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. serling89He 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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook 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!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 05/07/2015, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I can back you up 100% when you say that this show is NO Twilight Zone. After watching it, I seriously can’t believe that SO many people have compared this to TZ. To me, Black Mirror is actually the anti-Twilight Zone, if you think about it. As you said, the biggest difference between the two is that Serling makes it very clear in TZ that life isn’t hopeless. That mankind can learn and change and do/be better. Every single episode of Black Mirror left me feeling like everyone on earth is just doomed to be miserable clods for all eternity. All of us destined to fail again and again. Each of us cursed to die sad and alone. I think there’s something really wrong with a show that leaves you feeling like you’ve just been beaten to a bloody pulp. That’s not entertainment. Nor is it something that has a good message; a message of encouragement or hope.

    A lot of people have pointed to that “weirdness” factor that TZ had. But I think to them, ANY weird anthology show would qualify as the new incarnation of TZ. I would argue that the whole thing that sets TZ apart from all other shows in the first place is how Serling makes it NOT weird. He brings these incredible stories into the real world and makes them completely relatable. You watch The Outer Limits and you’re like, “Huh, well this could never happen in real life.” Yeah, it’s weird and entertaining, but it has no substance. Nothing tangible to grab on to. TZ is the opposite. When we’re flying along on Flight 33 and suddenly TIME TRAVEL, it somehow “feels” real. You never get that sense of “Well THIS could never happen!” No, what makes it so great is that it DOES feel like it could happen and it scares the pants off of you when you think about it!

    The only episode of Black Mirror that I came close to enjoying was “The White Bear”. When we finally understand what’s going on, at first it seemed like a satisfying dose of justice. (And you know how much I enjoy TZ episodes like Deaths-Head Revisited.) But then… then they took it too far. The innocents who were punishing the guilty turned into something just as bad. They became filled with bloodlust and consumed by hatred. And once again we’re left feeling like crap. Moral: Even when we do the “right” thing? It’s actually wrong. Because we’re a hopeless race of animalistic monsters and we will ALWAYS do the wrong thing. Ugh. Thanks a lot.

    So, bottom line? Black Mirror is NOT the new TZ. Black Mirror isn’t even fit to clean the Twilight Zone’s toilet. Yeah, it has its merits, which you more-graciously-than-it-deserves point out, but this is not a feel-good show by any stretch. I too am glad I watched it, but I needed a strong palate cleanser when I was done. And what was the perfect choice to rid myself of all that filthy pessimism? Why, the Twilight Zone, of course! What else? :)

    • Thanks — really glad you found this post so appealing! There’s little I can add that we both haven’t already said, but one thing comes to mind. It was how Buck Houghton, the producer of TZ for the first three seasons, reacted to the sets for the “It’s a Good Life” segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Noting how bizarre everything looked, he basically remarked, “They still don’t get it.”

      In short, yes, to too many people, Twilight Zone = Weird Story. They get distracted by the surface elements and forget to delve into why the stories worked. It just goes to show how fortunate we all were that Serling came along when he did.

      We NEED hope. As human beings, we’re hard-wired for it, no matter how bad things get. Serling knew that, and he spent his whole career giving us that in the form of entertaining stories. And as one of my Twitter followers noted, his was the generation that lived through WWII, while today’s depresso-holics have a bleak outlook … why, really? No reason. No good one, anyway.

      And of course you know the best way to cleanse the mind after watching Black Mirror: with a dose of TZ! Time to drop in a disc and hit “play all,” I say. :)

  2. Hmmmm, I was feeling bad for rewatching the DVDs – not so much anymore. Thanks Paul. You hit on a variety of things I don’t want to see. Top amongst them is depressing episodes back to back.

  3. Dale M. Haskell

    I’d never heard of BLACK MIRROR til reading this post. I may check it out on Netflix, but every creepy anthology program is compared to the Twilight Zone. It’s a lazy, knee jerk reaction. As for the opinions of Steven King, this is the man who didn’t think TZ was all that anyway and negatively compared it to Jack Finney’s THE THIRD LEVEL — yes, a weekly show was less consistent than a one off book in his estimation.

    • Good point, Dale. Unfortunately, King’s tweet got a lot of attention from people who don’t know that. In any event, you can see that you’re not missing much. The latest pretender to the throne is no more successful than its predecessors!

  4. Wow, never heard of this. Huh. Don’t like depressing work at all. Good post.

    • Thanks, Frank. Yeah, I don’t mind hard-hitting stories, but on the whole, I want to be uplifted. If I want to be depressed, I’ll watch the news!

  5. I am glad you weighed in on this. I haven’t yet seen “Black Mirror” and was worried I was really missing out on something. Sounds like maybe not so much! I might still check it out sometime (though far less inclined now, having read your description), but not for fear that I am missing a “modern Twilight Zone.”

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Mike! If you watch it, yeah, don’t expect a new TZ, and you should be fine. Just balance it with some TZ, and you should be fine. Or better yet, just steer clear!

  6. Dale M. Haskell

    I watched all episodes of Black Mirror and while I have no interest in comparing it to TZ or anything else, I found the show extremely relevant, perhaps even prescient. That may be the reason for its unpleasantness. As a weary cynic, I no longer entertain hope (even for drinks) and can all too easily imagine such future scenarios for humanity. BM is about the deadening, soul-destroying effects of technology and media on a race that understands neither balance nor itself. It leaves a bad taste, but I can’t deny points were made.

