In 1962, after 3 successful seasons, The Twilight Zone was moved out of the fall schedule; when that show failed, TZ was moved back in as a mid-season replacement, and was lengthened from 30 minutes to a full hour to fill the slot. This 4th season is known as “The Weird Season,” and is currently the only season missing from Amazon Prime when you go to watch old episodes. (“Weird,” in this case, means “stinks.”)
It’s generally agreed that the season was such a miss because the hour-long episodes revealed the biggest “weakness” of the storylines: the ideas were too flimsy to last for too long. Twists that were a gut-punch in 25-30 minutes became too predictable and easy to guess, or else by the time you got there, you didn’t care as much because the story was bogged down so much. I say “weakness” because they knew about this, which is specifically WHY they decided on 30 minutes in the first place: a network-enforced 60 minutes was doomed to fail. Season 5 switched back to the old formula for success, with unsurprisingly good results.
So you would think that the show trying to follow in the Twilight Zone footsteps would have been aware of this very, very valuable lesson. In “Inside Black Mirror,” it takes 1 page for The Twilight Zone to be mentioned by the creators – it’s mentioned by name 4 times in the 5 page introduction. The exact pitch for the show was “a modern Twilight Zone-esque anthology series.”
Charlie Brooker: “The original idea for Black Mirror was going to be eight half-hours, all by different writers including me.
Annabel Jones: “There’s a huge discipline to the short film form…we had to streamline the stories…we found ourselves telling more fruitful and satisfying stories by keeping it slightly smaller.”
Knowing all this, as they grew as a show and tried to get creative and do their own things, there is one very specific thing to NOT do, a thing that would sink the series: don’t stretch out ideas designed for 30 minutes into an hour.
By the time you hit the credits after 70 minutes in “Smithereens” you can see exactly why I just mentioned all that.
But “being too long” would be letting Smithereens off the hook as simply shallow or boring – what makes the episode such a disaster is that it has no point. It’s a total clusterfuck of ideas, all of which are not worthy of Black Mirror at this stage in the series. After 5 seasons, Smithereens was a 70 minute long loop of Old Man Yells At Cloud meme: technology is bad. People spend too much time looking at their screens instead of being aware of the world around them.
It took what every single hater criticizes Black Mirror for and ran with it without expanding on it even slightly. A man kills his fiancee by checking comments on a dog picture post – no, seriously – and blames the man who created the technology for “making it too addictive.” Are major tech companies part of the problem by making their products and tweaking their updates to become as addictive as possible, literally manipualting the dopamine in your brain? Sure. There’s an interesting aspect to explore in an episode: how much responsibility do these creators have for the things they’ve made? After 5 seasons of skewering technology and power in the hands of the wrong people, “Smithereens” answers this question by…making Billy Bower Jesus Christ.
I mean they made Topher Grace Jesus. Literally. If the white robe, beard, hair and flip flops wasn’t enough symbolism for you, they made sure you didn’t miss the nuances by literally using “GOD MODE.” He was Jesus 2.0 who just wanted to help humanity communicate with one another, but, aw jeez, everything has been corrupted by “board members” and shit. He’s the nicest, most down to earth person in the episode
Never in my life have I been arrogant enough to think that I could personally improve on a Black Mirror episode, but the time has come. You want to know how to make this ep not a complete waste of time?
Have the Persona password be wrong.
As the closing credits roll, have the grieving mother type the password into her daughter’s account, get a “wrong password – you’ve been permanently locked out” alert, and pan back to show Topher Grace smiling evilly into the camera as thunder claps and lightning strikes and BLACK MIRROR THEME MUSIC starts blasting. You though we’d just turn over information like that? Why, because you threatened to kill yourself? We OWN you bitch.
At least then there would be a point. Instead, we’re left with the thought that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey et al are all just innocent figureheads who had their good ideas taken by money-hungry “others” who have all become too powerful to control. Your phone is too addictive, we didn’t mean it to be, we’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do, aw shucks we hate it just as much as you.
And that is what made this whole thing so bizarrely un-Black Mirror: instead of skewering the technology, they kind of idolized it. Smithereen, who was misusing data and spying on their users, wields that power to track down a bad guy and prevent a murder, a job the bumbling inept cops couldn’t do. The social media mogul who created a platform to make himself rich beyond his wildest dreams then had absolutely no control over the fake news and Nazis on it, was a kind-hearted, naive Christ figure. Every action by The Technology Man was for the overall good and benefit of mankind. It wasn’t Black Mirror – it was a propaganda video that Jack Dorsey would show at a company retreat.
Everything was ruined well before this, but the ending was the cherry on top of the sundae. Who was shot by cops, the depressed, broken, suicidal guy, or the innocent black dude? It’s like they knew they couldn’t hook anyone for 69 minutes so they desperately tried to grasp at something for viewers to think about at the last second.
Oh and hey, people sent their thoughts and prayers and moved on to the next thing in 0.01 seconds – did you know that we’re desensitized to violence?
Charlie Brooker: “The wider point there was that we wanted to show that this is like the most important day in Chris’ life. And in probably Jaden’s life as well. You know it’s like the most significant thing that’s ever happened to either of them. And it’s this huge drama for them and for everyone in that field and for all the people directly involved in that story. And yet, for the rest of the world, it is one more sort of push notification. One more little bit of confetti. One more little thing to glance at and go ‘ooh,’ and then go and sort of move on with their day.”
