Is Black Mirror Truly a Modern Twilight Zone?
You’ve surely gotten the memo by now. As a fan of The Twilight Zone, you’re supposed to be head over heels for Black Mirror.
Over the past few months, I’ve read hundreds of tweets like this. I have a column in TweetDeck for mentions of TZ, and for a while there, hardly a day went by without someone exulting over Black Mirror — which, fans assure us, is a modern-day version of Rod Serling’s classic series.
I wish I could join the chorus. Some people enjoy being contrary, but not me. I’d rather be here telling you it’s genius and you should watch it N-O-W. But I’ve watched the first two seasons, and I can’t.
I don’t mean the show is without merit. It’s well-produced, acted and directed. It has some intriguing storylines. But it’s no Twilight Zone for the 21st century. (Spoilers ahead.)
Sure, it’s an anthology with fantasy/sci-fi touches. But it’s also incredibly pessimistic, as one of the few dissenting tweets I saw pointed out:
Yes, TZ had its share of downbeat endings (hello, Henry Bemis). And it’s true that Serling didn’t shrink from showing us the dark side of human nature (“The Shelter” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” being two notable examples).
But one of the hallmarks of Serling’s writing was his faith in humanity. He didn’t leave us to wallow in misery — he kept encouraging us to be better. We don’t have to tear each other apart, he said. We can overcome suspicion and hatred.
And it worked. As we listen to his concluding narrations, we feel as if we want to try harder.
Black Mirror shows us the dark side as well. The problem is, it leaves us there.
Will a politician be forced into a session of televised bestiality, with the whole world watching? Will a sweet girl who just wants to sing be turned into another porn actress? Will a man consumed with jealousy over one of his wife’s ex-boyfriends resort to assault and humiliation in his quest to find the truth?
I could add more questions, but you get the point. Are the stories absorbing? Yes. They’ll pull you right along until the last frame — then leave you there, feeling battered. I never feel that way after watching TZ. So to hear Black Mirror touted as a modern version of it rings hollow to me, no matter how interesting it may be to watch a story about, say, implanted memory chips and their potential misuse.
Another advantage of an anthology is that you can enjoy a wide variety of stories. TZ took us far into the past and well into the future. It carried us to a variety of places and introduced us to many different types of people.
But Black Mirror keeps showing us the same kind of people in the same kind of future (far enough off that they have some tech we don’t have, but not far enough that the world looks wholly different). It all seems to be taking place in Britain in, oh, 2048.
And it keeps hitting the same theme: we’re all slaves to our devices. A fair point, but does that have to surface in practically every episode? TZ had some favorite themes, but at least they mixed it up from week to week. Serling even tried to make us laugh occasionally. Comedy was hardly TZ’s strong suit, but even the unfunniest TZ beats the blue cartoon bear in Black Mirror‘s “The Waldo Moment,” who blasts everyone with profane insults.
And as the questions above indicate, there’s a bit of a preoccupation with sex. Even if you think a “modern TZ” needs that (and I don’t), surely it’s possible to have an episode or two without it? Apparently not. Without that, and an abundance of R-rated language, our ADD-like attention spans will cause us to click away in no time, right?
That doesn’t mean we’ll be glad we stuck around. The curiosity factor couldn’t keep me from feeling ill at ease as the stories unfolded.
Take “Be Right Back,” in which a grief-stricken young widow is given a dubious gift: the ability to talk via email to her late spouse. No, it’s not a ghost; the technology of the day accesses his data and makes responses based on what he said while he was alive. The more data it can access, the more convincingly it can ape your loved one.
It graduates to phone calls and then to a pod-like person who is grown in the bathtub and walks around looking, talking and acting like the deceased. Even before we see the widow enjoying better-than-she-used-to-get sex with what is essentially a robot version of her husband, I was feeling unsettled.
She must feel that way too, because she eventually wants to get rid of it. Er, him? Anyway, she can’t quite bring herself to do it. So she keeps Synthetic Hubby in the attic, where he’s last seen being visited by the daughter conceived just before the real husband died. The end.
If that sounds like your cup of tea, tune in. But if you’re looking for a “modern-day Twilight Zone,” I wouldn’t recommend it. Black Mirror casts a dark reflection indeed.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress members can also hit “follow” at the top of this page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!