Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror has been an internet fave since it first launched in 2011, so it’s hardly surprising that with a third season just launched on Netflix, there’s been a lot of online chatter about his trademark grimly funny take on the future of social media.
It’s also not that surprising that not all of the talk has been positive: while the first two seasons and a Christmas Special only added up to seven episodes, this new season almost doubles that, with the six episodes also adding all new, not-Brooker writers and directors into the mix. So you’ve got the long-time fans saying it’s not the same now that outsiders are playing in the sandbox; you’ve also got the people who liked Black Mirror when it was a cool thing not everyone knew about who are slightly miffed that it’s now on Netflix alongside various Marvel series and loads of old movies.
There’s also been a backlash against the shows tried and true take on the future, in which developments in phones, social media, reality television and the like all turn out to be great ways to dehumanise ourselves and each other. Sure, not everything about technology is bad; on the other hand, having someone point out that the profit-driven march of technology just might kinda suck is a refreshing breath of fresh air in a world where being generally pro-technology is seen as the price of admission. But while they’re all valid reasons for people to dislike Black Mirror, my personal suspicion is that the big influx of disgruntled viewers in large part boils down to viewers coming to the show with expectations it was never going to meet.
Much as the show looks like a tech-savvy version of The Twilight Zone, its real origins lie in the 90s comedy work of UK genius Chris Morris. His often disturbingly plausible fake news shows The Day Today and (especially) Brass Eye tackled social issues with a seemingly straight-faced but thoroughly bizarre zeal. Often silly yet plausible developments in technology played a major part in his crazy scenarios – everything from “vertical farms” to “pervert mechanics” building a crude Iron Man-style suit so a crippled paedophile could continue to menace children.
Brooker was (and is) a huge Chris Morris fan, with his early books Unnovations and Tv Go Home clearly influenced by Morris, and they later worked together on Nathan Barley, another show that predicted the grim present of social media and constant observation (while also being very funny). So whereas a lot of viewers seem to expect Black Mirror to be straightforward extrapolation or twist-ending thrills like countless US anthology shows before it, a large part of the show’s DNA comes from making up bizarre yet plausible extensions of today’s technology and then having them play out for laughs.
Put another way, there seems to be a lot of talk about Black Mirror at the moment featuring people praising the first episode (“The National Anthem”) – the one where social pressure forces the UK PM to give in to kidnapper’s demands that he have sex with a pig on national television – for predicting our current shame-driven social media climate; there aren’t so many people praising it because having a politician have sex with a pig is, well… kind of funny.