By now, as the show itself predicted, the key details of Black Mirror‘s deeply disquieting first episode have been discussed at length and publicised in the most base and unsubtle way imaginable by Channel 4. The upside is that gives us a free pass to acknowledge the programme as partly shock tactics (how many people watched the first episode because of the lurid previews circulating online?) and partly cultural comment and discuss the merits of the show as a coherent whole. That Black Mirror seems to have anticipated its own reception is reason enough for optimism for the remaining two episodes. SPOILERS BENEATH.
Anyway, the first instalment of what is being compared to The Twilight Zone but in execution is far closer to the nerve, involves the kidnapping of beloved Princess Susannah, held hostage by a man who turns out to be an art-prankster who demands that the Prime Minister becomes the centre of the largest television event since the Beijing Olympics.
What follows is equal measures Spooks, The Thick of It minus all the fun, Nathan Barley and Brooker’s intense mistrust of the general public. Fran Singh raises a very fair point that Brooker’s misanthropy is in some need of redress – what sets him aside from many comedy writers is his social conscience; what holds him back is his unwillingness to build in a feeling of hope once the crisis is ended. This falls at the centre of Brooker’s philosophy: an eagerness to criticise and lament that is not quite held in balance by a desire to invent a more hopeful future. Where are we without our dream of an ideal world?
Of course, the very fact that his forty-five minute essay on the brutality of pop culture can provoke such thought is a small victory of its own. You’d have to go back to Time Trumpet or Brass Eye to find television with the same power to provoke discussion. The tone of the episode, which understandably begins with an air of disbelief and amused disgust, very gradually and persuasively builds into something much more sinister and disquieting, all while never quite snapping a very delicate suspension of disbelief.
In that vein, it’s a technical work of great skill. The scenes are shot, paced, cast and written with a deliberate idea of the intended impression: the early buzz in the various press offices dissipates into large, bleak, empty sets and the screen is increasingly filled with the slightly bowed doughiness of Rory Kinnear’s PM and the prim pragmatism of Lindsay Duncan’s political aide. It’s worth taking a moment to remember how well-cast the whole thing is.
But to return to the brass tacks, a lot of your experience with the episode will live or die by how far you agree with Brooker’s opinion that our hunger as a viewing public for the obscene and humiliating is all-encompassing, or more simply, that we are bad and should feel bad. To play a little game of Script Doctor, there could have been a small, rival movement of Don’t Look protesters, and a swift investigation of their motivations.
The one moment I felt the episode didn’t quite add up was during the slow-motion close-up of the viewers in the pub, who are in various states of distress but still watching. The guy at the hospital who justified his actions as ‘watching history’ didn’t connect properly. You would have to truly despise someone to remain so cud-chewingly unmoved.
But perhaps that’s Black Mirror‘s ultimate goal: to take the tactics of 1984 and show the worst of all possible worlds in an attempt to shock us into action. If only Brooker left our range of response just a little more open. Regardless, this was an electrifying open to what will hopefully be a bit of television worth remembering. Here’s the teaser for episode two: 15 Million Merits:
How did you find The National Anthem? Did it make you want to tune in next time round? Let us know in the comments.