Since its premiere, and before it was a twinkle in Netflix’s eye, Black Mirror made a name for itself partly through its Twilight Zone-like anthology format of single-serving episodes that delivered somewhat outlandish but still totally plausible tales of technology gone wrong. And in doing so, the series really became known for its bleak tenor and scenarios that painted a rather dismal, inorganic, social media-driven, corporation-ruled future for humankind. Sure, there were moments where things looked up for a bit, but Black Mirror was, if nothing else, utterly competent in delivering twists that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Things started to change around season 3, though, when the series moved to Netflix. Perhaps it was the result of the additional episode order that necessitated an expanded outlook, or just the desire of series creator and writer Charlie Brooker to infuse stories with something other than the show’s patented cynicism when exploring all the ways technology is and will change what it means to be human.
The first glimpse came in ‘Nosedive’, which imagined a future where social media likes and follows had become an economy all their own, one that dictated the ebb and flow of an individual’s connection with the world at large, putting a rosy sheen on everything and everyone’s interactions for fear of losing followers, or worse, earning a dislike. The premise of ‘Nosedive’ was Black Mirror through and through, a disconcerting appraisal of the real world’s obsession with social media heightened to become yet another digital dystopia. But at the end of the hour, which focused on a seemingly defeated Bryce Dallas Howard, Black Mirror did something unexpected: rather than sentence its central character to a miserable existence inside this particular nightmare — it set her free.
That is a matter of perspective, of course, as Howard’s character was last seen being detained by the authorities, but ‘Nosedive’ ended on a euphoric blast of profanity that nonetheless felt like a hopeful rebuff to the entire episodic scenario. It was a trend that would continue in season 3, culminating in the Emmy-winning ‘San Junipero’, which not only presented a more hopeful framework within the show’s normally dismal content, but excelled in finding the humanity in a story ostensibly still about the way technology can and has irrevocably altered our lives. This character-first approach worked wonders for the series and offered a much-needed sweet center to the usual bite of bitterness for which the series had become known.
While Black Mirror season 4 is without a success like ‘San Junipero’, it does have a couple episodes that deliver something akin to that, or, at the very least, demonstrate how the success of ‘Junipero’ was a learning moment. As skilled as the series is in painting a wretched picture of the future, there comes a time when even Black Mirror could stand to reflect things through slightly more rose-colored glass. It does so in both ‘USS Callister’ and ‘Hang the DJ’, both of which upend the typical tech-driven gotcha moment with a reveal that’s more rooted in the needs of the characters instead of the plot mechanics of dystopian science fiction.
‘Callister’, for its part, is more like ‘Junipero’ in that it deviates from an example of how technology manipulates and controls people to an exploration of the kinds of people that use technology and how it does and does not serve their needs. That slight variance is part of why the episode seems to be resonating with so many viewers — the other part being that it first delivers a spot-on Star Trek spoof before turning into a potent indictment on obsessive fandom and the sort of misogyny prevalent there and in the workplace. Like ‘Junipero’ the story relies on the agency of its female lead, played here by Cristin Milioti, whose digital clone rises from unwitting victim of Jesse Plemons’ entitled, socially awkward, and aggrieved super geek to Captain of an interstellar spaceship. Her decree that the pilot “Stick us in hyper-warp and lets f**k off somewhere,” becomes the most unexpectedly uplifting moment of Black Mirror season 4, and proof that the show can deliver action and laughs along with its cautionary narrative of technology’s dark side.
If ‘USS Callister’ works as a Black Mirror comedy (though it’s much more than that), ‘Hang the DJ’ is the series delivering a sneaky romantic comedy wrapped up in a slow-burn, seemingly low-stakes techno-thriller that takes the notion of online dating apps like Tinder to an unsettlingly heightened place. The story imagines its two unlikely lovers locked in a strict social construct that makes pairing of potential mates everyone’s only purpose. At first, the lack of important details about the characters — their families, friends, and even jobs — are noticeably absent, but as the episode’s twist denotes, that’s a feature, not a bug. The reveal that Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole) are actually just one of many virtual simulations of the dating app calculating the probable match between the real Amy and Frank is the sort of mischief you expect from Black Mirror. The optimistic regard with which the episode treats it protagonists — virtual and otherwise — is not, however. And the result turns ‘Hang the DJ’ into one of the more memorable installments of the series, simply because it swerves toward an emotionally gratifying ending that perhaps rethinks the ethos of the series.
In a season where robot dogs hunting humans in a future wasteland and a woman’s rapid descent into a world of murder feel like Black Mirror 101, ‘USS Callister’ and ‘Hang the DJ’ stand as a pair of welcome outliers. Charlie Brooker’s somber series has made a name for itself by taking viewers into a digital dystopia again and again, but lately, it seems Black Mirror is finding greater success guiding audiences to a more hopeful place.
Black Mirror seasons 1-4 are streaming on Netflix.