When Did Black Mirror Stop Being Scary?

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When exactly did Black Mirror stop being scary?

Was it the acquiring of the UK series by American streaming giant Netflix, or the velocity of new seasons in terms of release and storytelling? More fans than ever have latched on to the series since its humble beginnings in 2011, and most of them aren’t raving about “Fifteen Million Merits.” In the Netflix-ified, stream-chasing 2.0, Black Mirror has little room to stretch beyond its “technology, but…” stereotype. Episodes like “The Entire History of You” and even “Nosedive” take that base and expand it with emotional, far-reaching warnings, but in recent years things have shifted. At its best, Black Mirror functioned as both a modern day parable and excellent TV; The Twilight Zone comparison was accurate, but as the show has propelled further into the devices it satirizes, it’s become increasingly harder to surprise the audience that supports it.

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The last time Black Mirror scared us was season three. At the time (2016), Netflix’s swooping seemed like a god-send, a second chance for a series that was showing signs of slowing, with both “The Waldo Moment” and the twist-heavy “White Christmas” special failing to break beyond the series’ self-imposed limits. Black Mirror didn’t just need a bigger budget; it needed a wider lense. Something to help it jump the gap from indie mini series to culture-shocking juggernaut: Enter “Nosedive.” The show’s biggest star at the time, Bryce Dallas Howard, took the reins for a Rashida Jones/Michael Shur-penned episode about the dangers of social status. It wasn’t Black Mirror nerfed; more like BM broken down. “Nosedive” contained enough bright colors and wild performances to land it a slot in the A24 catalog, and with a script that weighed heavily on the “5 minutes from now” technology that series creator Charlie Brooker always pitched the show as, it was built to entice.

While it doesn’t hit as hard as “The Entire History of You,” the show’s greatest achievement in terms of storytelling, it softens a difficult story for everyone to hear. Part of what held BM back in its early days was reliance on dark, almost criminal behaviour to lead character arcs. For young viewers, these were some of the scariest things they had ever seen on TV, horror or not. “Nosedive” presented a protagonist with a common problem: Worry of being liked. In this way, it’s the most relevant BM has ever been (and contains Howard’s career-peak in the final 10 minutes), as it was designed to be consumed by all; not just the few who could stomach it.

Since then it hasn’t been all lows. “San Junipero” stands tall for many as the series’ peak, another season three highlight that benefited from a renewed belief in accessibility. It’s some hardcore science-fiction, but infused with an easygoing 80s aesthetic and enough pop music to last 100 John Hughes montages. Contrast these moments with the 2018 debacle Bandersnatch, the choose-your-own-adventure leap in storytelling Brooker teased for years. At face value, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that somehow avoids plot holes, inconsistencies, and bad acting. There’s a compelling concept, but a weak story.

There is no joy in playing/watching Bandersnatch for an hour only to reveal to the main character that he is inside an interactive Netflix film. The accessibility that began in season three somehow mutated into a reliance on Netflix, despite the series’ already stellar pedigree. With Bandersnatch, corporate influence began to show, and it was likely Brooker’s decision to allow it. Netflix has remained hands-off with many of its acquisitions, for better or worse (Arrested Development): The stream-bait format of Bandersnatch, along with the direct mention of its reliance on the service, took out the horror and replaced it with a statistic.

In the days following the release of Bandersnatch, there were more tweets from the creators about how many people took certain paths than from users who were shocked by their choices. If this was the point of the experiment, BM succeeded wildly, but at the cost of distancing itself from the viewpoint that anything on the show could be a reality. With the arrival of the new, leaner season five, Black Mirror has descended past the corporate numbers-game of Bandersnatch, and into plain bad television. Striking Vipers may be a metaphor for porn, and the idea isn’t unoriginal, but predictability has set in. The issue with making your critical show appealing to more people is that, after a while, they stop seeing themselves in it.