Sunday, 21 January 2018

TV Review: Now in its fourth season, Black Mirror starts to show signs of losing its way



Contains Spoilers.

Black Mirror as a show has always been scattershot. Season One served up thrilling highs like "The National Anthem" but wrapped on the lacklustre "The Entire History of You", the show's second year peaks with the stunning "Be Right Back" but climaxes with the borderline disastrous "The Waldo Moment". Even the show's first Netflix-owned season suffered from a frustratingly yo-yo-esque quality, but in its fourth year Charlie Brooker's dystopian anthology appears to have arrived at the middling, less-than-favourable quality towards which its essentially been trending its entire run. Black Mirror Season Four isn't especially bad per se, but for the first time the show came hand in hand with a feeling of disappointment I always hoped it would avoid. Myself and Nathan take a look at each episode below.



USS Callister


Ryan: There really isn't much worse than a season of TV that peaks in its first episode, but that's precisely what Black Mirror Season Four does here. Not only is "USS Callister" far and away the best episode of this particular run, I'd even argue it ranks in the top five of the show's entire collection. There's something inherently thrilling about a show re-branding itself, and "USS Callister" gives off that impression - in multiple ways, it's entirely unique compared to everything else Charlie Brooker has given us. The performances here are exceptional, with Cristin Milioti relishing the opportunity to play dual roles, and the episode's structure and endgame frankly border on ingenious. It may not quite have enough plot to justify its feature length runtime, but "USS Callister" entertains in a way that the rest of this season, and the show overall, rarely does - despite the heavy themes at play, there's a lightness to this narrative. The stakes are high, and Brooker presents us with some dark stuff, but we find ourselves having fun watching it. Much like all the best Black Mirror stories, "USS Callister" serves up a handful of compelling questions but binds them to fully fleshed out characters that occupy their own interesting narrative, never getting bogged down in unnecessary evil. Someone tell that to the rest of the season.
Grade: A-

Nathan: Black Mirror’s fourth season premiere, the deliciously bold "USS Callister", is easily the show’s most ambitious to date and kicks off the season in a daring fashion. A space opera with Charlie Brooker’s typically dark twist, "USS Callister" revels in all its references and parallels to Star Trek, The Twilight Zone and more; both conforming and subverting, expecting the unexpected has never rung so true, and Brooker has clear fun throughout the episode, playing with his audience and genre conventions gleefully. His script is spiced with topical and timely themes of power, control and toxic masculinity, approached in a fresh and unique way that feels quintessentially Black Mirror thematically despite being unlike anything the show has ever endeavoured before tonally. Toby Haynes’ cinematic direction mixes the bleak with the hopeful, providing sharp visuals, gorgeous costumes and jaw-dropping production design; the art department has really gone to town here and the fruits of their labours are splashed across our screen so vividly and vibrantly. While the episode didn’t grab me straight away (probably because it’s slightly too long for its own good), it is the feature that has stuck in my mind the longest. It is the season’s strongest episode – almost by default, mind.
Grade: B+


Arkangel


Ryan: Placing "Arkangel" immediately after "USS Callister" may be the single worst creative decision the Black Mirror team have ever made. This certainly isn't the weakest episode the show has dropped, but there's an unavoidable sense of complacency to it - it's the very definition of been there, done that. What "Arkangel" doesn't do quite as successfully as its stronger counterparts, though, is character work. Mum Marie and Daughter Sara are as thinly sketched as Black Mirror characters come, Brooker forgetting to define them outside of the episode's new technological invention. We get little sense of who these people are, their actions and motives are never explored beyond surface level. "Arkangel" sets itself up to be classic, quintessential Black Mirror, but then forgets to actually put in the required groundwork to achieve such a status - interesting themes of privacy, youth and censorship pop up, but, feeling almost like the work of a semi-decent writer attempting serious fan fiction, the episode has very little to say about them beyond "these things are bad". It all results in a story that ticks off the right boxes but never coalesces them into anything particularly noteworthy. Jodie Foster's bleak direction is a treat for the eyes, but the episode's script sorely lets her down.
Grade: C+

