Technology seduces as it destroys: Save for the occasional TV serial killer, nothing comes close to obliterating so effortlessly while looking so cool. Black Mirror, the tech-centric anthology series, often plays up that dichotomy within its not-so-distant dystopias. We want the gadget that records every second of our life, as in Season 1’s “The Entire History of You,” and many of us would consider purchasing a robot who looks and talks and remembers just enough like our dead loved ones, as in Season 2’s “Be Right Back.” We can’t anticipate how much we’ll want to get lost in fake realities — or how readily we’ll fall into invisible traps set by others.
Premiering on Friday, October 21, Season 3 marks the show’s transition from the U.K.’s Channel 4 to Netflix. (All seven previous installments are available to stream as well.) The best Black Mirror episodes, like the two mentioned above, have exploited our fears of our worst impulses while dreaming up highly plausible inventions that aren’t too different from our current devices. Black Mirror is often described as “technophobic,” but that isn’t exactly right. It’s much more fearful of how technology allows the id to weaponize itself and to institute new cruelties. Trans-Atlantic in cast and setting, most of the third season ranks somewhere in the middle of the series in terms of quality. There isn’t a perfect episode like Season 2’s “White Bear,” but none stand out as particularly weak, either.
Since each story line is self-contained, newcomers can theoretically start anywhere. Still, I’d recommend they begin with the very first installment, a firing shot of a pilot that boasts an audacious (and somewhat prophetic) crudeness missing in the rest of the series. For fans, the intriguing but heavy-handed season premiere, “Nosedive,” is a fine-enough reintroduction. Imagining a world where everyone rates everyone else on a scale of one to five stars, it follows Bryce Dallas Howard’s Lacie, a teeth-achingly sweet striver, as she attempts to pull her 4.2 ranking up to a 4.5. (In fact, the “Yelp for people” app launched earlier this year, though without much success.) With popularity as the only meaningful social currency, that one number determines many more facets of Lacie’s life than it should. Miss Perfect’s inevitable breakdown feels a bit more broad and archetypal than the show generally aims for, but the small elaborative details about the app — like how a wedding might fit into the Likability Olympics that’s become Lacie’s life — remain thoughtful. Creator Charlie Brooker, who has written or cowritten every episode of the third season, touches again on one of Black Mirror’s themes about our digital lives: The gains are virtual, but the pains to achieve them are real.
The move to Netflix also heralds the show’s expansion in a couple of different ways. The season order is bigger (doubling from three episodes to six per year), and each installment is longer (lengthening from 45 minutes to 60 — and, in the season finale’s case, an hour and a half). The scripts don’t need the Netflix bloat — and, as such, most episodes lose the tension of “Playtest,” which stays suspenseful despite its far-fetched scenario of a game-tester (Wyatt Russell) volunteering to be confronted with his worst fears. (Seriously, why would anyone subject themselves to having their deepest terrors come to life, even in a simulated setting?) The overtly political “Men Against Fire” comes closest to the emotional gut punch that Black Mirror delivers with its most powerful plotlines. But both it and the online blackmail–themed “Shut Up and Dance” wait too long for their twisty reveals.
The most ambitious installment, the 90-minute procedural “Hated in the Nation,” channels The X-Files in its anxieties about surveillance, government data collection, environmental engineering, and vigilante justice in a plot about victims of the internet outrage machine meeting abrupt ends. Black Mirror’s guest performances are always stellar, but Kelly Macdonald’s utterance of the glorious line, “The government’s a cunt,” deserves special praise. And yet my favorite episode of this season is probably “San Junipero,” the least Black Mirror–y installment to date, in which technology isn’t always a path to hell, but also a possible door to utopia. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis star as queer women who would never have met each other if a kind of time travel weren’t possible. Their paradise isn’t free or for everyone, but it’s a welcome reminder that technology is ultimately what we make of it.