Black Mirror has become a cultural phenomenon. But how did this rise happen? And is a fall from favour imminent?
Black Mirror started out on Channel 4 with only two seasons of three episodes and a Christmas special. It has now seen that number more than double in the space of two years, with two longer Netflix seasons. I will take a look back and question how this has happened, how the show has changed and if it is as good as it used to be?
First of all, I have to admit my biases and say that I am a massive Charlie Brooker fan. I’ve watched all the shows, read all the columns, seen him walk through the BFI Southbank reception and run off to have a heart attack. However, I shall endeavour to be objective in my analysis of Black Mirror.
It is fair to say that the show has changed in tone since the first season and that the most recent season has proved to be divisive where others have not been. This could be for multiple reasons. Firstly, there is more pressure on Black Mirror now. It has won two Emmys, become known worldwide and found astronomical levels of success with the episode San Junipero. There is also the fact that having more episodes in a series means more room for missteps, especially for a show that moulds stories out of such high-concept ideas. I also think that we might just be harsher on anthology series. The episodes don’t all roll into one another and there are no continuing characters that have our undying love. We might forgive a dud episode in Game of Thrones but not Black Mirror.
The first two seasons had an overtly darker and more satirical tone than the ones that have followed. This can be seen most literally in the aesthetic which is heavily grey and downcast, ranging from melancholy to gritty. These episodes are predominately set in Britain which may also have helped to create this atmosphere. This is in stark contrast to the more vibrant later episodes such as the saccharine pastel palette of “Nose Dive” or the lairy and gaudy space themed saga of “USS Callister”. The aesthetic changes are indicative of a more general change of the attitude of the show. The early episodes generally feel like they could be set in a world a few minutes away from our own. This distortion of the familiar helped create the uncanny feeling that became synonymous with the show. Episodes such as “The National Anthem” included no new technology at all and simply revolved around our current social media to let the story unfold into madness. In later episodes, the bold looks have also branched out into more varied and wacky stories and genres. A lot more focus has been placed on the technology itself and this pushes the series into a more definite futuristic direction. This forces us as an audience to readjust what we consider Black Mirror to represent and I think this is why some people have been feeling a little tense towards the later seasons. In any relationship, we need to accept that the other party is an evolving being. We have to give Black Mirror the respect it deserves, the space to work out who it really is.
Having said this, I have had a bit of trouble adapting to the latest season, and find myself yearning for a return to the old Black Mirror. I find that the higher concept the central technology in an episode gets, the less engaged I feel with the story. Many episodes have moved away from the near future to the distantfuture. However, on deeper reflection, which I think is the main thing Black Mirror wants us to do, I think this diversification in types of story is necessary. The process the show now goes through to reach our screens is completely different and I think a six-episode long season with no tonal variation would become grinding. A season this long of solely pure, anxious satire would do the equivalent to our brains of having 10 red bulls. The expansion into new territories of genre is necessary for Black Mirror to stay fresh even if that means a few rotten apples come along in the process. We do not need to love every episode to love Black Mirror. Even the episodes you don’t enjoy spark conversation, perhaps more so than the ones that everyone loves. I think the show will work out a balance between variety and the acerbic and worrying social commentary it began with. In this sense, it is the closest thing we have to the role The Twilight Zone used to play in mainstream media and for that reason I think Black Mirror has a lot more to give.
So those are my reflections on Black Mirror’s stratospheric journey. While I hope that each season adapts and changes to stay ahead of the game, I also hope that Charlie Brooker does not completely forget the show’s grey and anxious origins.
PS: If you are yet to start the series and want to know where to begin, my personal favourites are “The National Anthem”, “Be Right Back” and “Hated in the Nation”.