Friday, May 12, 2017

Black Mirror: The Twilight Zone for the 21st Century

People had been telling me to watch Netflix's Black Mirror.  My brother really liked it and I think Offutt liked it too.  I finally got around to it and was mostly impressed.  Like the title says, it's The Twilight Zone (or Outer Limits) for the 21st Century.

Like those shows it's an anthology series so each episode is a different story with different characters, mostly focusing on how technology screws up our lives.  Like The Outer Limits or 4th season of The Twilight Zone the stories are about 45-60 minutes long.

I'm going to do something different and bore the shit out of anyone who actually reads this by talking in brief about all 13 episodes.  Here we go!

The first episode is called "The National Anthem" and has an interesting premise:  a "terrorist" is holding a popular duchess hostage and will kill her at 4pm unless...wait for it...the UK's prime minister fucks a pig on live television.  Yeah, they'll kill her not for money or freeing prisoners or anything like that but for something really gross and embarrassing.

The first question is:  would you fuck a pig to save a celebrity's life?  I suppose it'd depend on the celebrity.  If it were Kim Kardashian, no thank you.  Hmmm, now I have to make a list of celebrities that are pig-fuckable.

The second question is:  would you watch?  The UK government makes it a crime to record or distribute the event, but of course plenty of people are going to do that anyway.  They even have a long air horn-type sound before the broadcast to try to shoo people away.  Of course that doesn't work.  People love trash TV and your state leader fucking a pig is pretty much the ultimate incarnation of that--which is what the terrorist was hoping for.  Me, I think I might watch for a few second and then turn the TV off.

Anyway, even if the concept seems kind of silly, it is thought-provoking.  As far as pilots go it was really good.  And really if you think that was far-fetched the British prime minister at the time of the episode's airing reportedly did fuck a pig as a college frat prank.  Why didn't anyone think to videotape it?

The second episode "15 Million Merits" is by far my favorite episode of the first two seasons and probably second favorite overall.  In a future dystopian world, people live in tiny cubes covered in video screens, where they're subjected to ads almost constantly.  Their jobs are to pedal bikes while watching more screens.  For all the time they ride they get "merits" which is like mining Bitcoins.  The title comes from the amount of merits needed to buy a ticket to audition for an America's Got Talent-type show.

The guy at the center of the story has 15 million merits, which allows him to live in almost luxury.  He can buy the food he wants from the vending machines and skip ads if he wants.  Then he hears a brunette singing in the toilet and convinces her to take his 15 million merits to try out for the show.  She does so and he goes to the audition with her.  The judges are like parodies of the original American Idol judges except the Randy Jackson one is a pimp with his own porno network.  While the girl's singing is good, they say, it's not good enough to win, but she's pretty enough to get a job on the porno network.

When she agrees to that, her would-be boyfriend is enraged and hatches a plan for revenge.  But like pretty much every other episode of this show, things don't go as planned.  The show's judges quell his insurrection with a bribe:  his own show that he'll be handsomely paid for.  In other words, he sells out while the girl is still stuck doing pornos.

What I really liked was how well the episode conveyed the claustrophobia of this world.  The room the guy lives in is literally a mattress and a bunch of video screens.  Even prisons have windows.  I think one day of that and I'd start cracking up.  But then fat guys like me end up cleaning floors or going on an embarrassing game show.  Anyway, it really reminded me of Ready Player One where the main character infiltrates this big gaming company that basically uses indentured servants to mine data.  This was pretty much the same thing.  I'm just not sure what the bikes were for; generating electricity maybe?  Like I said though it was great.

The last episode of the first season was kind of boring.  "A History of You" stars the guy who played Dr. Doom in the lame Fantastic Four reboot.  Basically in this world everyone has these ocular implants that let you store all your memories from birth.  He becomes obsessed with his wife and some friend of hers so he starts playing memories over and over and making her play memories and then going to the guy's house.  Like I said it wasn't all that interesting.  The concept was neat but the whole overly jealous husband thing has been done before.

The second season has 4 episodes, starting with "Be Right Back" starring Hayley Atwell of Captain America/Agent Carter and that ginger guy from Ex Machina and Force Awakens.  Basically ginger guy dies and Hayley Atwell brings him back in a manner of speaking first as a phone app and then an actual body.

