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.
The opening episode, “Nosedive” — written by Mike Schur and his former Parks and Rec star Rashida Jones — exists in a world where there’s basically Yelp for people, and your star rating can have huge consequences for your personal, professional, and even legal standing. The premise is intriguing, and not that far removed from reality — an app called Peeple actually proposed doing this, but the launch announcement was so widely condemned that the released version had no reason to exist — and Bryce Dallas Howard gives a heartbreakingly committed performance as a woman whose entire life is built around getting upvoted by her peers, Cherry Jones does a nice supporting turn as a trucker who couldn’t care less what her current score is, the episode as a whole is particularly strong once the universe inevitably turns against Howard. The problem is, “Nosedive” spends so long establishing the premise — and then re-establishing it, again and again, just to be sure we understand how the world works and how much Howard cares about her ranking — that it already begins to feel tired by the time the story really begins. At 30 or 40 minutes, it would be wicked satire; at close to 60, its star rating has to go down for overstaying its welcome.
But nearly all of this season’s installments would have benefited from a less-is-more approach. Both “Playtest,” about an American tourist in London testing out a virtual reality video game, and “Men Against Fire,” about American soldiers combating nests of vampire-like “roaches” in overseas hotspots, telegraph their twists because they stick around for so long, though each has its moments. And “Hated in the Nation” — which Brooker has called his take on Scandinavian noir, but which plays like a really long X-Files episode (there are even troublesome bees!) that occasionally pauses to complain about Twitter — has no business running at feature length.
One of the shorter episodes, “Shut Up and Dance,” is also the season’s least interesting — mainly because it doesn’t seem to be about anything but the grim situation its characters find themselves in, being blackmailed and ordered around by hackers who have incriminating information on them — so length isn’t the sole issue. But not having to build to act breaks gives many of the episodes a shapelessness that only exacerbates the fact that most of them are too long.
Whether by Netflix’s request or Brooker’s desire to spread his wings, the new season more frequently involves American characters, even if only some of them are played by Americans (or, in the case of Mackenzie Davis from Halt and Catch Fire, Canadians). So we get James Norton (Happy Valley), Malachi Kirby (Roots) wrestling with shaky accents (more troublesome for Kirby, who’s the lead in “Men Against Fire,” than Norton, who plays Howard’s brother in a few scenes in “Nosedive”), and only Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who has put in her time — and her dialect work — playing Americans in past TV shows and movies) doesn’t sound like she doesn’t understand how consonants work.
Mbatha-Raw and Davis star in the new season’s highlight, “San Junipero,” as young women who meet in a California beach town in the late ’80s — or so it seems. Without revealing too much about its story, the biggest twist is that it’s a Black Mirror episode that shows a new piece of technology working the way it’s meant to, and in a fashion that at least provides real benefits for some, even as the story points out its pitfalls. In moments, it’s almost shocking in its optimism.
It’s also more human than most of the new installments. The better Black Mirror episodes tend to offer a strong balance of character drama along with the social satire — “Be Right Back,” for instance, is about how our online profiles are no substitute for our actual personalities, but it’s also an intimate story of grief and loss — but only a few of the new ones (“San Junipero” and “Playtest” in particular) seemed as interested in the people as the technology.
An episode about a TV show that switched from a traditional broadcast network to a streaming service and didn’t quite know what to do with its newfound freedom would probably be too wonky and obscure for Brooker to consider making. I’m glad Black Mirror continues to exist, but I spent a lot of these new episodes feeling like the Cherry Jones character from “Nosedive,” longing for the way things used to be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org