Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror has always been a show that strives to break the mould. Each episode is its own unique story, with a different cast in a different setting — it's a format that demands innovation from its stories. Just look at the success of "San Junipero," arguably one of the show's most ambitious episodes. "San Junipero" has been received with almost universal critical acclaim, and it's even won two Primetime Emmy Awards. Indeed, the secret to the show's success might be that it's not afraid to push the boundaries, but what if it's going too far?
Breaking The Mould
The story for the fan-favorite episode takes place (mostly) in San Junipero, an alternate reality where people can upload their consciousness and exist as a younger version of themselves in a decade of their choosing. At its heart, the story is about two elderly women near the end of their lives who fall in love while living out their unfulfilled desires in this alternate realtiy.
The episode reflects Black Mirror's greatest strength. It's a unique approach to a love story and a bold diversion from some of the more graphic episodes in the season. It beautifully encapsulates nostalgia and makes us question the value we put on "real" experiences.
Some would argue that the optimistic tone is not true to Black Mirror's overarching theme of "technology is a curse." However, "San Junipero" does show the potential conflict that this afterlife technology could provide, and makes us question whether or not it's better to live in an ideal world if it's not real. Its ending is bitter-sweet: the optimistic image of two lovers driving off into the sunset is juxtaposed with the reality that they're both technically dead, only to exist as space on a hard drive. Additionally, "San Junipero" subverts our preconceptions about the show itself. We are not expecting an uplifting story in this anthology, nor to see technology used in this way. This subversion is arguably the most Black Mirror-ish thing about it. As shown by other successful TV shows, flipping a show's own concept on its head is a good way to keep things fresh and exciting. So how can subverting the audience's expectations be a negative thing?
A Step Too Far
As great as it is to see something unique and emotional, there are times when pushing boundaries can go too far. There has to be a line between poignancy and just plain upsetting, although we all have different tastes and therefore some people will disagree with the points I'm about to make.
It's obvious from the first episode that the premise of the show is centered around towing the line between shock and poor taste. In Season 1 Episode 1, the Prime Minister forced to have sex with a pig. This is a perfect example of the appeal of Black Mirror gone a bit wrong. It's something that we would not expect, but watching the Prime Minister actually follow through on this act is actually a pretty unnecessary way of getting the message across. The episode is also one of the least effective out of the three season. We may be able to forgive it, and put it down to trial and error. After all, the show was probably just finding its feet.
However, can we equally forgive "Shut Up and Dance," the most disturbing episode in Season 3, and possibly in Black Mirror history? In this episode, we see a teenager do horrible things, all under the threat that an anonymous source will release a video of him masturbating. We really feel bad for him, right up until his fight to the death with another person, who is also being threatened by this anonymous source. But then it turns out the boy was being misled, and the video is sent out anyway. Finally, the twist is revealed: the video was of him masturbating to images of children.
For many viewers, "Shut Up and Dance" was a huge step too far. The episode made the audience feel like they were misled, too. We were led to empathize with this poor boy, but then Black Mirror pulled the rug from underneath us and made us realize we'd been rooting for a pedophile the whole time.
It was a moving episode, there is no doubt about it, but not in the good way. This is part of the frustration of Black Mirror. It will hook you in, intrigue you and shock you. On occasion it will take things too far and disturb you. You know what you're getting into, you're ready for the shock, but when it's overdone you just end up mad.
Will Season 4 Push The Boundaries?
First looks of Season 4 are very exciting, although it's hard to know what to expect from watching the teaser. Each episode looks completely unique, so it appears that the show will continue to innovate.
The episode titled "USS Callistar" appears to have more vibrant cinematography than any other Black Mirror episode we've seen before, looking more like a sitcom than the gritty show we're used to. In fact, it looks exactly like a parody of Star Trek, begging the question: what will be the twist? Will "USS Callistar" be an uplifting story? Will it be funny? Whatever the episode will be like, it's almost guaranteed to be different to anything we've seen yet.
Continuing this theme, it appears that the episode "Metal Head" will be completely black and white. It's a strong stylistic choice, but hopefully it will have enough substance to match the style. The preview didn't give much away, but the story seems to be about mechanical robots. Again, we have no way of knowing how far this episode will push the boundaries, but it looks intriguing nonetheless.
What Should 'Black Mirror' Do Differently?
I sincerely hope that Black Mirror continues being different, but that the writers and producers realize that they don't need to disturb the audience in order to move them. I'm not saying that all Black Mirror episodes should be uplifting, but that the creators need to seriously consider how and why they use the shock factor, and whether it's always completely necessary. What do you think?