Except the android or whatever you'd call it is not exactly like the genuine article.  As time goes by, the more obvious the flaws become.  It was a pretty good episode.  The concept isn't all that unique, but it was done well.

The next episode "White Bear" has a woman with no memory being stalked by a dude in a ski mask, another dude with a club, and a woman with an electric bread knife.  Almost all the people she encounters just stand by taking pictures with their phones.  She meets a woman and man who are also being hunted.  The man is soon "killed" by the two women head south to blow up a TV station that's supposedly controlling everyone's minds.

The twist is actually all of this is sort of a show.  It turns out the woman with no memory was an accomplice to the murder of a little girl.  She taped the girl being killed on her phone and so the UK justice system created this elaborate game where every day she wakes up with no memory and everyone records her as she's being stalked and potentially killed.  The idea being to give her a taste of her own medicine and for the public it's a bit of fun.

It actually reminded me of a story I wrote in 2004 called Tartarus where an assassin would relive the murder of his family every day.  No matter what he tried, they would always die one way or another.  This episode was kind of like that mixed with The Running Man.  I liked the episode for the most part, though not really in my favorites.

The next episode was kind of prescient for the 2016 election.  On a news parody show there's a computer generated cartoon bear named Waldo who starts out mocking a politician.  When it becomes a bit of a scandal, Waldo ends up running against the politician and a female politician whom Waldo's controller falls for.  The public becomes so enamored with the foul-mouthed Waldo that he actually gets 2nd place.

His controller, though, starts to feel guilty and tries to convince the public not to cynically vote for the "None of the Above" candidate because that's not really going to change anything for the better.  We're seeing now where voting for someone unqualified because he "speaks his mind" is getting us.  Like in the US or UK in 2016 no one listens and so in a flashforward Waldo's (now former) controller is homeless while Waldo has become the symbolic head of a fascist government.  It's a good reminder that as citizens we should take the voting process seriously.  It might be funny to vote for Papa Smurf or Harambe or Jill Stein but it can have dangerous consequences.

So that was a good episode and pretty entertaining too.

The last episode for Season 2 "White Christmas" ostensibly features two guys in a station in the Arctic or Antarctic or whatever.  One guy is Jon Hamm and the other is a British guy.  Jon Hamm convinces the British guy to sit down and have a Christmas dinner with him.  He then relates how he used to be the leader of a club where they would coach a nerd on picking up women by video remote.  Except one rendezvous went horribly wrong.  And then he talks about his job, which was kind of weird.  Basically you could pay to have a digital version of your brain (a "cookie") put in a little egg-looking thing to work like an Amazon Echo or Google Home.  So his job was to train the cookies to stop freaking out about being trapped in an egg and do their job of maintaining the house.  Which seems a bit unnecessary, but it was kind of a plot device that pays off later in the episode.

Finally the British guy talks about how his wife got pregnant but didn't want the baby.  He got mad at her and she walked out.  Not only did she leave, she "blocked him" so his ocular implant thing would only show her as a blur and muffle any sound.  Eventually he found out she had a baby but it too was blocked from him.  Only when she died in a train crash could he see the child and find out he's...not the father!  Because the kid was Asian and he and his ex-wife were both white.  So then he realizes his ex-wife was cheating on him with this Asian guy they were friends with.  D'OH!

The British guy goes nuts and winds up killing the kid's grandpa and leaving her in the house during a snowstorm.  Guess what happens to her?  Yeah, not good.

The twist then is all this isn't really happening in real time.  The British guy is just a "cookie" not the real guy and Jon Hamm was just coaxing him into a confession.  Then the double twist, for the club Jon Hamm was leading and the murder he didn't report they put him on a sex offender list that blocks everyone from his sight--and him from them.  I'm not sure how you're supposed to function then if you can't see or talk to anyone.  How would you buy food?  And it seemed like an unnecessary dick move by the cops since he helped them get the confession.  Shouldn't he get immunity for that?

Something interesting was the various Easter eggs in the episode.  The ocular devices were like the ones from "A History of You."  One of the screen names for the guys in Jon Hamm's club is "I am Waldo" like the bear in the previous episode.  A pregnancy test is the same model Hayley Atwell used in the first episode of the season.  At a karaoke bar the British guy's wife sings the song the girl sung on the talent show in "15 Million Merits."  It was kind of fun how they tied things together in a way.  It was a good episode, though like I said it kind of ended on an unnecessary down note.

