Black Mirror: “Nosedive”/”Playtest”

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By Shannon Fox, @shannonfox

 

Note: If you haven’t watched the series, feel free to read ahead: there’s no real spoilers in this review!

 

It’s a big ol’ cliché to say “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, particularly when it comes to television shows. I mean, of COURSE they don’t– look how different the world is from just how it was in the 90s, you know? And besides, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing that television shows have drastically evolved over the years: they are calling this the “Golden Age of Television”! However, I totally understand that there’s some shows that have left an impression for years, and we wish that we could find another show that makes us feel similar things to one that has disappeared into TV’s past.

 

Take “The Twilight Zone”, for example. The fact that the annual New Year’s marathon STILL attracts so many viewers (I mean, even Syfy has added other ones throughout the year) proves how much that show continues to affect people, even in a world of color television and popular horror shows. But it was THAT good, you know? It was THAT creepy and THAT original. It’d be hard to replicate such a iconic series, and honestly? I’m not sure that anyone should try. Mainly because we have enough remakes and reboots that don’t really work in entertainment already, but also because I don’t think ANYTHING could get as close to a modern-day “The Twilight Zone” as “Black Mirror” does.

 

“Black Mirror” is a British television series created by Charlie Brooker (if you’re an American into British TV, he also co-created “Nathan Barley”, another great series) that premiered in the UK back in 2011. It was thankfully brought to Netflix last year so we yanks could finally be graced with its genius. The third season of the series just premiered on Netflix last month.

 

But what is it? “Black Mirror” is an anthology series (i.e. every episode has a completely separate story and cast) about technology. More specifically, the dark side of technology. In its first two seasons, the show explored everything from the voyeuristic aspects of social media to reality competition programs. It’s so much more than it sounds, but I’m not willing to spoil the experience of watching it, so I’ll just say this: just watch the first episode. The brilliant WTF-ness of the show is immediate and jarring.

 

Anyway, I was a bit nervous about the new season. Most British shows that get “Americanized” aren’t so great (even “The Office” had to become a very different show from the original to succeed here). But apart from a bit more American actors in the cast, not much is different. And thank god for that.

 

The first episode of this new season is called “Nosedive”, and it stars Bryce Dallas Howard (from Jurassic World, among other things). It’s the only episode of the new series that wasn’t written by Brooker, but by Rashida Jones (ANN PERKINS!) and Mike Schur (creator of “Parks & Recreation”). Random, right? To give you a non-spoilery synopsis, Lacie Pound (played by Howard) is a young woman who is determined to advance her “approval rating” in her life. In this future reality, all people have a Yelp-esque app embedded into their every day life; all interactions are rated, including pictures and status updates.  When she sees that an old friend, Naomi (played by Alice Eve, of “Star Trek” fame), has a higher rating, she hopes to reconnect with her to boost her numbers. There’s also an awesome appearance by Cherry Jones (probably most known for “24”).

 

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Honestly, this wasn’t my favorite episode of “Black Mirror”, but I think it’s because the secondhand embarrassment/discomfort level was SO high, which is exactly the point. The episode nails society’s obsession with apps like Instagram and public image, though. It was also fascinating to me that the people who brought us “Parks & Rec”, a show with probably the highest amount of likable characters in the history of television, could write an episode with such UN-likable characters.  Seriously, Lacie is a TRAINWRECK.

 

But let’s move on to the second episode, “Playtest”, which is basically “Black Mirror” at its creeptastic, “WHAT IS HAPPENING” best. This one, written by Brooker and starring Wyatt Russell (who I SWORE had to be Tyler Labine’s brother or something, but he is not; you may know him from 22 Jump Street), focuses on virtual reality and horror video games. Cooper (played by Russell) leaves home to go backpacking around the world. To make some extra money, he volunteers to be a guinea pig for some new products/technology from a video game company that specializes in the horror genre.

 

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I don’t know what I can say about this episode without giving too much away, other than it MESSED ME UP. You will NEVER know what is going to happen next, especially in the last act of the episode.  Do not watch this one right before bed, like I did. Good LORD.

 

But it’s a perfect example of why “Black Mirror” can be SO freakin’ disturbing: all of the situations and technological advances are just feasible enough to believe that they could actually happen (and some of them actually HAVE, to a certain level, since the show premiered. Which is even scarier). Brooker is consistently able to highlight the darkest parts of not only humanity, but of this technological age, from obsession to paranoia to disconnection and back. The closer each episode is to reality, the more frightening each one becomes.

 

It’s a brilliant series, and I can’t wait to watch the remaining episodes, even if it kind of feels like watching a preview of an impending, bleak future.

 

All three seasons, plus a Christmas special, of “Black Mirror” are available on Netflix.


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