After a four-year break, the British series “Black Mirror” has returned with five new episodes now streaming on Netflix. The show touts itself as an updated version of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” and although “Black Mirror” certainly has elements of the genre Serling inspired, it rarely reaches the existential depths explored by the original six decades ago.
Be warned: This article contains spoilers.
Season six of “Black Mirror” is a mixture of technological dystopia (an element that is foundational to the series) and horror stories. It takes the idea of streaming content to another level, and this is especially obvious in the first episode, “Joan is Awful.” Annie Murphy plays Joan Tait, an executive who works at a nondescript tech company in which algorithms control every outcome. Her existence is generally soulless: she is in a relationship with a “vanilla” man (“Even his cooking is bland!”), she still has feelings for her ex-boyfriend, and is generally unhappy about her life.
Things take a weird turn when Joan and her current boyfriend decide to watch a show called “Joan is Awful” on a streaming platform, Streamberry, a site essentially identical to Netflix. As they begin to watch, Joan realizes that her life is essentially being live-streamed, except she is played by Salma Hayek.
The episode becomes one occasion after another for social commentary examining how we relate to the social media and streaming content that is so omnipresent in our lives. Do we give up our identities in order to fill ourselves with more “binge-worthy” dramas, anything to take us away from the paltry nature of our own existence? In principle, this idea ought to have made for a fascinating story, but the entire episode folds in on itself because it becomes an infinite regress of meta-fiction. One is not sure if “Joan is Awful” is making fun of itself, commenting on social issues, or is just one big advertisement for Netflix—and one that is openly giving the audience a middle finger.
“Loch Henry,” the second episode, deals with a theme similar to the one in “Joan is Awful”: What is art and what is content? Two filmmakers stumble into a bizarre story of mass murder in a sleepy town of Loch Henry, Scotland. The unusual nature of this case is that the young man who is making the film finds out his own mother and father are responsible for the despicable acts. Naturally, his life story becomes nothing more than Streamberry content, once again, giving us a Netflix meta unreality.
“Mazey Day” and “Demon 79” are horror stories. In “Mazey Day,” we see a young actress becoming a werewolf-type creature, as the paparazzi try to capture that money shot showing her transformation. “Demon 79” takes place in 1979 England and starts out well with an aesthetic nod to movies like “The Omen” (1976), as well as the grindhouse and giallo horror genres. A young woman accidentally summons a demon who tells her that she must murder three people in three days or else the world will end. The theme of a demon is a perennial one but it slips into an all too predictable trope of social issues commentary in which all Tories and conservatives are evil and it is because of them that the world will end in an armageddon. At this point, such ridiculous repetitions don’t even evoke frustration, merely boredom. The lack of imagination is palpable.
The one episode that suggested the most potential, “Beyond the Sea,” is about two astronauts in space who experience the collapse of their lives as they know them. It is alternate 1969. Everything is imbued aesthetically with the spirit of the 1960s but the civilization they encounter is far more advanced than the one we’re experiencing right now.
While Cliff and David are in outer space, their bodily replicas are with their respective families. In order to spend time with their families, the real Cliff and David transfer their consciousnesses into the replicas. One night, David’s family (including the replica) is brutally murdered by a Charles Manson-like cult that believes man should not tamper with nature and build mechanical replicas. Because of this event, David falls into a deep depression and in order to help him out, Cliff offers his own replica to David who needs a reprieve from the extreme alienation he’s feeling.
Cliff’s wife Lana at first doesn’t know how to deal with seeing her husband’s replica imbued with David’s consciousness but an attraction between the two soon develops. The story itself is in many ways perfect: an occasion to explore individual identity and the meaning of love. Instead, it remains on the surface of consciousness.
“Black Mirror” has always had a dark and deviant bent but it somehow always remained planted in a specific time and place. Here, we witness the sheer timelessness and spacelessness, which have become hallmarks of our current society. Neither here nor there, dabbling in pseudo-history with the purpose of advancing ideology, “Black Mirror” leaves the viewer with an empty feeling of that most awful of human conditions: indifference.