I’m not sure how I feel about Black Mirror and I’m not sure how I feel about Charlie Brooker. Sure, Brooker’s a famously brilliant wordsmith whose acid-tongued rhetoric is a joy to read, and his television shows are always worth watching, but like his dystopian trilogy, there’s a twist involved.
Brooker explained the series thus: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
First episode The National Anthem was well-acted, subversive, well-written and uncomfortable for all the right reasons. It failed on only one point: it could never happen.
The premise is that the popular Princess Susannah is kidnapped and there is only one ransom demand: that the Prime Minister must have sex on live TV with a pig. The video of the ransom demand is uploaded onto Youtube and the drama shows how quickly such a news story can grip the attention of the world. The implications of his ridiculous dilemma are explored, and a range of options are explored in terms of rescuing the princess without the ritual humiliation of the nation’s leader. If you didn’t know anything about British history, it would all be frighteningly plausible.
Back in 1974, a strike brought down the government of Ted Heath, and politicians began to examine the power of the unions and consider how to prevent a repeat. A decade later, following some questionable decisions about mine closures, union leader Arthur Scargill bragged that he was “going to bring down the government”, to which Margaret Thatcher responded that giving in to the miners would be surrendering the rule of parliamentary democracy to the rule of the mob. The country was already in an impossible situation but this was a crippling ultimatum. The outcome was that the government chose to win at any cost, causing misery for the ordinary people caught in the middle. If you really want to see the ugly truth beneath the veneer of civilisation, it’s that the stability of this country – probably most countries – depends on doing the unthinkable. It’s why messianistic idealist Tony Blair so quickly developed grey hair and a coke habit (and that thousand-yard-stare of being forced to rescind any principles he might have had to begin with). It’s like the 1980 siege of the Iranian Embassy – no buggering about, the SAS just stormed in and shot everyone. (By sheer miracle, most of the hostages survived.)
So, basically, if “Princess Susannah” was kidnapped, the kidnapper and possibly the princess would wind up dead, and a suitable press release using the words “shocked and saddened” would be cobbled together while the whole debacle is covered up and spun as expertly as possible.
Other than that, The National Anthem was pretty good.
The concluding episode, The Entire History of You, was disappointingly average. It was a typical Outer Limits type story about people with implants that constantly record audiovisual information and play it back on demand – enhanced memories – a concept that has been explored in everything from Strange Days to Red Dwarf.
It was the middle part, 15 Million Merits, that was the most interesting tale. In a near future, everyone works as electricity generators, cycling on stationary bikes to generate power. They earn credits (“merits”) through this, and for watching endless adverts projected onto their workstation screens or the walls of their dormitories. They can spend the credits on junk food, pornography, or costumes for their Wii-style avatars. Or, they can spend them on entry to an Idol-style talent show, which is the main form of entertainment for this slave-like population, and their only hope of escape.
Bingham Madsen is one such worker who has a crush on his colleague, Abi. He encourages her to enter the show and pays the extortionate entry fee himself. After the events of her audition – which I won’t spoil for you now – he enters himself to exact revenge.
Confronted with the grotesque, cruel judges, Bing launches into a tirade. Though ably portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya, he is pure Charlie Brooker. Every vitriolic syllable is of the pure acid gold that Brooker spews out every week in the Guardian.
The thing is that, like Bing, Brooker is a fake. He rants endlessly about the injustice of the property market, but he married a slum landlady, Konnie Huq, who exploits her tenants. He rants against unfairness while his wife abuses her position on television for personal gain. Sure, he is not his wife – but when I emailed him once asking if he had anything to say – any comment that might restore my confidence in him – he didn’t respond. He’s happy to talk the talk, but ultimately he’s just another hypocrite.
Intriguingly, the episode was co-written by Konnie Huq. Perhaps it’s a confession of sorts: they know they’re terrible people who’ve gone against all of their professed beliefs in pursuit of personal wealth. Even knowing what we do about them, we’ll continue to consume and enjoy what they deliver, because somehow its value is not undermined by that knowledge. They know what we know – that the real black mirror is that ultimately we don’t care enough to stop watching.