Despite writing about TV for a living—or really, perhaps because of it—I still get excited over new television. Yes, there is a lot of it and that can become numbing, but sometimes there’s nothing better than that feeling of a new season of a show you love or the premiere of a series you’ve been anticipating for a while (or maybe were surprised to learn exists). Which is why upon seeing the trailer for this newest season of Black Mirror, I found myself questioning why, instead of feeling excitement, the only two things I had in my mind about it were: 1). “Oh, Nicole Beharie’s in this?” and 2). Relief. That second thing, the relief that replaced previous season’s (even “Bandersnatch”) excitement, was relief that this season of Black Mirror would return to its roots and only give us the bliss of three episodes instead of a season of six or so of hourlongs (or, needlessly, even longer).
And then soon after that trailer, I was reminded of the excitement I had back in July 2016, when I first got screeners for two episodes of Season Three: “San Junipero” and “Shut Up and Dance.” While I certainly enjoyed the latter episode, the former remains my most cherished work-related screener viewing, as I could just tell I was watching something special as it happened. Then a few months later I received the rest of the season screeners, and I was honestly still in a that mood of enjoyment and excitement … a mood that unfortunately wasn’t quite there when it came to watching Season Four (once it dropped). That was the season where I got to the point of not needing or even wanting to watch in one sitting like I had done before as the episodes went on.
Watching Season Five, I started to wonder if I had just outgrown Black Mirror. For one, I spent more and more time thinking out loud how bad the episodes were. They were textbook examples of how it’s easy to distract from the bad when the episodes are so extremely polished. And when you’re a sci-fi anthology produced by Netflix, you have the resources to be extremely polished. Instead of even really caring what was going to happen next—one of the series’ biggest strengths—I found myself wondering how much time was left in the episodes (and usually, it would still be over an hour). Even what I considered the best episode of the bunch, the third episode—”Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”—suffers from being much longer than it needs to be, full of setup of a world that, honestly, is familiar enough it doesn’t need it. It also lends itself to just how purposefully sleek (and desperate to be considered appointment television) Black Mirror has become. Because as good as she is in the episode, there is something far too surreal about Miley Cyrus being in an episode of Black Mirror, singing Nine Inch Nails songs. The episode is like a joke movie that became real, and I say that while acknowledging that it probably should have just been its own movie instead of a Black Mirror episode.
And really, it might just be that sheen that has led to Black Mirror’s creative downfall. I’m sure ratings-wise—not that we’ll ever know—Black Mirror is doing just fine for Netflix. But I’m talking about the disconnect I’m feeling (and others clearly have) between a show I used to love and what it has become, creatively and even in terms of its approach to its entire concept. Black Mirror was never a low-budget series; it always had notable, albeit not necessarily A-list British actors (and Jon Hamm). But it changed from a “small” British show to an international (mostly American) phenomenon via a huge media empire. The series has thus become Americanized (except for Charlie Brooker refusing to Americanize certain colloquialisms, which is how we get “He’s called Greg.” instead of “His name is Greg.”), to the point where it honestly kind of feels like the show is throwing British stars a bone at times when they actually appear in an episode or are the focus (as British characters). I mean, Charlie Brooker couldn’t have known Andrew Scott was going to blow up as Fleabag’s Hot Priest weeks before this dropped, but even if he had, would that have changed the fact that the majority of his time in his episode (“Smithereens”) is just lead-up to the reveal of Topher Grace? Think about how distracting that is, even before it’s clear Grace’s character is more of a caricature than an actual character. It’s Topher Grace in a wig, which sounds like something that should happen in Ocean’s 14, not an episode of Black Mirror.
I feel like “San Junipero” star Mackenzie Davis actually best described the original feeling of viewing the show as an American, in its pre-Netflix original form:
“Mine was such a Revenant experience that I’ve never had with something else. My friend had pirated it off the internet—nobody had cable, and we watched it in my friend’s living room in Brooklyn, lights out, under blankets. It was the very first episode, and it was like the first time you watched Twin Peaks, where you were like, ‘What?!’ I didn’t know that TV could be like this. It felt like a totally new form.”
That feeling doesn’t exist with the show anymore, even if it’s cool to see actors in a realistic-looking VR videogame.
The jokes about Black Mirror simply being a one-trick pony (“What if phones, but bad?”) have always come with the territory, but since it became a “Netflix original” and thus more easily-accessible, the jokes have only increased. The criticism was never actually solid, especially with episodes like “The National Anthem” and “White Bear,” but it was persistent. With episodes like “San Junipero” in its first Netflix season and “USS Callister” the season after, there has been plenty of acknowledgment that the series still has other tricks up its sleeves. “Nosedive,” for example, is a divisive episode—and definitely has that “bad phone” thing going on—but it also took a very big risk in being an episode of a “dark” show like Black Mirror written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur, of all people.