Nathan: "Arkangel" is as Black Mirror as Black Mirror can be, and that’s where the biggest issues arise. Overly-familiar and (dare I say) uninspired, the second episode considers a variation on a technology we have already come into contact with; but in this form, the narrative is too thin to facilitate a profound exploration of its effects, and it struggles to make much of an impact. Despite some fine direction from the ever-talented Jodie Foster and the intriguing central concept at play (what if a parent could monitor and censor what their child comes into contact with), it is a shame that the substance isn’t there to support the vision. The comments on intrusion are palpable, if heavy-handed, and while it is interesting to see the mother-daughter dynamic play out (performed excellently, one might add), the actions of both characters are questionable, frustratingly one-note and unnatural.  Furthermore, it glosses over more interesting themes and elements – the sensitisation and desensitisation of violence and pornographic material, for example – for the helicopter-parenting route that feels predictable and rather basic for a show of this calibre and intellect. Rather than being a bad episode, "Arkangel" is just lacklustre – which, with Black Mirror, is more irritating than a bold and ballsy episode that ambitiously misses the landing.
Grade: B-


Crocodile


Ryan: Simply put: Black Mirror's "Crocodile" is an awful, awful hour of television. Its characters behave irrationally and without logic, even in the context of the dramatic events of the episode - Andrea Riseborough's performance is committed, but she can't hide how irredeemably fast Mia descends from guilty bystander to bonafide remorseless serial killer here. Worse than just serving up poor character decisions, though, "Crocodile" becomes a piece of television I thought Black Mirror was above. This episode should be a thoughtful exploration of memory, a look into the work of a guilty conscience, and an analysis of how long our own private thoughts will stay private for. Instead, it bypasses all of that in favour of gratuitous violence and a nonsensical bloodbath, never stopping to explore meaning or intent because it's too busy rushing off to the next brutal killing or dark plot twist - it's the very antithesis of what Black Mirror should be.

There's barely a real plot point in the episode, events just sort of lurch from one to the other as we're forced through it all without the faintest shred of character insight - much like "Arkangel", no one here has any identity or definition, and watching them is more of a chore than a challenge. That it all climaxes with maybe Black Mirror's most bizarrely illogical twist yet - which lands as a joke after a blind baby is slaughtered for no reason, by the way - is merely the final blow of an episode so woefully misjudged, so entirely pointlessly evil, that its very existence probably works better as an in-joke we're not privy to than an actual piece of fictionalised storytelling. Black Mirror can be evil, and it has been before, but it needs to be rooted in something. "Crocodile" is untethered from reality, drifting aimlessly in its own void with no real weight behind any of its actions. Quite frankly, it can stay there.
Grade: D

NathanArguably the most divisive episode in Black Mirror’s catalogue to date, "Crocodile" has provoked some extreme reactions across the spectrum. A few weeks after seeing the episode myself, I still remain utterly torn: there’s so much to admire, from the stunning Icelandic backdrop that intensifies the narrative frostiness, some excellently cinematic direction from John Hillcoat and a fantastic central turn from Andrea Riseborough; but, man, that final twist sure is bleak for the sake of being bleak. Tonally relentless and narratively predictable right up until it pushes it to the extreme as if to prove a point, Brooker’s script lacks both the subtly and balance to execute what could have been a fantastic idea: a near-future where we can record, replay and manipulate our memories to solve crimes and debunk fraud and deception.

"Crocodile" seems wholly constructed around the twist, rather than it arising naturally or authentically.  Riseborough sure is terrific playing a character the episode makes it very difficult to like, delving into Mia’s desperation that slowly rises until she well and truly snaps, opening the floodgates for an onslaught of brutality and violence that Brooker has slightly too much fun with and takes too far. The episode distributes its final shocks in the most unsatisfying manner, bound to leave an uncomfortable taste in most audience member’s mouths. It’s an episode I want to like – it falls right in-line with some of my favourite episodes of the show, including "Shut Up and Dance" and "White Bear" – but it goes one step too far in its need to shock. And with "Crocodile", Black Mirror may have finally used ‘Anybody Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’ to death – but it makes up for it with the genius usage of Bugsy Malone’s 'You Give A Little Love'. Damn, what a closing shot. Damn, I’m torn over this episode.
Grade: B-


