Most TV shows that try to document our real lives haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate our relationship to technology into their modern conceptions of what real life looks like. With the exception of Atlanta and High Maintenance, which are devoted to fictionally exploring what we intimately experience in reality, television remains primarily a medium devoted to watching people interact with other people. Technology on TV isn’t invisible, but it’s usually not obtrusive, at least not the way it is in real life. We might use technology as a tool, but our digital tools are more a part of our emotional and public lives than the manual ones that sit under our sinks — which is why the new season of Black Mirror is a gift for television fans who are tech-curious ... or even tech-fearful.
Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone for the postmodern era. Each episode presents a self-contained parable, connected by little more than a storytelling perspective which repeatedly takes a speculative look at what the world might look like if we made an adjustment to our technological systems. Whether Black Mirror wants us to see ourselves implanting technology in our bodies or projecting it to the masses just depends on which episode you’re watching. If technology is the great mirror of our era, Black Mirror as a television show is the long gaze into our own reflections. But unlike life, where we usually spend our time manipulating our digital reflections to present an illusion that remains perfectly at ease, Black Mirror presents a chance to linger with our doubts, our anxieties, and our dissatisfactions in the new normal of modern technological life.
In “Be Right Back,” one of the series’s best episodes, a woman attempts to rebuild her lover using artificial intelligence after he was killed in a car crash. The AI first mimics his texting patterns, then his speech, until she is able to make a life-size android version of him. She teaches the android her boyfriend’s behaviors, she molds him to her tastes, and for a while his artificial presence supplants her grief. But eventually, the android’s willingness to parrot her desires becomes repulsive to her. She has made a perfect reconstruction, but the android’s lack of independent will renders him forever a copy, doomed in trying to be the same. This is the quintessential pattern of Black Mirror’s storytelling: Technology exists first as a convenience or a diversion, but it quickly spirals out of the control of the human beings who believe they are its masters. If we could perfectly recall our own memories, we would turn them into a prison of perception. If we ran a dirty cartoon for political office, its spirit of anarchism would be more appealing to the public than a career politician. In Black Mirror, it is the perpetual fate of technology to reveal the human emptiness that inspired its own pursuit.
The first two seasons and the Christmas special were commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4, a self-funded but publicly owned broadcast station in the U.K. There have only been seven episodes of the series, spread out over four years between the premiere in 2011 and the Christmas special in 2015. The new season has been produced by Netflix, which beat out Channel 4 in a bidding war. The third season is populated by familiar (and more American) faces than ever before, including Rashida Jones in the writers’ room and Bryce Dallas Howard on-screen. This scaling up is a testament to the show’s steady growth, cult popularity, and consistent excellence, but maybe the ultimate tribute to the strength of Black Mirror as a cohesive artistic statement is that learning more about what’s happening with the series behind the scenes — as public programming is co-opted and scaled up for mass consumption by an international corporation — only makes you long for the series to be able to cover its own origins.
Just this weekend, I read a story about Eugenia Kuyda, a woman who reconstructed the mind of her best friend through an artificially intelligent chat system after his sudden death. Before she set out to rebuild her friend from bits and bytes, she watched Black Mirror. When she was working on her project, her friends warned her that she hadn’t learned the lesson of the series, but she persisted — regardless of whether it was right or wrong, the bot brought her comfort. For those of us who watch the show without grand technological ambitions, Kuyda’s story is emblematic of both the horror and the pleasure of Black Mirror. We are largely powerless to stop the rush of technological change that people like Kuyda might pursue, but we remain in control of what we consume, and so Black Mirror plays as cyborg horror. Every episode presents a terrifying thrill set in the place where our minds meet our devices — but when the episode is over, we’re still in the comfort of our own homes, still in control of our own humanity.