Must Watch: Black Mirror Episode 1

I haven’t posted in a while and had planned on tossing this review up at some point, but today I found out “Black Mirror” is making its way to the U.S. on the DirecTV channel tonight. So now is as good a time as any!

(The Guardian)

(The Guardian)

Embarrassment and shame often manifest in our adolescence. We see children dressed in wild outfits with mismatched color schemes and oddball designs, completely unashamed. Once we reach adolescence and subsequently adulthood, we go to the ends of the earth in an effort to avoid embarrassment. The humiliation of others, however, is an addictive spectacle with tractor beam capabilities for attracting an audience.

In the tense, absurd and jaw-droppingly enjoyable pilot episode of Black Mirror titled The National Anthem, Britain’s Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is faced with a difficult situation: a princess has been kidnapped and her captors’ ransom demand is unusual, to say the least. Without giving too much away, Callow has to partake in a demeaning, horrifying sexual act on camera in front of the world. What follows is a deeply creative social commentary regarding the way in which scandals are handled by the government, the media and the general public.

AWriter Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, breaks the episode into four distinct parts that are mutually exclusive in their entertainment value, but combine into one glorious whole that encompasses all stages of a scandal. The introductory part, which covers Callow’s first viewing of the ransom video posted on Youtube, sets the stage. Callow watches in varying degrees of denial, disbelief, horror and ultimately confusion as his aides, who have already seen the video, gauge his reaction and try to delicately provide the gruesome details.

Director Otto Bathurst delivers this opening segment with a delicate balance of solemnity and that classic British dry wit; the kind that only appears once you assure yourself of the dramatic elements. The scene progresses without music or supporting noise and emphasizes the deep blue hue of the early morning moon, giving the entire sequence a sense of dread and icy coolness. Kinnear, with eyes the size of golf balls, portrays Callow’s shock and awe with a touch of strong defiance and childlike confusion. The actors on screen and distinctly stylized cinematography give the air of a serious drama…until the ransom demands are revealed. When Callow echoes your stunned thoughts asking for the next move, his aide reluctantly admits, “This is virgin territory; there is no playbook…”

The remaining segments are equally poignant in their sensitivity to the situation—a young woman’s life is in play here after all. We are given the newsroom response and the effect of social media. A scandal of this nature is not typically introduced to the world through a Youtube video. Bathurst and Brooker also use the remaining parts, particularly segments two and three, for self-aware references to the paradigm shift in news today and even the style used in the opening sequence by directly referring to the influence of Lars von Triers Dogme 95—although rules of that nature were broken.

(Elliott Ebbs)

(Elliott Ebbs)

The National Anthem takes something as unfortunately commonplace as political scandal and looks at this phenomenon through the most ridiculous lens imaginable. However, the most brilliant aspect of the episode is the complete view we are given to the process of crisis management. In order to combat the possibility of forever damning Callow’s reputation, and marriage, his aides conjure contingency plans that often exceed the ransom in their absurdity. Despite everything occurring and the potential trauma ahead, Brooker deftly includes scenes showcasing the superficial desires of politicians and the reliance on instant polling, as Callow repeatedly asks about the general public’s opinion.

The public’s reaction to the events is shown in “real time” as the media releases the information. The quickness with which the overwhelming majority changes their opinion of the situation heightens the satirical nature of the episode. We live in a culture of short attention spans and mass opinions that change more rapidly than American Idol judges. As a result, the climax and following sequences are the most disheartening moments of the episode for us, not Prime Minister Callow. We see his anguish and self-hatred and it is painful to watch, but viewing the public move from sympathy to empathy to boredom and finally to hatred and anger is more disgusting than anything happening to the Prime Minister. You see a man, who is clearly in pain mentally and physically, vilified for attempting to right a wrong.

Black Mirror is aptly named for its ability to show the public what is so wrong with the direction in which our culture is moving, particularly our desire for public humiliations. Its pilot episode reels you in from the opening sequence and never loosens its grasp. The brief intermissions between parts serve as a moment to catch your breath, so take advantage. Once the show starts up again, there is no turning back, not that you’d want to.

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