Hang the DJ


Ryan: "Hang the DJ" isn't a truly great hour of TV, but it at least finds Black Mirror's heart and soul on display again. It doesn't help matters that this episode feels more of a "Remember how everyone loved 'San Junipero'? Yeah let's just do that again!" conversation than it does an original concept, but Charlie Brooker knows how to write a romance story. Amy and Frank (played winningly by Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) meet on a dating app, instantly fall for each other, but are separated by the app's determined expiry date for them. The events that follow are equal parts funny and moving, even if the episode lacks dramatic stakes - something only confirmed by its last minute twist, which works as an immediate pleasant surprise but loses power with every thought you give it post-viewing. "Hang the DJ" and its characters aren't hugely memorable like its Season Three counterparts were (Yorkie and Kelly were genuinely unforgettable) but the episode puts the pieces in place nicely enough for its ending to work and maybe even for tears to be shed. It's a perfectly pleasing episode of the show that knows what it wants to achieve and simply goes out there and does it, even if at the expense of real character depth and thematic content. In other words, it's effective enough in the moment, but the feeling probably won't last.
Grade: B+

Nathan: It’s clear what "Hang the DJ" wants to be: season three’s critically-acclaimed, pop culture-dominating, Emmy-winning "San Junipero", which remains one of the show’s very, very best. Unfortunately though, season four’s fourth episode (which even takes the same spot in the run as "Junipero") cannot recreate the zeitgeist-capturing magic and while the attempt is noble, providing a fun romp that examines online dating via a Spotify-type playlist, it fails to hit the clearly-desired mark. It’s an effective and well-performed piece, with Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole providing a lot of the episode’s heart and charm as lovers the Siri-like system appears to root against. The production design is solid and the world-building is strong, tonally nailing the monotony and repetition of the endless relationships our characters shuffle through, both emotional and comedic in their execution. Brooker nails the parallels with the modern dating world, and while some of the character exchanges come across as awkward sketches of the ‘standard’ millennial’s attitude, it remains fun and entertaining. While I find this episode slipping from memory more so than any other episode this season, it registers as one of the season’s better episodes – but that says more about the quality of the other episodes than it does of "Hang the DJ".
Grade: B


Metalhead


Ryan: "Metalhead" is a peculiar episode of TV to write about. It's tough to find much the episode does actively poorly, but that's mostly because the episode doesn't really do anything. The show's shortest episode to date, "Metalhead" is what happens when Black Mirror goes bare, feral even. We follow one unnamed woman as she runs to avoid being killed by a robot hunting dog after a botched trip to a warehouse. There's no emotion, no character development, no plot - and that's all okay. This is an episode that doesn't need any of that, but what we do get is still frequently underwhelming in how little it actually tries to do: the chase scenes get your blood flowing, but they rarely create a genuine thrill; the compact runtime is a refreshing change, but the episode still doesn't feel as tightly wound as perhaps it should; even the black and white aesthetic, which should be gorgeous, never really finds any great imagery, seemingly used mostly to cover up weak CGI. A classic really could've been made with "Metalhead", something this simple could border on ingenious, but instead it feels like another missed opportunity, never sparking its various small victories into a greater whole. Nothing here is bad, there just isn't much here.
Grade: B-

NathanIt’s clear to me what "Metalhead" is trying to do and say: the black and white visuals reaffirm the oppressive world devoid of hope or optimism in a post-apocalyptic setting – but does it really need to be so dull? Lacklustre and monotonous, with no real content or context to sustain it, this is Black Mirror at its most sluggish, in short supply of anything exciting enough to engage you. It’s ultimately one long chase scene; but you don’t know why she’s running or what she’s running from – other than a large metal dog hellbent on killing her for, erm, no apparent reason. Why are they trying to kill her? I’d love to know Brooker. A concealed backstory can often help install a sense of mystery (we can point to "Shut Up and Dance" as concrete proof of this), but here it simply feels lazy rather than enigmatic. The two-tone visuals create some decent imagery but there’s nothing particularly striking or special enough to justify the decision, other than to give the episode a talking point – something it would have otherwise lacked, unless you happened to be discussing the weakest episodes in Black Mirror’s folder. There’s minimalism and then there’s minimalism and here, there’s not even enough to sustain the show’s shortest ever episode. Totally underwhelming and disappointing, "Metalhead" is low-tier Black Mirror, even in its weakest season to date.
Grade: C+