When I first saw the Season Five trailer, I immediately wondered if there was any possibility that “Smithereens” was as much the parody of Black Mirror (again, “What if phones, but bad?”) that it looked like. Would it be intentionally tongue-in-cheek? While the episode didn’t exactly end up being as much about notifications driving someone mad as it looked from that initial promo, the episode still ended up falling on the side of a parody itself, and possibly even worse for not as in on the joke as it seemed to be at first. That would not have been preposterous to think about when Black Mirror first began, both because of Charlie Brooker’s comedic past (and present, as I’ll surely get to Cunk on Britain in a future ICYMI) and because of the series’ twistedly dark but also self-aware humor.
Here’s the thing: “sellout culture” when it comes to television is a strange phenomenon to think about, especially when you take into consideration “save our show” culture as a concept as well. You want a show to have as big of a budget and distribution deal as possible so that as many eyes watch it as possible. Then it’s more likely that people will be talking about it, and there’s a better chance the show you love is able to continue on even longer. How many times when a show is canceled do fans look to Netflix or Hulu for help? Netflix’s fourth season of the formerly FOX-canceled Lucifer just recently dropped, and it’s been called the best of the series as Netflix’s budget and belief in creative freedom worked in its favor. So on a pragmatic level, I understand a mainstream show can’t “sell out,” both because the point of television is not just storytelling—it’s profit—and because selling out is the way it survives. As much as Black Mirror felt “underground” prior to Netflix, that was only because Americans couldn’t watch it (and weren’t “legally” watching) when it still aired on Channel 4 in the UK.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Black Mirror has changed, and the reasons behind it feel very much in tune with the concept of selling out. The decision of bigger is better, from the gimmicks (“Bandersnatch”) to the elongated episode lengths to the celebrity names to the very technological components of the episodes, they all fall in line with the idea of selling out. An anthology show like Black Mirror exists to say something, and this season truly does say, “What if phones, but bad… and also we have an Avenger in the building.”
One of the major components in making Black Mirror so worth the word-of-mouth—even with less popular episodes like the now too-close-to-home “The Waldo Moment”—was rewatchability, something that also feels like it’s decreased with each passing Netflix season. The emphasis of Black Mirror Easter Eggs has increased with each season past “White Christmas” (the original culmination of the series’ Easter Eggs at the time), to the point where there is rarely any subtle inclusion of them anymore. This, of course, led to the episode “Black Museum,” the fourth season’s meta, perhaps universe-imploding (and unnecessarily gory) episode. If anything, with all of the references and callbacks and connective tissue, it probably should have been the series finale. Because what reason is there anymore—past that episode—for new episodes other than for characters to spot more TCKR references or note when they hear “Anyone Who Know What Love Is (Will Understand)”? The actual plot itself now feels secondary to those moments. Going even further back, you could argue for these same reasons that perhaps “White Christmas” should have been the end of it all, though that creates the same conundrum you have with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s later seasons: While “The Gift” in Season Five would have been the perfect series finale, you would then lose “Once More With Feeling.” If you end Black Mirror at “White Christmas,” there is no “San Junipero.”
When I try to get to the heart and the soul of the problem with Black Mirror now, it’s exactly that: There is no heart or soul in these episodes. Even “Black Museum”—an episode I truly dislike—doesn’t lose sight of that component and how important it is to the series’ DNA. Among all three of Season Five’s episodes, there is a sense of hollowness not typically found in Black Mirror, at least not originally. “The Waldo Moment” was no one’s favorite episode, but it was never hollow, which is what helped make the whole situation so intensely frustrating. “Smithereens” is an episode where you beg for there to be a meaning or a point, and there just isn’t, no matter how many characters it introduces to ramp up the tension. “Striking Vipers” is basically “‘San Junipero’… but no homo” plus cooler-looking tech (that Charlie Brooker actually calls it “Man Junipero; somehow makes it worse). There is no heart and soul to this season, and even “The National Anthem” had that—yes, “the pig-fucking episode.”
With “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” this season ends with a message about being yourself and pop culture consumerism as though it’s the first to say it, as though it’s saying anything new, as though it’s not a matter of the pot calling the kettle black. But it’s no Josie and the Pussycats on that front, and it honestly ends with a judgmental message that you should be yourself… unless you like pop music, because then you’re wrong.
Maybe Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror have just gotten so post-modern that they’re finally saying, “This show and Netflix are a gigantic waste of time. This is the real black mirror. Look at yourself, look at what you’re choosing to watch and spend your time on.” It’s a mentality that is technically the message of “Bandersnatch” by itself—considering the hours of footage and the amount of time people spent trying to go through every scenario—but it also applies in a less entertaining way to the series as a whole now. It would honestly be pretty funny if Charlie Brooker is making intentionally bad television just to prove this point, but that also feels more like a Black Mirror plot than a real-life scenario. Plus, it would also be extremely cynical and nihilistic in the very way people always used to complain the series was—even early on—but has almost completely leaned into since coming to Netflix. It’s like it has to live up to all the expectations that word of mouth has made for the show. In trying to be what Black Mirror is “supposed” to be, it’s only gotten further away from itself.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.