Groundbreaking territory here.
Even with all that criticism, I can still find a lot of good things to say about the first two episodes. “Striking Vipers” never seemed overlong despite the runtime, and I thought they deserved a lot of props for trying to tackle an issue as complex as sexuality and gender identity. It wasn’t nearly as moving as San Junipero or Be Right Back, but it certainly wasn’t bad. And it followed the thematic playbook that the best Black Mirror episodes have: using technology and the near-future to highlight problems and issues that we currently feel in present-day, even if we’re not fully aware of it until we see it. Anthony Mackie was superb, all the actors were great, and it was something we hadn’t seen before or explored yet. “Smithereens,” if it was a standalone TV special about the dangers of technology and what it’s doing to society, and not part of the Black Mirror universe, would have at least been kind of entertaining. And Andrew Scott played the part of grieving-nervous breakdown-man incredibly well.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is where I draw the line. I refuse to waste any of my time on discussing this episode other than to say it did the impossible: it made me appreciate Bandersnatch. Yup, it’s official: RJaAT is the worst Black Mirror episode in the show’s entire history. And it’s not even close.
Bandersnatch was terrible, awful in every way. But you know what? At least it tried. It tried arguably harder than any other Black Mirror episode. With terrible results, obviously – it was annoying, exhausting, and didn’t have a story even remotely worthy of all that annoyance and exhaustion – but you know how much thought and time and creative powers they put into trying to pull that off.
There have been plenty of bad episodes of Black Mirror – Bandersnatch was a disastrous attempt at a new format, Men Against Fire was obvious, Arkangel was both boring AND obvious. The Waldo Moment was just silly. Crocodile…Jesus, don’t even get me started on the fucking guinea pig. Sometimes they are SO futuristic that it borders on unbelievable.
But “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” does something that I haven’t seen in 5 seasons: it seems BEHIND the times. The whole episode comes across as completely out of touch, like it was a script written 6 years ago that just got around to being produced. Celebrities who seem happy in public…are actually sad? Celebrities who offer up all these messages about empowerment and confidence…are just reciting a script? Pop music is…empty and shallow?
While “Smithereens” took an easy, common, over-played theme and made 70 minutes of it, “RJaAT” took an idea that we all knew a decade ago… and made it seem like it was filmed a decade ago. It took a story about an alienated girl with no self-esteem desperately looking for connection, and turned it into what I would assume a Hannah Montana episode is like, with 3 young girls racing through the city crashing into things in a mousecar after taking down a 500 pound bodybuilder and hacking databases to get to the big moment: a middle finger!!! Haha, classic. The bird.
It couldn’t be more clear that this was a script that was going somewhere (the first 15 minutes set up what could have been an interesting take on teenage alienation and self esteem), then they signed a big name like Miley Cyrus and decided to go all-out giving her a showcase. (Don’t get me wrong, Miley herself was great in it, and it was especially good casting because she personally went through the personal crisis that Ashley did – but the script totally lets her down.)
The aunt manager is a cartoon. Punching me in the face would have more nuance to it than the aunt manager.
The technology is a slightly modified Alexa and a hologram singer – I watched 2Pac give a hologram performance 5 years ago.
And no, seriously, tell me more about the mouse traps. Give me some more hints. Let’s play the “Who Can Hammer The Metaphor In The Head The Hardest For An Hour” – annnnd Black Mirror wins, mouse traps, new high score.
Black Mirror is at its peak when it either A) uses futuristic, sci-fi tech to explore the terrors (and sometimes beauty) of human nature, B) makes that futuristic, sci-fi tech so cool and scary that it’s pure mind-fuck entertainment, or C) does both (White Christmas.) “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” says Pop Stars Have Feelings Too and Pop Music Is Bullshit and Empowerment Is A Brand with a lame, cheesy, cartoonish plot full of lame, cheesy, cartoonish stock characters.
And put a fucking Oxford Comma in your title.
To wrap up these 2,000 words on a TV show, this is Charlie Brooker’s intro to “Inside Black Mirror,” talking about back when the show was new and fresh and exciting:
“In the current era of 24-hour online screaming and Russian disrupt-o-bots, it’s hard to remember – but way back then, in 2010, the general view of technology was still a rosy one. The worst thing anyone said about Twitter was that it was full of people wasting their lunch breaks. Apple launching a new iPhone model still seemed like an exciting proposition, and the Arab Spring was just around the corner, something social media platforms seemed only too happy to take credit for. Fast-forward to now and suddenly smartphones are twice as addictive and harmful as cigarettes and your timeline’s full of fascist memes and photographed atrocities.
…It’s all gone sour. It’s all gone a little bit ‘Black Mirror,’ in fact. Which is bad for human civilization, but good publicity for our little show.”
Black Mirror has gone sour, and it sucks.
And I fully admit, if you had never seen an episode before and simply started on Season 5, it would have been far from a disaster. It may have actually been kind of entertaining. But for fans of the show who have seen what it’s capable of for five seasons, it could not have been more of a letdown.
Now I’m going to tweet this article, put it on Facebook, and continue to let the Billy Bowers of the world collect every piece of data about me they want.
STRIKING VIPERS: B-
RACHEL, JACK AND ASHLEY TOO: F
(Quotes via “Inside Black Mirror” which I highly recommend for fans of the show)