Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

Black Mirror used to be the real deal: a television show that brought us clever, scary satire about the brave new dystopic, over-technologized world that we are already living in. It was creepy; it was brutal in its exposure of human frailty in the face of technology’s encroachment on our sense of self and our personal relationships.  We are fast becoming–indeed, we already are–slaves to our technology in ways that are warping our moral and psychological being; we are changing, and not always in ways that are pleasant.

That old Black Mirror is no longer so–at least, if the first episode of the rebooted third season is any indication. (Netflix has made the show its own; six new episodes are on display starting yesterday.) In particular, the show has been ‘Americanized’–in the worst way possible, by being made melodramatic. This has been accomplished by violating one of the cardinal principles of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Season three’s first episode–‘Nosedive‘–takes our current fears about social media and elevates them in the context of a ratings scheme for the offline social world–complete with likes and indexed scores of social likeability based on instant assessments of everyone by everyone as they interact with each other in various social settings. See a person, interact with them, rate them; then, draw on your cumulative indexed score to score social benefits. Or, be locked out of society because your score, your social quotient, the number that reflects how others see you, is too low.

The stuff of nightmares, you’ll agree. Except that ‘Nosedive’ doesn’t pull it off. Its central character, Lacie Pound, a young woman overly anxious about her social ranking, commits to attending a social encounter that will hopefully raise her social quotient, thus enabling her to qualify for a loan discount and a dream apartment; but the journey to that encounter, and her actual presence there, is a catastrophe that has exactly the opposite effect. In the hands of the right director and writer this could have been a devastating tale.

But ‘Nosedive’s makers are not content to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. Instead, they beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing, largely by inserting two superfluous characters: a brother who seems to exist merely to lecture the young woman about her misguided subscription to current social media fashions, and a kindly old outcast woman–with a low social quotient, natch–who suggests there is more to life than getting the best possible ranking. These characters are irritating and misplaced; they drag the story down, telling us much that only needed to be shown, sonorously droning on about how the show is meant to be understood. It is as if the show’s makers did not trust their viewers to make the kinds of inferences they think we should be making.

The old Black Mirror was austere and grim; its humor was black. This new season’s first episode was confused in tone: almost as if it felt its darkness needed to leavened by some heavy-handed relief. I’ll keep watching for now; perhaps the gloom will return.

4 comments on “Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

  1. […] previous seasons are well worth checking out. As for the new season, it’s hard to tell (see this review from CUNY’s Samir Chopra). This old trailer for the show gives a sense of its theme and […]

  2. Brandon Beasley says:

    It appears that this first episode, while based on a story by Charlie Brooker (the show’s creator and writer), was written by two Americans. This may well explain exactly what you describe in your review. According to Wikipedia, Brooker wrote every other episode of this season (one of them is co-written), so perhaps those will be of the more familiar, and better, sort.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Thanks for the comment; yes, that’s what I’ve just been reading. It makes sense; I’ve heard the later episodes are better though episode 2 tried an old trick once too often.

  3. Ar says:

    I also think the 3rd season is a disaster, except maybe for the last two episodes though it again overexplains and “beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing”, the storytelling is just a bit better than the rest. However, I always thought the series were overrated. I mean, it has always been, to a certain degree, “beating us over the head with gratuitous moralizing”. Though the previous seasons managed to achieve much better cinematography and storytelling that wrapped show’s bluntness in a kind of subtlety and seeming profundity.

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