Black Mirror is a British sci-fi anthology series most frequently compared to The Twilight Zone, although a more apt comparison would be The Outer Limits, given the hourlong format and focus on science fiction. Each season has three episodes, and each one is distinct, with no connections between them, not even cast. What ties them all together is their near-future settings and examinations of our relationship with technology: the titular black mirror is the screen we peer into, be it a television, a computer, or a smartphone.
All that I had heard was true. Black Mirror is fantastic. It's emotional, intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi with a richness of character and sharp, satirical wit that isn't found in most sci-fi movies today, let alone television. Black Mirror is fucking brutal, but it hurts so good. Each episode is terrifyingly plausible; as creator Charlie Brooker says, "they're all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy." Each episode forces you to think about who we are and where our society is headed.
Because each episode is entirely self-contained, part of the fun for me was not knowing what each episode was about. What the premise was, what the world was like, what kind of story I was going to be told. I've given this show my endorsement already, so if that's enough, fire up your client of choice (I don't know of any legal way to watch it online, although the first season is about to be released on DVD for $30, which is an absurd price for three hourlong episodes). If you need a little more convincing, let's dig into the six individual episodes.
"The National Anthem" is an odd start for the series, as it's the least sci-fi of the lot. It does, however, set the expectation that this series is going to go to some dark, fucked-up places: a princess is kidnapped—wow, this sounds more like a fairy tale—and the kidnapper's demand is for the Prime Minister to go on live television and commit an unthinkable act. The episode looks at the interplay between the media, social media, and politics, the power that public perception can have on political decisions. It's one of the more exciting, action-packed episodes.
"Fifteen Million Merits," a supersized episode, creates a dystopian future where reality shows rule. I had mixed feelings about the worldbuilding in this episode because it wasn't entirely clear to me how the world at large functioned like this, but I loved the way the episode slowly unfolds and lets you, the viewer, figure out how it works. It's meticulously constructed, down to the small details, and it's quite marvelous how fully realized it feels for a television episode (this is true of all Black Mirror episodes, but this one in particular requires a lot of sets and effects and such, as it's the one that least resembles our present). It feels more satirical than a realistic look at the future, but that doesn't lessen the emotional impact. (The main characters are played by Posh Kenneth from Skins and Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey; I never recognized actors from their other roles in this show because they were so different here.)
"The Entire History of You" is the show's best-known episode, thanks to Robert Downey, Jr., who bought the movie rights. In the future, people have an implant that records all their memories for easy access and playback. Certainly, there are many ways to tell a story with this technology—the movie will purportedly be a detective story—but Black Mirror chooses to examine how it affects human relationships. How does the ability to replay your job interview over and over affect how you feel about it? How does the ability to replay every single conversation you have ever had with your girlfriend affect her ability to fudge what she actually said? In the beginning of the episode, a seed of jealousy is planted, and it grows and escalates and mutates, all thanks to this wonderful technology. In the age of Google Glass, this is a must-watch.
"Be Right Back" is the most emotionally wrenching episode of the series, a meditation on grief and loss as well as a comment on online identity vs. personal identity. A woman loses her husband and is put into contact with a service that allows her to communicate with an artificially intelligent reconstruction of him. What I love about this episode is that she is always completely aware that the A.I. is not her husband; it's not that kind of story. The A.I. is alien and offputting, able to fake humanity only to a certain point, and it's one of the more interesting portrayals of A.I. I've seen. Even though she knows it's not really him, she can't let it/him go. Two fantastic performances in this episode—Black Mirror has consistently great acting, but this episode is a standout. I didn't even realize they were Peggy Carter and Bill Weasley until the end.
"White Bear" opens with a woman waking up in a room with no idea who she is or how she got there, and then she's being chased by a man who's trying to kill her. A classic setup. The Black Mirror twist is that not only is a man trying to kill her, but no one helps her because they're too busy taking pictures with their smartphones. She's trapped in a horror story that she doesn't understand, and neither do we, until we do, and holy shit. As in "Fifteen Million Merits," the worldbuilding strains plausibility a bit, but it makes an effective point. Plus, it features the delightfully named Tuppence Middleton. And Tyres from Spaced!
"The Waldo Moment" is generally regarded to be the weakest episode of the series, and I agree. It goes back to the political bent of "The National Anthem," this time using a raunchy animated bear character named Waldo to satirize the public's relationship with politics. Waldo appears on a comedy talk show (like The Daily Show, but British), and he begins to have a significant influence on a political race as the public embraces his no-nonsense, crude persona. Of course, Waldo is performed by a comedian with assistance from his producer: he's not real. But the public will take someone who's upfront about their not being real over a two-faced politician. As in most Black Mirror episodes, a small idea escalates over the course of the story, but it doesn't quite work in this one, and the ending isn't very satisfying. But it does feature Edmure Tully from Game of Thrones.
As you can see, Black Mirror tells very different stories about very different characters, including significant roles for women. It's only six episodes, with at least two more episodes coming in a third season, thankfully. If you are a fan of science fiction, you need to watch this.