There are two episodes in the new season of Black Mirror that I really like. They’re the first one, “Nosedive,” and the fourth one, “San Junipero.” My preference for these two episodes probably has to do with a craving for stories that aren’t mired in cynicism and an unrelenting pessimism about the future. Sure, “Nosedive” is a pretty pessimistic view of a world where our socioeconomic status is directly influenced by our ability to successfully manage social media, but its ending left me feeling incredibly satisfied (there’s just something cathartic about seeing two people recognize the system they’re in is messed up and joyfully railing against it). Yes, it’s possible to read a bad ending into “San Junipero,” but you have to squint really hard and think about things long past where the story leaves off (I got caught up in the thought that the server warehouse where the residents of San Junipero are stored is only as stable as the power grid; forever in paradise is only as long as they keep the generators running).
I’ve not watched Black Mirror before the third season released on Netflix (this is rapidly changing, as Rachael and I have watched all of the second season at the time of this writing, and we’ll probably get through the first season relatively quickly; it’s easy to catch up when seasons are only a few episodes long). It was something we picked up mostly on a whim, and we found it engaging enough to keep going (again, this was based largely on the strength of “Nosedive;” I can’t stress how good I thought that episode was). After seeing a couple seasons all the way through, my general impression is that there are some really good episodes and some really okay episodes. I tend not to be super pessimistic about technology, and Black Mirror‘s whole shtick seems to seems to revolve around being super pessimistic about technology, so more than a few episodes fail to successfully land.
This isn’t to say that some of the pessimism isn’t really engaging. Episodes that explore more the dark side of human nature tend to be a little better. I found myself thoroughly repulsed by the concepts on display in “White Bear” and “White Christmas” in the second season, but the stories were well told, and I wanted to learn more about what was going on with their main characters. There was a similar interest built into most of Season Three, although I generally didn’t care quite as much about the characters there. “Playtest” was a generically fun video game send up, but its ending didn’t pay off the way I would have liked; similarly “Men Against Fire” had some interesting ideas about battlefield conditioning and personal culpability (the technology around which the premise revolved also reminded me heavily of video games even though the context was decidedly less anodyne than what “Playtest” was going for), but it was hard to feel invested in the main character’s plight towards the episode’s end. The remaining two episodes from Season Three, “Shut Up and Dance” and “Hated in the Nation” are just kind of okay. Maybe there’s a thematic element that’s not resonating with me, since these last two episodes are built around the idea of people being terrible to one another over the internet simply because they can.
Overall I’d say that Black Mirror is probably not a great show. It has its moments, and like I already said, the occasional episode is phenomenal, but there doesn’t feel like a whole lot is going on beyond the basic speculative level. It’s worth a watch if you want to see a high production value show about near-future concepts and ideas. Just don’t expect it to always go very deep.