Black Museum


Ryan: "Black Museum" is the only episode of Black Mirror I would call boring. Even when the show is bad, it usually has a certain flare to it that at least holds your attention, but "Black Museum" is running on fumes from the moment it begins. It's an anthology episode, like the brilliant "White Christmas", but none of the stories really work: a man who can feel other people's pain, leading to a sexual addiction; a woman who dies and is implanted into the mind of her widowed husband; a man convicted of murder who was turned into a hologram for a torture chamber inside the titular museum. The stories themselves are all too rushed to really take off, each comprised of fleeting ideas that wouldn't work as full episodes and so have suffered the "just condense them down to fifteen minutes!" treatment. As you'd expect, we lose pretty much everything that would make the stories interesting and are left with little more than "If this technology were to be invented, bad things would happen". Yeah, Brooker, we get it.

There's also the case of Black Mirror turning itself from an anthology show into one comprised of an extended universe, but even this is executed with little excitement. It's as if Brooker isn't fully committed to the idea, leaving his new path in the background so that it's present without him actually having to, y'know, write the thing. This season, and this episode in particular, feels like Brooker falling out of control over his show in multiple ways. His ideas are too short for full episodes yet he can't bare to let them go, but by using them here he squanders their potential and loses their intrigue. Even the concept of developing the extended universe - which, even if you disagree with the idea, should be pretty fun to watch come together - is blandly done. It eventually all builds to a commentary on racism, which should be powerful, but it's a case of too little too late and you'll probably have lost interest by then anyway. This is less Black Mirror, more Bland Filler.
Grade: C-

NathanAs the thought of a Black Mirror Extended Universe has settled in with distance to the episode that explicitly confirms it, I’ve become more and more against the idea and concluded that it represents Black Mirror in the last place you want to find it – fresh out of ideas and creativity. "Black Museum" – an anthology within an anthology - takes on the same structure as the show’s terrific seasonal special, "White Christmas", telling three interwoven stories in one; while the structure and masterfully-crafted outing thrilled and satisfied in "White Christmas", "Black Museum" feels rushed and forced, like three half-baked ideas haphazardly stuck together because there wasn’t enough content to sustain a full episode. Confirming an Extended Universe feels like the laziest thing the series could do at this stage, as rather than dropping small little Easter Eggs that please the die-hards without strapping passing viewers down, the whole idea of an inter-connected universe goes against the very thing Black Mirror has excelled with; crafting a pic-n-mic series with creativity and spontaneity in spades.

While the episode is visually stylish and well-performed by Douglas Hodge in particular, it is too sporadically and tenuously linked to gratify, letting Brooker have his cake and eat it, with no real reflection as to what the advancements can actually offer the series. Really, what is the point in an Extended Universe? What can it offer? I really don't know. "Black Museum" has frustrated me more with hindsight than it did in the moment and the series ends on a suitably bum-note, reflective of the season's dwindling quality, especially after such a terrific third run in 2016. Spoiler alert: the Black Museum goes up in flames at the end of the episode; maybe - and it truly pains me to say it - Black Mirror should do the same, at least for a while.
Grade: B-



In A Sentence


Ryan: Despite one early triumph and a midway burst of life, Black Mirror's fourth season lacks the inspiration, insight and ingenuity of its former years, resulting in a disappointingly scattershot and only fleetingly worthwhile set of episodes.
Grade: C+

Nathan: An underwhelming collection, Season Four marks the first time this once-genius series has run out of new ideas and has begun to re-cover old ground - Black Mirror needs to take a long hard look in the, erm, mirror. The future may not be so bright after all.
Grade: B-

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