Monday, 11 February 2013

TV Review | Black Mirror, Series 1 (2011)

With the second series of Black Mirror due to start tonight on Channel 4 in the UK, along with the news that Iron Sherlock himself Robert Downey Jr. has bought the movie rights to the episode The Entire History Of You, now seems like the perfect time to revisit the original 2011 trilogy of episodes (of course, I couldn't know that RDJ would secure the rights to an episode today, but the timing was too perfect not to mention it here). Black Mirror is the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, known to some as that angry bloke who moans about stuff in The Guardian, and to others as that angry bloke who moans about stuff on BBC3. And whilst a bile-fuelled tirade from Brooker is entertaining, it's in his perceptive and satirical scripts that Brooker shows his most exquisite talent. Nowhere has this been more apparent yet than in Black Mirror.

Brooker himself has stated that "the 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone." However, the title is open to multiple interpretations, with an almost certainly intentional ambiguity. What each of the three episodes, connected through neither narrative, character nor universe, sets out to do is reflect the very worst that humanity can be, or could very easily become. The series holds a mirror up to us as inhabitants of the 21st Century and shocks us, even shows us something we dislike, but at the same time grips us and draws us in because so much of what we see is uncannily, uncomfortably familiar.

The series opens with an episode cryptically titled The National Anthem, focusing on the kidnap of Princess Susannah, a young and popular member of the royal family, and her kidnapper's demand for her safe release: the prime minister, Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) must have sexual intercourse with a pig live on TV. It's arguably the series' most unsubtle concept, but what unfolds following the "in media res" opening is one of the most tightly scripted and performed political dramas seen in recent times. With echoes of the likes of The Thick Of It and The West Wing, the entire scenario is played out with palpable tension and a genuine "race against time" feel, and the ending is truly haunting in its moral. The performance from the entire cast led superbly by Kinnear as PM is comprehensively highly polished, giving the series an incredibly strong opening.

We move from the parallel yet unsettlingly familiar world of the first episode to a dystopian future with some disturbingly recognisable echoes in episode two, Fifteen Million Merits. This is the story of Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), a resident of a facility where everyone must pedal every day on exercise bikes to power their surroundings and earn "merits", a virtual currency. When Bing meets new resident Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) and hears her sing, he offers to buy her a ticket to enter "Hot Shots", a talent show in the X Factor mould - an action which doesn't have the positive outcome Bing hoped for. Once again, the performances from the main cast is excellent, making Brooker's plastic-not-so-fantastic future all the more tangible. Aesthetically, the second episode is quite a departure for the first, but the satirical edge is just as sharp. Brooker's perceptive referencing of everything from internet pop-ups to Nintendo Wii avatars is sublime. His ghoulish extrapolation of TV talent shows into a Hobson's choice from hell - complete with an unsettling trio of judges in Ashley Thomas, Julia Davis and a deliciously dark turn from Rupert Everett - is constantly both entertaining and really quite frightening.

And so we move to the final episode, The Entire History Of You. Caught somewhere between the unsettling quasi-present of the first episode and the artificial Abaddon of the second, we find ourselves in a world where almost everyone is implanted with a "grain", a tiny device implanted behind the ear which records every moment of a person's life and allowing them to replay past memories, known as "re-dos". Liam (Toby Kebbell) is a young lawyer who becomes increasingly suspicious and paranoid of his wife Ffion's (Jodie Whittaker) fidelity, in particular fixating on her relationship with her friend Jonas (Tom Cullen) and obsessing more and more over "re-dos" of the two together. This is probably the most subtle of the three episodes in its approach, with many scenes feeling as though they could quite easily be set in contemporary Britain if it weren't for the characters' ability to "re-do" either within their own minds or on TV screens. It's also the only episode not written by Brooker himself, instead penned by Peep Show writer Jesse Armstrong. The satire here takes a backseat to human relationships, with the central pairing of Kebbell and Whittaker delivering two of the strongest performances of the whole series.

It's tricky to rank the three episodes from most to least successful, partly due to the high quality of all three, but also because, despite being part of the same series, each episode feels like a distinct story in its own right. If pressed, I would probably say that I enjoyed The National Anthem the most, with The Entire History Of You feeling least successful if only because it would have been fascinating to see how the world presented affected more than just one couple and a few of their friends and acquaintances. That's almost certainly the opportunity Downey Jr. has seen in obtaining the rights to that particular episode.

Black Mirror ultimately deserves to be judged as a whole. Simply put, this is one of the bravest, most original and expertly crafted TV series of recent times. Brooker pulls no punches in his message and his ambition, forcing you to sit up and take notice of his warts-and-all view of the world. The assembled cast is comprehensively excellent, with a number of genuinely memorable standout performances from key players across all three episodes. The first series of Black Mirror will stay with you long after the credits of each installment fade out, and it deserves to be recognised and remembered as a truly significant television event. I can't wait to see what Brooker has to offer in series two.


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