My big complaint going into the third season was that all of these stories are kind of downers.  I know it's Black Mirror, but even The Twilight Zone had some fun and schmaltzy episodes to mix it up a little.

The first episode of the third season, "Nosedive," kind of remedies this.  It's about a world where everyone is constantly being rated 1-5 stars by everyone else.  The higher your rating, the more things open up for you while if you have less than 3 stars you're a bottom-feeder.

Bryce Dallas Howard is on 4.2 stars by consistently being a huge phony--along with most everyone else.  But to get an awesome new condo she really needs a 4.5 star rating.  Her chance to boost her rating comes when an old "friend" who has a higher rating is getting married and invites her to be the maid of honor.

But when her flight is cancelled, she begins a quixotic quest to reach the wedding that soon becomes like a suicide mission.  She drops a couple of f-bombs and the airport security drops her rating a whole star and any down votes will be doubled for 24 hours.  Because of that she can only rent a shitty Czech car that runs out of power and doesn't have the right adapter to charge.  She gets picked up by a trucker who only has a 1.4 rating because she stopped giving a fuck when her husband died of cancer because his rating was slightly too low for treatment.

When the trucker drops her off Bryce Dallas Howard hitches a ride with a bunch of cosplayers of a Star Trek-like show, but after getting thrown off for admitting she's never seen the show, she borrows someone's ATV to ride the rest of the way to the wedding, which is in progress.  By the time she gets there, she's dirty, drunk, and has like a 1-star rating.  She breaks in to make her speech, which is pretty hilarious.  She ends up in a jail cell, where she and the guy across from her start to engage in insult comedy because neither has a rating anymore so what the hell.

This was probably the lightest episode, which after bingeing the other two seasons was a little overdue.  In a world like that I'm sure I'd have a 0 rating after about a day.  Maybe at some point though popularity will become our currency.  What a terrifying prospect because even if you are popular, maintaining that popularity is a real bitch.

The second episode of the season, "Playtest" gets into some Inception-type ground.  A guy backpacking around the world runs out of money and so is convinced to take a job testing some video game.  It's supposed to be some kind of virtual reality thing but soon things go off the rails.

Then like a better version of Inception you wonder what's real.  It goes through one ending and then another ending and then another ending before we finally have the real ending.  It got to be a little annoying then as you wait for the real ending.  Otherwise it was a decent episode, though not the best.

The third episode, "Shut Up and Dance" is kind of similar in that someone is being used for a game.  In this case a young guy's sister steals his computer and gets it locked up with a virus.  He downloads some anti-malware program but it starts spying on him through the computer's camera, including when he jerks off.

Then they threaten to reveal the video to everyone he knows if he doesn't do what they want.  First they have him ride to a parking garage and get a cake from someone.  Then he has to go to a motel to give the cake to Bron from Game of Thrones.  Together they have to get the keys from a car and drive to a bank, where the kid has to use a gun hidden in the cake to rob the bank.  And then take the money somewhere.  Except then he has to fight some guy to the death while a drone records everything.

And...of course they screw everyone over and post all the blackmail anyway.  I guess they were just doing it for kicks.  Or maybe page views or something.  It never really says who's doing it or why.

It says the reason the young guy was so scared was that he was looking at kids.  They never really specify so I'm not sure how disgusted I'm supposed to be about it.  I mean looking at a "kid" of 16 or 17 is different from 5 or 6, especially since the guy was probably late teens or early 20s.  Like I said, I'm not sure exactly how disgusted I should be.  A little better indication would have helped.

The concept itself isn't very original.  There was a Richard Matheson story and movie of it called "The Box" where a mysterious box shows up on a couple's door and if they push the button in the box they get a million dollars--and some random person dies.  There was also a show on Crackle called Chosen where some random person would receive a gun and picture in the mail and have to kill that person or they'd become a target..  And movies like Speed and Die Hard With a Vengeance have a bad guy playing sadistic games like this with people.   So it's a decent episode but not extremely clever.

The fourth episode, "San Jupinero" is a deviation in that it's a love story.  In "1987" a gawky redhead named Yorkie goes to the eponymous town.  She meets a young black girl named Kelly.  And eventually they make out and then go to bed together--though of course they don't show much because except for language this show is pretty PG-13.  A week later Yorkie is looking for Kelly but she's disappeared.

