Made In Britain is a weekly article in which Mark Newton, our resident Brit and Fish and Chips guzzler, selects one piece of British culture to showcase to his American cousins. Made In Britain is released every Tuesday.
The older I get, the more of a Luddite I become. I used to know all about technology (wanted to get Doom 3D to run on DOS? I was your man). However, that was a long time ago. Now technology scares me. It really does. Twitter scares me. YouTube scares me. Facebook scares me. Google Earth really frickin' scares me.
Technology is stampeding ahead, fast outstripping the moral questions which govern its use. Often we get so carried away with the spectacle of technological advance ("Wow! I can download an app which makes me look like George Clooney!") that we don't really question the impact that technology has on our society.
This week in Made in Britain we will be looking at Black Mirror, a brilliant British drama which explores and extrapolates these questions. Written by the talented (and hilarious) cultural satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror consists of two seasons of one-off allegories about the role of technology within society. Often these episodes depict a bleak future, a world where people live vicariously through sleek metal tablets, or where their only purpose in life to is acquire more credits to give their online avatar a new hat. It's an Apple Conference meets The Twilight Zone, and it's absolutely incredible. In fact, it's so incredible even wants a slice of the action (more on that later).
Charlie Brooker first made his name as the misanthropic and foul-mouthed curmudgeon of BBC 4's Screenwipe. Brooker would review contemporary television and film through his ash-tinted glasses, delivering great ranting pieces about the frivolous, money-grabbing and often depressing side of the entertainment industry. His 'life's a bit shit' mentality certainly isn't for all, but it does appeal to that dark and pessimistic center that lives within every Brit. We just love a good moan, and no one does it better than Charlie Brooker. Check out one of his best below:
But things have changed for Brooker. In recent years he's hit the big time: he's lampooning despots, he's got a trendy quiff, and, in a revelation that gave hope to millions of nerdy pessimists like me, he's even got his mitts on a saucy celebrity wife. Now Brooker has gone a bit more mature, instead of bemoaning reality TV with severe vitriol, he's creating his own twisted, intriguing and poignant pieces.
Each Black Mirror episode asks a 'what if?' What if Facebook was essentially in your head? What if reality TV was the only escape from the rat race? What if you can recreate a dead loved ones from their social media? What if the Prime Minister had to have sex with a pig live on TV? That last one is true, and as grotesque as it sounds, it was one of the best hours of television I have ever seen.
Let's talk (carefully) about this infamous episode for a second. The episode, entitled The National Anthem, was actually the premiere of the first season of Black Mirror — and it was certainly a brave one. A 'terrorist' kidnaps a Kate Middleton-esque figure and makes the unusual and disgusting demand. Although on paper the concept seems quite ridiculous, the story is presented in an entirely dry and serious manner. It is delivered with such cold, hard formality that it's difficult not to feel affected - by the end you feel incredibly guilty for the childish grin you wore for the first 15 minutes of the episode.
At its core, this episode comments on the Twitter culture, in particular politicians' need to respond to the constantly changing (and often poorly thought out) opinions of the Twittersphere, as well as that of the rapacious media. However, perhaps more importantly, it also delves into the human psyche to explore the morbid fascination society now has with depraved and sordid acts. If the Prime Minister really had to have sex with a pig, would you tune in to watch? Honestly?
Season 1 ends with perhaps the most believable, and therefore the most terrifying, episode. Written by Jesse Armstrong and titled The Entire History of You, it is set in the near future, and sees a world in which trendy young consumers have a 'grain' implanted behind their ear — a device which records everything they see, hear and do. They can then relive these moments through a process known as a 're-do', allowing them to flick through former triumphs, encounters, passions and miseries. The drama surrounds Liam, a young lawyer who becomes increasingly jealous of his girlfriend's former relations with the cocky and smarmy Jonas — relations which have been entirely recorded on their grains. The episode is clearly a reference to Facebook. How many of you haven't scoured your partners' ex's Facebook page at 3am in the morning. Come on, we all do it right? Don't we?... Imagine if instead of just seeing some lovey-dovey status updates or party pictures, you saw the private intimacy of their relationship.
The Entire History of You questions the repercussions of recording your entire life for prosperity. Maybe somethings are best left forgotten. Y'know, maybe that Facebook video of you dressed as a banana drunkenly singing 'Everyone Dance Now' isn't really the best thing to broadcast to the world? Maybe we need to be more critical of the stuff we record for the future. Sure, the concept still seems a little bit out there, but with Google Glass we're not a million miles away.
It is this episode which has been optioned by Robert Downey Jr's production company, Team Downey. There is still no word on whether Downey himself will star, but we do know the proposed film version will be slightly different from Black Mirror's. According to The Guardian, it "will center on a widower who uses similar technology to reconstruct his relationship with his dead wife until he unwittingly uncovers a vast conspiracy." Although the story may have been tweaked for the American audience, the mere fact it was chosen does suggest the premium quality of the ideas behind each Black Mirror episode.
This is on display nowhere better than Season 2’s seminal episode, White Bear. The episode opens by presenting an eerie world in which the population seems to have turned into a horde of brainwashed zombies who appear incapable of doing anything other than filming everything on their cell-phones (I've been to some concerts which seem like that). Cue a young woman who awakes in this nightmare with no idea who or where she is.
To go any further risks stumbling into spoilerville, but I can say the final 15 minutes of the episode will blow your mind in completely unexpected ways. As Jane Simon of The Daily Mirror explained:
the acting was unbelievable, the script was riddled with horror-film cliches, the violence was a bit over the top, but by the end I turned out to be absolutely dead wrong on every single count... It's another work of dark and twisted genius from Mr Brooker.
Ready for the bad news? Black Mirror has yet to make it across the Atlantic. The US does seem to be mildly aware of the show, with the series picking up the award for Best TV Mini-Series at the 2012 International Emmys ceremony — an event reserved for TV shows "produced and initially aired outside the US." Unfortunately, despite this relatively low-key accolade, no major US network, streaming service or DVD distributor has picked up Black Mirror for the US, although I'm sure many online copies exist within the internet Aether. The six one hour episodes of Black Mirror have been distributed to over 21 countries (and are apparently a big hit in China), so quite why it hasn't reached America is beyond me. Maybe it's time to start writing to your local representatives?
That's it for this weeks Made in Britain. You can hit the button in the top-right or follow @MarkMoviepilot to be kept abreast with future articles.
What do you think? Does Black Mirror sound as brilliant as I'm making out? And are you excited to see Downey Jr. heading up this kind of project? Let me know in the comments section below.