Black Mirror: a philosophical review

I’ve been a fan of Charlie Brooker’s work for almost fifteen years. When I was working a boring job in the civil service, it helped me to get through my day to read the fake Radio Times listings Brooker made under the banner of TV Go Home. After that came Nathan Barley, which remains one of the most insightful (and clairvoyant) black comedies ever to be made. I always thought it was a shame that only six episodes were made, and I would LOVE it if they made more.

These first two projects confirmed for me that Brooker was one of the leading satirists in the world today. What Brooker does, better than even Morris or Coogan, is satirise TV itself – the ‘society of the spectacle’, as Debord called it. Whether or not Mr. Brooker has ever read Debord, Zizek or Baudrillard, or not, his artistic output provides valuable food for thought for the critic of modern civilisation, and especially of its obsession with televisual entertainment.

I must admit I had mixed feelings about Screenwipe when I was introduced to it, late, around a year ago. I found it overall quite watchable, and there were numerous features that shone a light on some of the more absurd elements of TV programming (see the segment on ‘mission shows’ for a great example). But it also revealed that Brooker was not really the opponent of TV that I thought (and perhaps hoped) he was. Screenwipe is really about what Brooker finds bad about TV. He does not find it bad in and of itself, and in fact there are plenty of features where he praises the kind of endless story-arc drama series that I loathe the most.

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Black Mirror, though, is pure artistic gold, mixing humour, horror, dystopia, melodrama and philosophy. [SPOILERS AHEAD: watch the shows, then read my thoughts on them.]

The first episode, ‘The National Anthem’, is an unforgettable satire about the media, politics and pathos in which a British princess is held for ransom and will only be released if the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live TV. What struck me most about this episode was that the script moves incredibly fast, yet every line contains multiple nuances and references. The characters are also incredibly believable caricatures of real-life scumbags. Any show in which the only character that I’m left feeling sorry for is the PM’s wife has achieved something substantial just on that basis. This show is the only out-and-out ‘laugh out loud’ episode among the set of six, and provides a great introduction to the worldview of its creators.

The second episode, ’15 Million Merits’, which Brooker wrote with his talented and beautiful wife Kanak Huq, might well be my favourite ‘helping’ of all, a brilliant critique of the growing domination of virtualisation and technological democracy. The less I say about this one the better, really, except to say that if you only watch one hour of a TV show in the rest of your life, it should be this.

The third episode, ‘The Entire History of You’, is another brilliant exploration of technology, and reminded me of the novels of Philip K Dick. It is set in a world in which people’s entire memories are recorded and can be accessed by them at any point, so that most people in society are addicted to ‘redox’ – repeat viewings of moments they’ve already lived.

The fourth episode, ‘Be Right Back’, is also very reminiscent of Dick’s writings and concepts, about a woman who makes a clone of her dead husband by downloading into it his entire online ‘presence’.

The fifth episode, ‘White Bear’, is a cutting satire of public perceptions of justice, and a frightening vision – in the tradition of The Running Man – of what a world might look like in which state justice and televisual entertainment come together.

Things are brought full circle in the sixth episode, ‘The Waldo Moment’, by returning to the world of party politics, and by bringing a strong humorous element back into the mix. Though it also a subtle reminder that in the modern world, nothing is truly funny, or wholly tragic, or fully serious.

I recommend ‘Black Mirror’ to anyone with a brain that wants to find a TV program they can both enjoy and find thought-provoking.