Black Mirror is simultaneously one of the most old-fashioned and modern dramas on television right now: an anthology sci-fi drama in the mold of The Twilight Zone, tackling cutting-edge issues about technology and social media in a way that makes other shows that have tried it (say, The Good Wife) like like stodgy dabblers. The characters and setting changes from episode to episode, but each time out, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and company prevent chilling tales of how all these advances meant to improve our lives and bring us together are actually driving us further apart — more connected to the smartphones that give the show its title than to the people allegedly on the other end of them.
Inadvertently, though, Brooker has made the upcoming third season — its first produced directly for Netflix (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all six episodes) a metaphor for the series as a whole. In theory, the show’s new home should be all to its benefit: bigger canvas, bigger stars, fewer restrictions in terms of content and format, etc. Instead, most of what should be making Black Mirror better tends to get in the way of the stories being told in these six episodes. There are still great ideas — and one great episode, “San Junipero,” that I’d put up against the best previous installments(*) — but on the whole it’s much more uneven than the show’s previous output.
(*) If you’re curious, my favorite earlier episodes: “Fifteen Million Merits,” “Be Right Back,” and “White Christmas.”
In particular, the show has fallen victim to the same kind of gluttony that’s afflicted many streaming dramas, on Netflix and elsewhere. In the UK, the series aired on Channel 4, with regular timeslots and ad breaks, and most of the prior episodes hovered between 43 and 48 minutes, though a couple ran over an hour. Making directly for Netflix, Brooker doesn’t have to worry about cutting episodes down to size, nor commercial interruptions. Most of the new episodes clock in around an hour, and the last one, “Hated in the Nation,” runs 90 minutes. Because the show’s ideas and its various alternate near-futures are complex, more time to explore should be promising, but it turns out that many of them start crumbling under the weight.