It’s eerie watching the British television drama “Black Mirror” on Netflix.
Right after an episode’s conclusion, just as the end credits are beginning to crawl, comes that familiar prompt that recommends similar shows before you’ve even had an opportunity to decompress from the intensity of what you’ve just watched. Eerie, because this sort of intrusion is one of the very subjects that’s under the microscope of creator Charlie Brooker.
“Black Mirror” manages to render technology weird again, particularly as it’s associated with social media. Portable phones, computers the size of small notepads, websites that offer you anything you want at the click of a touch screen, all manners of instantaneous streams — these are now accepted as birthrights.
The seven self-contained episodes released so far concern ancient forms of cruelty that have been updated, and exacerbated, by shows that resemble “American Idol” or by cameras that have been surgically inserted into the body, representing the next evolutionary step up from Google Glass. First-person shots reminiscent of video games, or films such as “Strange Days,” often convey the druggy pull of using devices that offer illusions of theoretically emboldening transparency and impermanence.
The second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” is one of the best. It features a televised talent show in which people submit to glib ridicule while attempting to win fame, which offers a pardon from the drudgery of pedaling corporately mandated exercise bikes every day. Merits are the monetary system, and characters can use them to buy food from vending machines that amusingly offer suggestions based on your choices. Yes, online marketing is officially inescapable. More pointedly, these merits can be used to buy the privilege of skipping the monstrously crass ads that play endlessly on monitors that engulf all environments, work and domestic alike.
The talent show resembles any of the programs that presently glut nighttime television. It also suggests a futuristic update of a witch hunt. Spectators, watching from home, are represented in the show’s auditorium by their avatars, chillingly reminiscent of cartoon characters from a Nintendo Wii. These cartoons survey the contestants, who’ve bought the right to compete by saving the titular amount of merits, impassively and resentfully. Brooker has modernized an Orwellian vision: Big Brother is now a series of corporations that have imprisoned us, distracting us from our dead ends by endlessly laundering our bitterness and selling it right back.
Technology, as a great instrument of exploitive emotional distancing, is the theme of every episode of “Black Mirror.” And, admittedly, the obsession grows repetitive, especially if binge viewing. “The Waldo Moment,” about a cartoon that inadvertently becomes a political symbol, reheats the best portions of “Fifteen Million Merits,” portraying subversion as impossibility in a society capable of co-opting anything with ever-widening efficiency. “White Bear” is compellingly brutal, but it revisits the game-show elements of “Fifteen Million Merits” with less surprise and escalating smugness.
But there are other high-water marks, such as the first episode, “The National Anthem,” and the recent feature-length anthology, “White Christmas.” The former is the show’s most striking illustration of how technology enables casually exploitive debasement, following a prime minister who must do something extraordinarily inappropriate with a wild pig to save a princess’s life. The beleaguered official’s travails are consumed online by the country’s citizens with a relish that’s familiar to anyone who has ever followed Twitter responses to the latest celebrity scandal du jour.
“White Christmas” is rich in chilling allusions to past episodes that gradually accumulate to yield one of the best and most consistent of all horror-anthology films. Featuring a sleazy Jon Hamm, “White Christmas” contains several nesting tales of holiday desperation that follow folks who allow blossoming new strains of media to metaphorically swallow them alive or render them anonymous, a result that’s ironic considering that anonymity was the condition from which they were seeking refuge. Christmas colors, particularly red, are splashed over the most violent scenes with a wicked sense of despairing humor. Everyone’s superficially connected, seeing everything and everyone at the expense of interpersonal vacancy.
While it all might sound a bit depressing, winter is the ideal time to catch up with this enraged and poignant exploration of the corporate advantages of lonely disenchantment. S