. It's the starkness and the simplicity of the premise that make this one so effective. There's long stretches of no dialogue and no music, and the black and white cinematography emphasizes the brutality of the situation. Few details are offered about the bleak universe, but it also points the viewer towards some pretty awful conclusions. The robot itself is all the more chilling because it is similar to already existing technology, and executed flawlessly.

"Black Museum" - The concluding chapter of this year's "Black Mirror" series could be treated as a series finale. It revists several concepts used in other episodes, not to mention all the Easter eggs and references. Like "White Christmas," it's another anthology of smaller wicked tales leading up to a big finale. And yes, it's pulpy and repetitive and has some gaping plot holes, but the execution is great. I also love the performance by Douglas Hodge as our sweaty tour guide, who happily embellishes all his stories of technological horrors. It also provides a couple of the show's best, most absurd images.

"Hang the DJ" - Breaks from formula to consider how online dating programs might evolve in the future. And this is all handled in a very thoughtful, evenhanded manner. The setup is pretty ingenious, and the only reason this isn't higher in the rankings is because I had some trouble with the central couple, who aren't as well fleshed out as I thought they could be. Still, this is a very refreshing change of pace for "Black Mirror," the only episode that I wouldn't describe as a thriller or horror piece from this series. I suspect more sentimental viewers would enjoy it more than I did.

"Arkangel" - Another episode where the idea for the story is sound, but the delivery could have been better. I don't have many specific complaints here, but this feels like one of those scripts that should have percolated a little longer. The Arkangel device is worryingly plausible, as are the actions of the helicopter mom, but there's something about the sequence of events and the reactions at the climax that felt much too forced. And it's a shame because there's ample material to mine from the way that new technology affects parenting and child development.

"Crocodile" - Even though I think this is the least successful episode of the set, with the most gimmicky premise and the most predictable plotting, it's a testament to the show's quality that there was plenty that I still liked about it. There's the picturesque Icelandic setting, the performances of both female leads, and the way that the insurance investigation story was handled. However, there were way too many contrivances in play, especially the ending. Also, it doesn't help that "Crocodile" is awfully similar to last year's "Shut Up and Dance."


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