You start wondering what the hook is and then she goes to this kind of heavy metal bar called the Quagmire and another friend of Kelly's says to look for her in 1996 or 2002.  Oh, so they're time travelers?  Is that the deal?  Before the time skips weren't hugely noticeable unless you're a music and TV historian to get all the references but when it shows a poster of Scream and play Alanis Morrissette and stuff you know it's definitely not 1987.  In "2002" Yorkie finally finds Kelly again.

So now we get to the actual deal:  the town is kind of like a holodeck.  Old people go into it for a few hours once a week to kind of relive their youth.  Which for Yorkie is good because in real life she was crippled from age 21--about the age she is in the holodeck.  When people die, their minds are uploaded into the simulation forever if they want.  Which Yorkie does.  Then it becomes: will Kelly join her?

At this point I'm thinking, "Come on, just let them have a happy ending.  Don't fucking ruin it!"  And of course they make you wait until the credits to find out.  It was a really well-done episode that really sold the love story.  I was glad they didn't piss all over it with some downer twist ending.  Sometimes Happily Ever After is all you want.

BTW, the girl playing Yorkie would make a great Emma Earl in a Tales of the Scarlet Knight movie.  I'm just saying.  Someone get her agent on the phone!

The next episode, "Men Against Fire" really could have been called "Rose Colored Glasses" since that's kind of the concept.  A new recruit and his platoon are in Denmark to hunt "roaches" so your first thought is giant bugs like Starship Troopers.  But soon you realize the roaches are people.  To the soldiers they look like zombies more or less. When the new recruit gets a glitch in his ocular implant (yes we're going back to that well, which is kind of disappointing) he realizes that they aren't zombies; they're actual people.

A psycho member of his platoon takes him captive, where he meets with Doug from House of Cards, who explains to him that the implant makes the enemy look like monsters so the soldiers won't have a problem killing them.  It also censors sounds and even smells to avoid traumatizing the soldiers.  The goal is a sort of eugenics, killing people whose DNA is deemed "inferior" so future generations will be "pure."

He's presented with two options:  either let them fix the implant or they'll use it to show him the true horror of the "roaches" he killed.  So he gives in.  Then later he goes home and sees an idyllic scene with a beautiful woman when really it's an empty wreck.

It was an OK episode, but again not the greatest.

The last episode "Hated in the Nation" was unnecessarily expanded to 90 minutes.  It seemed to drag a little because of that.  It's kind of like a super-sized episode of The X-Files more than anything.  There's a veteran detective (Kelly MacDonald of Brave and No Country for Old Men who uses her native Scottish accent) and her new partner who's a computer nerd who used to work in forensics.

Basically a columnist who mocked a handicapped woman is found dead, but that's only the beginning.  The next day a rapper who mocked a little fan is also killed.  The common thread is they both had a social media hashtag #Deathto and their name that went viral.  The murder weapon turns out to be mechanical bees that are being used to replace real bees for pollinating plants.

As they try to find out who's controlling the bees, they take the next potential victim to a "safehouse" in the country--because there are totally no bees in the country, right?  Eventually the bees get to her.  Working with the company who makes the bees they track down a former employee whose girlfriend was targeted on social media.  So this is his revenge.

Except that's not all he has planned.  When they try to shut down the bees, he has them attack everyone who played the hashtag game.  Which is millions of people probably.  In the end the former forensics nerd goes rogue and tracks down the hacker, though they don't tell you if she kills him or anything.  It was OK but really, it was all just some former employee out for revenge?  That's pretty cliche.  I thought the bees were becoming sentient or something.  Also kind of cliche I suppose.

Like the very first episode, this one poses the question, Would you play the hashtag game?  Even if you knew it could potentially kill someone in real life?  I think a lot of us would because it's all just fun and games--until it comes around back on you.  Social media can do some good things, but it can also be used for petty squabbles and bullying that drive real people to attempt suicide.  I guess in a way then it was like an antibullying PSA.  Only 90 minutes long.

Not a great finish for an otherwise great show.  That's all there is--for now.  If you're still reading then thanks and sorry to spoil it for you.  (OK, I'm not really sorry.)

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