Black Mirror is broken. And we’re not talking about the cracked screen that’s part of the show’s identity.
Season 5 contains the worst reviewed episode of the entire series, ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.’ The episode has been partly praised for Miley Cyrus’ superb performance, but every other element seems to have disappointed critics.
Variety went in especially hard, “the most majestically wrongheaded instalment not merely of Black Mirror’s run but, too, of at least the past year in prestige television.” Oof.
The remaining two episodes don’t fair much better, with the general reaction being that they feel like Black Mirror-lite. The series has a clear formula now, with each instalment saying essentially the same stuff, in increasingly predictable ways.
It’s a massive shame, we love Black Mirror, especially those special Channel 4 seasons, which still contain some of the very best episodes of the show’s run (yeah, yeah, we know you love ‘San Junipero’, but we’ll always prefer ‘Be Right Back’ or ‘The Entire History Of You’, sorry guys).
So, Black Mirror is broken. How do we fix it?
Get more writers
We get it, Charlie Brooker is a genius. He’s created one of the most brilliant anthology formats of the past 20 years. He frequently predicts bizarre trends (from a irresponsible populist being elected as a political leader, to social media being used to bring people back from the dead, to David Cameron’s alleged porcine relations), which is a key part of what fascinates people about the show. But, enough’s enough.
Astonishingly, there have only been three writers in Black Mirror’s history - and they’re all men.
Jesse Armstrong wrote ‘The Entire History of You,’ which is probably the most successful Black Mirror episode… Ever?
It’s certainly the only episode to be optioned by Robert Downey Jr to be turned into a feature film adaptation (which hasn’t been shot yet, but still). The fact that success came for the only episode not written or co-written by Brooker might have rankled with the creator / showrunner, as he hasn’t let go of control since.
‘Shut Up And Dance’ was co-written by Brooker and William Bridges, as was ‘USS Callister’ both are okay - with ‘USS Callister’ being the stronger episode of the two. And that’s it, every other episode has been written by Brooker, and the strain is starting to show.
If Brooker would allow a team of writers to help with the workload we could get - heaven forbid - fresh voices and different perspectives. What would a woman writer make of Black Mirror’s anti-tech premise? We may never find out. God, imagine a Phoebe Waller-Bridge penned episode - the potential!
But a lack of variety in the show’s voice isn’t the only issue of the Netflix era.
Make more of an effort with casting
As cool as it is to see Anthony Mackie and Miley Cyrus on a British anthology show, that’s not actually what made us fall in love with the series in the first place.
When the show first started, it was more dedicated to finding future stars. Sure, Daniel Kaluuya is huge now, but we first remember seeing him in ‘15 Million Merits.’
Arguably the show’s best episode, ‘Be Right Back’ featured Hayley Atwell, and Domhnall Gleeson. The former had already been in the First Avenger (before the MCU was the all-conquering behemoth it turned into), which was by far her most high-profile role at that point. Domhnall Gleeson had played a Weasley in a couple of Harry Potter movies, but we challenge you to name which one.
Both actors went onto bigger and better things almost immediately after their Black Mirror turns. That’s what we want to see - star-making roles, as opposed to glorified cameos from whoever’s hot that week.
Mess with the format more
‘Bandersnatch’ was ultimately a bit of a disappointment, mainly thanks to the fact it felt like a Black Mirror script that would never have been shot without the gimmick, but, if that gimmick had been integrated into a more intense premise, it would have pushed the format forward.
And, as the latest episodes prove, the format needs to progress. The high concepts are still there, but you can rely on Brooker to always go for the most uninteresting solution to the problems the leads face (sorry Charlie). As we’ve already outlined, new writers would help fix that issue; imagine what they could achieve if they had access to Netflix’s full box of tricks.
In Black Mirror’s early years, it felt like there was an unspoken promise at the heart of the show, we’d get at least one episode that contained (metaphoric) political discourse per season.
Season one had ‘The National Anthem’, season two had ‘The Waldo Moment.’ Then, after the move to Netflix, politicians stopped being talking points. Brooker’s focus seemed to shift to apps, with season 3 containing two social media episodes, and season 4 featuring two app episodes. Season 5 also has an app episode, ‘Smithereens’ which has been rated as the second-weakest of the series.
Oh, how we long for the days when Brooker unleashed his formidable political insight and ire onto audiences. Combine Black Mirror’s lack of commentary with the absence of his end of year Wipe show (which was coincidentally stopped when he started working for Netflix), and it feels like the writer’s resigned from his role as one of the UK’s most interesting political analysts.
The closest Netflix Black Mirror gets to political commentary, ‘Hated In The Nation,’ does feature politicians, but it also features killer bees, a murder mystery, and a satire of Katie Hopkins.
Which brings us to our final point...
Stop over-complicating things
Black Mirror is at its worst when it throws too much into the narrative, as demonstrated by the reaction to this season’s worst episode - which feels like several concepts smashed together to fill out a runtime.
If ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’ had been a focused exploration of parasocial relationships, it could have been the perfect Black Mirror episode, but the robot friend strand doesn’t blend with the pop star plotline (which feels like its been bulked up to give Miley Cyrus more to do).
Keep the concept pure, make it socially or politically relevant, use a dynamic format, with an exciting cast that isn’t packed with blockbuster actors or pop stars, written by a fresh voice... Is that really too much to ask?
Something needs to change, before ‘what if phones, but bad’ becomes ‘what if Black Mirror, but good.’
Black Mirror season 5 is available to stream on Netflix now.