Technology leads to danger and hope in the ambitious third season of “Black Mirror”

Sunday, October 23, 2016 - 5:30pm

“Black Mirror”

“Black Mirror” Buy this photo
Netflix

 

Let’s get one thing straight: Technology isn’t all that bad. Yes, in the age of reality television, social media, virtual reality and computer hacking, technology has proven to be taking control of our world, one gadget and app at a time. But for the most part, many of the 21st century’s technological innovations — the iPod, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and music streaming services — have influenced our awareness of the world, broadening our minds to new realms and endless opportunities that were once believed to be impossible. In a sense, technology has cultivated a paradox: we are more connected than we’ve ever been, and yet there remains a visible disconnect among society.

This unnerving conflict serves as the thematic core of “Black Mirror,” the popular British anthology series that has been deemed by many critics and viewers a modern-day “Twilight Zone.” Created by English satirist Charlie Brooker (“Dead Set”), “Black Mirror” depicts different realities and characters in each episode, but every story connects to one another through their thought-provoking, somewhat cynical perspectives on technology.

The first two seasons tackled a variety of tech-based issues, critiquing everything from the pervasiveness of advertising and the porn industry (“Fifteen Million Merits”) to the double-edged sword of artificial intelligence (“Be Right Back”). With a third season comprising of six episodes instead of the usual three, “Black Mirror” returns to the drawing board with more ambitious ideas, even if not all of them hit the target.

Though the first four episodes struggle under the weight of the binge-laden Netflix format, “Black Mirror” ’s third season remains a landmark in television storytelling. It continues to explore the dark depths of technology, but also manages to offer an optimistic message in some episodes. In fact, the episodes with those optimistic messages (the fascinating season opener “Nosedive” and the unpredictably poignant love story “San Junipero”) work far better than the grimmer, more heavy-handed ones (the terrifying horror clip “Playtest” and the meandering cyber-thriller “Shut Up and Dance”).

Co-written by “Parks & Recreation” ’s Michael Schur and Rashida Jones (“Angie Tribeca”), “Nosedive” triumphs as a satire of instant gratification and the constant yearning for validation a la Instagram, even if the episode feels somewhat familiar and predictable. The story is set in a reality akin to the one in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” matching the film’s utopian/dystopian setting and aesthetic styles with gorgeous pastel color tones and a beautiful piano-laden score.

The only real difference is that in the world of “Nosedive,” people rate one another on a five-star system and earn a greater status in society with the more stars they receive. Perky social climber Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Jurassic World”) is determined to reach a 4.8 in order to get a discount on her dream house, no matter if she has to pretend to be nice to everyone she meets or give them all five-star ratings. Soon, however, Lacie finds that perhaps it might be better to be her more authentic self, even if she’s ridiculed and alienated for it. We see her undergo this gradual realization during an incredible final act that’s hilarious, devastating and mesmerizing all in one.

“San Junipero” also manages to be a highlight in season three of “Black Mirror,” mixing sci-fi, drama and romance with remarkable performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Easy”) and Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”). Without giving too much away, the story of “San Junipero” is quite riveting, tracking the relationship between the timid Yorkie (Davis) and the outgoing Kelly (Mbatha-Raw) and how their love literally transcends time, space and technology.     

On the downside, the main problem with the third season of “Black Mirror” is that its darker episodes don’t have the same balance of unpredictability and intrigue as previous seasons. Even with an increase in running time, episodes like “Playtest” and “Shut Up and Dance” could probably work better if a sequence or two were cut, perhaps in order to focus on the payoff of both stories.

With the trippy “Playtest,” technology plays a villainous role, as free-spirited Cooper (Wyatt Russell, “Everybody Wants Some!!”) takes part in an experimental, virtual-reality-type video game in order to make some quick cash. However, Cooper runs into some trouble when he encounters some of his worst repressed nightmares come to life. The build-up is certainly effective, as is Russell’s surprisingly strong performance, but the conclusion of “Playtest” falls somewhat short, opting to make one extremely dark joke instead of trying to make a point.

Similarly, the extremely tense “Shut Up and Dance” loses its momentum right when it could easily turn into something interesting. Introverted teenager Kenny (Alex Lawther, “The Imitation Game”) is forced to carry orders from an anonymous texter in order to avoid getting a nude video leaked online. The episode keeps you on your toes, but ends on a disappointing and frustrating note.   

Despite some of its drawbacks this season, “Black Mirror” is still worth watching, either for entertainment or insight. And whether or not “Black Mirror” is anti- or pro-technology, its third season confirms that it remains one of television’s greatest hidden gems.