    • Thanks, Dale. I can’t deny points were made either, and I agree that the effects of technology and the media can indeed be quite negative. We SHOULD be worried about it, and really think about what we’re doing to ourselves. I have no problem dwelling on that. My problem is leaving it there.

      We saw people behaving very badly on TZ, from Maple Street to the farthest reaches of space, but what impressed me about Serling (a man who had far more reason to be a cynic than any of us) was how he kept reminding us that we can, and should, be better.

      It’s easy to give up. Real heroes keep trying when the rest of us want to throw in the towel and just be bitter (and I can go there far too easily myself, so I get it!). That’s why I admire Serling’s efforts to set us all on a higher path. He’ll always be a hero to me for that.

      • Dale Haskell

        Well, there were times when even the characters in the TZ were left with little — “The Shelter” comes to mind. There was a bracing word from Serling at the end but the characters were clearly undone by the experience, their relationships perhaps forever destroyed. I agree with your basic point but don’t personally require nurturing from storytellers. I’m responsible for my state of mind. I can’t say I even like BM, but certain aspects of it hit home. Thanks for your post.

  7. “Darker, more disturbing, and with more technology & sex than the original,” Black Mirror seems to have more in common with the Canadian remake of “The Outer Limits” series than the Twilight Zone.

    I think Wendy briefly alluded to this as well.

    9:51 PM – 16 Feb 2015

    • Agreed. It may seem like a “modern TZ”, but only if a viewer doesn’t look too closely. Philosophically, the two shows couldn’t be more different.

  8. I think that so many people are desperate for a TZ-like show, they will liken anything even remotely akin to it…this show is certainly entertaining (I’ve watched them all so far), but they leave, almost without exception, a sense of hopelessness both in the story and in the viewer. This would be the death knell for almost any show, but the stories are so consistently interesting and engaging that you forget from show to show just how depressing they are…almost like all those songs from your youth that you sang the words to that were about sex or drugs that you never knew and kept singing anyway. Serling WAS always hopeful about the future and comforted us at the end of each show. Today, sadly, unlike almost any time in history, there appears to be NO optimism for the future as in years past. The show is presciently reflecting the times we currently live in, and Brooker has even stated words to that effect. If you look at the most popular shows on TV, from “The Walking Dead” to MR. ROBOT, it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. Welcome to our world, 2016.

    • Yes, when I complain about people calling it a “modern TZ”, I can’t really take issue with the “modern” part, unfortunately. The name of the game now is material that is “dark” and nihilistic. But that’s the easy way out. Anyone can write a downbeat ending and congratulate himself on how great his work is. As the great Richard Matheson once said, it takes talent to end a story well without being corny. I guess the problem is that it takes real talent to do that, and for the most part today, we lack that. We need a Serling more than ever.

  9. Paul, I’ve never seen Black Mirror. I will have to watch a few episodes. Maybe it’s the R rating King mentioned that attracts people. The Twilight Zone didn’t need that.

    • It certainly didn’t. I think the real problem is that everyone thinks you have to have those elements to succeed today, and so it becomes self-reinforcing. What’s really missing is someone of Serling’s talent.

  10. Nicely done, with some great points. The original Twilight Zone is my favourite show of all time. My friends know this, which is why Black Mirror was suggested to me. Although some parallels are there, I’m sure BM seems more like tTZ only if you’ve barely watched tTZ.

    • Thanks! And yes, good point. The parallels are strictly on the surface. This tends to happen every time there’s a new anthology, or a movie or show with a twist — it’s described as a “modern TZ”. Which is a compliment, sure, but still.

  11. Victor De Leon

    Great post and even though I’ve enjoyed the feedback, discussions, debates and acknowledgements to TZ from fans of BM, I cannot, either, goes as far as to say its a modern take on Serling’s iconic entertainment. I do like BM, very much though, and as you mentioned, it does have merit, but the outlook and flourishes are deeply and profoundly different. I have yet to even watch all of the eps of BM because I can only take those bleak entries into downsville in small doses. Kudos to the show, though, for provoking discussion, at least.

    • Thanks, Vic! I know what you mean about the need for small doses. I’m not sure how anyone manages to BINGE Black Mirror, even its most die-hard fans. And I watched the first two seasons twice, I might add.

      I’m sure my antipathy for it wouldn’t be as strong if people weren’t constantly passing it off as a modern TZ. They’re both sci-fi/fantasy anthologies, sure, but beyond that, they’re poles apart in terms of approach. Even the endings tend to lack much in the way of surprise; I found many of them ending pretty much the way I expected. There’s a set-up, it develops … it ends.

      It’s a shame, too, because BM does have its moments. “White Bear” is probably my favorite of the first two seasons (one of the few genuinely surprise endings). But when even fans are telling you not to start with episode one? That ought to tell you something. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      • Victor De Leon

        White Bear, of the ones I’ve seen, is the one ep that has resonated with me the most. The others have either predictable or appropriate endings that are rather conventional and not in any way comparable to the twists and thought provoking endings that Serling provided. I will let you know once I’ve finished all of the BM eps!

      • Sounds good, Vic! I’m sure you’ll turn it into an interesting blog post.

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