The Mind-Numbingness of Black Mirror

I remember being flabbergasted and mesmerised by The National Anthem - the very first episode of Charlie Brooker’s surreal and maddening piece of art that we call Black Mirror. It took me a while to understand why it was called that, and the revelation hit me like a brick. The idea of calling a screen ‘black mirror’ because it reflects your image is not just genius on the surface but is also a teaser for the show’s intention: to tell you about yourself through technology. It is exceedingly difficult to watch the show one episode at a time. Black Mirror is discomforting due to the darkness in its content; dark enough to send any brain on a whirlwind spin. It is potent, razor-sharp, and brilliantly critical of the ways in which we abuse technology. If I ever had a horror recommendation for someone, movie or TV show, Black Mirror was what I would first go with.

It isn’t the first time that Charlie Brooker has scathingly criticised technology. He previously wrote Deadset - a show where a zombie apocalypse breaks out in the Big Brother (or as Indians call it, Bigg Boss) house. It is often called a precursor to Black Mirror. He’s also hosted How TV Ruined Your Life, and TVGoHome - very self-explanatory titles about his disdain for reality television’s outlandish premises. That is not to say he hates everything about mainstream media. He is quite the pop culture and video game buff, having hosted shows on both. Black Mirror was the culmination of all of his thought processes from earlier shows. It was prophetic and innovative, and told us things about ourselves we did not wish to hear.

That is not a problem, as long as you do not become the very thing you had hoped to destroy. Black Mirror was picked up by Netflix after two seasons and one Christmas special, and since then, it has run on for three seasons with one groundbreaking style of narration in the form of the interactive film, Bandersnatch. Undoubtedly, it gave us too much to think about again; the power of technology to affect relationships, rattle politics, reveal sexual subtext, create near-dystopian scenarios with social credit scores, prove that free will is a myth, and show how the head of a state can be blackmailed into having sex with a pig are on full display in this show. Surely, many would agree that, of late, the episodes have been lacklustre as compared to the first few seasons. However, that isn’t my concern here, because there is still enough food for thought in those episodes. I’m concerned with why we find them lacklustre and the entire culture that has formed around the show.

Since Netflix acquired the rights to Channel 4 production, one might have noted a growing anxiety in people to want the streaming giant to release one more season of the show. It ends too quickly for viewers, partly because of the binge-watching culture that has engulfed the experience of Black Mirror. Irony kicks in strong here. We are willing to subject ourselves to the control of technology because it has us hooked like a tight fishing rod. Sure, you get quite a lot to think about, but you end up not realising the ridiculousness of what you are doing. Black Mirror then becomes a show about how much it can surprise and shock you, which, in all fairness, it continues to do in cruel and sometimes gruesome ways. But the real question remains, to what extent have we been able to grasp what those episodes imply about the future or the present. This is also where the discomfort attached to the show matters. Black Mirror is not here to spare your feelings, it is unafraid of destroying the lives of all the protagonists in a single stroke, after around 40 minutes of intense build up. How does one watch so many episodes of gruesome emotional intensity and brutal philosophies, all in one go? It contributes to the culture of incessant, mindless consumption of pop culture, without a pause. Our willingness to consume such uncomfortable subject matter with such ease and speed is indicative of how much we have let pop culture consume us, instead of the other way round. Brooker himself said that bingeing the show is like getting hit by a car, and that’s just one season worth of episodes. One might even argue that Black Mirror, like all else, is just a show and it isn’t meant to convince or change status quo vastly. However, it feels really preachy, especially once you consider Charlie Brooker’s own beliefs. He wants to sell to us why our increasing reliance on technology won’t get us too far.

What I also find discouraging is the idea of Netflix backing this show. It’s a terrible idea to pressurise your content creators to churning out further content. I believe that is, in part, why the show has been declining in quality lately. Netflix is still trying to find footing in this vast market that has now been opened up due to the entry of giants like Disney and WarnerBros, not to mention the existence of Amazon. It’s trying its hardest to keep subscribers hooked by releasing new series and films continuously. In the midst of companies taking back their content from Netflix, to host on their own sites, Netflix has no choice but to create a niche of its own as soon as it can, like HBO, which is perceived by many as one of the best content producers. A glaring example of this strategy’s volatility was when Netflix purchased streaming rights to Friends for $100 million. Months later, this year, Warner Media took the rights back when they announced the entry of their own streaming site. Netflix has progressed in that sphere very well - originals like Orange Is The New Black, Narcos, House of Cards, etc. have carved their own space in the internet sphere. However, at the end of the day, Netflix is run primarily on data analytics, and every operation is based on that concept. While it’s the right way to go about understanding your audience, increasing competition may worsen the pace at which it wants to expand. 

Why does this strategy have such a paramount effect on a show? It’s because of the resources that Netflix has put in for just this show alone. Before a season launch, it would release a trailer for every single episode, which isn’t the usual practice. A heavy marketing campaign will then follow, for engagement with users on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook; something Netflix is really good at because it has humanised itself by replying to comments. Under Channel 4, Black Mirror was relatively obscure. Now, it’s Netflix’s marquee signing. More funds also mean more high-profile celebrities act in the show, some of which include Miley Cyrus and Jodie Foster. It also means smarter programming, like the choose-your-own-adventure Bandersnatch. However, the flip side of this means that time doesn’t wait for quality, or the overall delivery of the message.

With escalating technological developments, there’s no way to tell whether we will really use virtual reality or artificial intelligence the way the show depicts. Black Mirror is definitely a glimpse of the most vulnerable tendencies of the human mind, because behind all the gizmo, it’s really a show about what it means to be human and not about the hi-fi stuff itself. Unfortunately, in the millennial age, we’re losing our human connections, and Black Mirror is just being co-opted into this stream of unconsciousness that includes being stuck to some form of a screen. The show is prophetic for sure, but is it going to impact how we approach technology? The use of apps like FaceApp by a population unaware of the privacy policy or the unwanted potential of machine learning, does not bode well for this question. We will no doubt have more seasons of Black Mirror in the future, which will be different than the previous ones. Despite all the meta-level, self-aware marketing Netflix might do when it parodies itself as being part of the Black Mirror universe, we all know what it really means. We’ll just absorb more of it with gleeful abandon.

Do we really need another screen to tell us not to be hooked to one?


Pranav Manie

I'm an economics undergrad at Hansraj College. Love talking about all kinds of pop culture, love to know about what's happening in the world.

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