Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Mirror (Season 3)

Black Mirror is a "speculative fiction" anthology show.  I have written about it before.  Netflix, recognizing the brilliance of the first two seasons produced by the BBC, has ordered another series of shows -- in this case, thirteen episodes.  (The BBC-produced shows had only six programs per season).  I'm not sure the high quality of the show can be sustained across 13 episodes -- this will remain to be seen.  So far I have seen three episodes -- one was frightening but routine, one brilliantly realized but shallow, and a third a nasty kind of classic. 

The frightening but routine show, Gametest, is formulaic and predictable.  An American kid goes on the lam from an unhappy household and travels around the world. He ends up down and out in London where he meets a friendly, and generous, young woman.  The boy gets into a romantic relationship with the girl and, then, runs out of money.  She urges him to take a temporary job testing a new computer game that is under development at a tech company improbably occupying a manorial house in the suburbs.  The boy has played some of the company's games and so he is enthusiastic about the gig.  Reporting to the sinister country mansion, the hero meets an inscrutable Japanese CEO and his factotum, a fat Jamaican girl.  They tell the young man that they are going to subject him to a test -- a game that operates by contriving an adventure out of the player's deepest fears.  (If you get a chance to play a game like this, I recommend that you demure -- a weakness in this show is that it is inexplicable why anyone would agree to the test that comprises that last half of the show).  Needless to say, the hero finds himself half-insane with terror when the game dredges up terrible stuff from his subconscious and makes him interact with it.  There are some horrific special effects and I thought the program was too frightening and gory (and not witty enough) to be entertaining.  In keeping with the clever dystopian nature of the TV show, the young hero's most terrifying apparition turns out to be closely related to his dilemma at home, the same dilemma from which he fled to travel around the world and, so, the program makes the point that shadowy assassins and huge drooling spiders are scary, but not as scary as effects churned up from bad relationships with family members.

Nosedive is bright, pastel-colored satire about the need that people have to be "liked" on social media.  In this show, a world is imagined that is segregated by castes determined on the number of "likes" that you can amass.  Everyone carries a cell-phone and uses it to "like." and rate, everyone else.  The conventional heroine needs to have a rating of 4.5 to be considered for an apartment that she desires.  (She starts out as a 4.2.)  The heroine contacts an old girlfriend, who is a 4.7, and finagles an invitation to the woman's upcoming wedding.  Her scheme is that she will deliver an inspiring toast at the wedding, get "liked" by people who are themselves highly ranked, and improve her status.  Unfortunately, things deteriorate for her at the airport where she is not allowed to board the crowded plane -- her seat has been given to a 4.3.  This leads the heroine to abuse the gate agent -- she is docked a full point for her obscenity by TSA personnel and finds herself demoted to a 3.2.  Attempting to rent a car, she learns that the premium vehicles are reserved for 3.5 or better and, so, she is given a little electric Smart-car that turns out to be missing an adaptor and so can't be charged.  The girl ends up hitchhiking to the wedding in her increasingly bedraggled maid-of-honor dress.  After falling in the mud, the girl reaches the wedding late and tries to deliver her speech but is ejected because by this point her ratings have dived to less 1.8.  Dragged away to jail, she shrieks obscenities at an African - American prisoner -- instead of "liking" everyone in the hope of being "liked" in return, she now heartily "dislikes" her fellow prisoner.  But both of them seem happy to be honest at last and there is something congenial about their mutual insults.  The show is a shallow critique of a shallow phenomenon, brilliant and nightmarishly realized, but without a while lot of substance.  (The program's co-writer was Rashida Jones, an actress who first appeared on Parks and Rec and one of the daughters of Quincy Jones.) 

The terrifying Shut up and Dance involves a young man who uses his laptop to masturbate to pornography.  The laptop has been hi-jacked by some unknown (and never revealed) hackers who immediately promise to post a video that the computer has shot of the boy's masturbation to all of his contacts -- including his employer and mother.  In order to avoid this outcome, the young man agrees to follow the commands of the hackers.  These commands put him in contact with an older man who is being similarly blackmailed because of this attempt to hire a hooker on the internet.  The blackmailers make increasingly vicious and savage demands including forcing the young man and his accomplice to rob a bank -- the kid is so terrified that pisses in his pants during the robbery.  The boy ends up in a lonely woods atop a hill, monitored by a sinister drone, and commanded to fight to the death with another victim of cyber-blackmail.  All of  this is shot in relentlessly realistic style, the various cyber-blackmail victims rushing wildly about town to meet arbitrary deadlines imposed by the blackmailers.  The show is brutal about the way that people can be shamed and humiliated by the computers that they use -- it's a variant on Black Mirror's trademark, program, the horrific The National Anthem in the first episode in which social media and the kidnapping of a royal force the prime-minister of Britain to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live TV.  The program's plausibility and it's technique of ratcheting up the dread factor as the cyber-blackmailers' demands become more and more cruel is the stuff of nightmares.

All of these programs were excellent -- one is classic.  The question whether Black Mirror can sustain this level of achievement. 

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