Black Mirror: How Charlie Brooker’s Dystopia Got Basic – and Dull

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By Jonathan McAloon | 5:20 am, October 26, 2016

The very first episode of Black Mirror, which aired in 2011 and saw a British PM fucking a pig on live TV, had a great premise, and turned out to be a well-told modern morality tale.

Charlie Brooker’s semi-dystopian fable took on a new layer of spookiness when the media erupted over “Piggate” last year.

He has been proved prescient before – 2005’s comedy Nathan Barley predicted the rise of east London hipsters, Youtube personalities and office break-out areas.

But am I the only one thinking that Brooker has finally lost his dystopian edge?

The new series of Black Mirror – a deluxe six episodes, fat from Netflix money – features a horror story about the trials for a new Augmented Reality game, and a world where people’s careers and neighbourhoods are determined by social media popularity.

Luckily, social media itself has equipped us with a term to describe this world: “Basic”. It’s what bland people who spend their time taking yoga selfies and pictures of home-made tapenade get called. But Brooker’s send up of that culture is so close to the semi-bland reality that it ends up pretty basic itself.

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Much of the new Black Mirror is just too close to reality to truly shock, or even to give us a chill of dread and recognition. We blandly think: “look: that’s pretty much the way we live now”. Either that, or we feel our world has already outpaced Brooker’s fantasy.

Reality has always threatened to become stranger than fiction. But satire has tried and managed to catch up, from Jonathan Swift to the American author George Saunders (whom Brooker should read, if he hasn’t).

If the message is that we’ve finally reached the end game – reality is officially stranger than anything we could invent – this is an imaginative cop-out, and the result is satire that both could have gone farther and is too on-the-nose.

In the final episode one character literally says: “I didn’t expect to find myself living in the future but here I fucking well am”. There you are, indeed.


Yet almost every major (and minor) news outlet has published “rankers”, so viewers can rate the six episodes from best to worst.

Twitter reaction has focused on how “crazy” and “mind-blowing” the content is.

One of the stronger episodes, a tense thriller called “Shut Up and Dance”, closely resembles the real-life 2013 case of Scottish teenager Daniel Perry, who committed suicide after a cyber gang blackmailed him over a webcam video.

It’s tense viewing, but why the ambitions to sci-fi dystopia? Couldn’t this have functioned as a deeper, realist drama when set in our world?

The best episode, “San Junipero” – a love story that at first appears to be set in the past – succeeds because the alternate techno-reality seemed to evolve out of the story itself, and is generally free of bludgeoning “we’re all fucked” overtones.

That’s not to say it’s bad television. Christ, each episode comes tricked out with a top director and the best transatlantic acting talent.

But the level of veneration for the show’s vision, both across the mainstream media and social media, can only mean that we’re living in a “basic” alternate reality of Brooker’s making.