Sometimes I wish I had been alive when The Twilight Zone was first airing on TV. Sure, many people my age spent more than a few holiday weekends marathoning episodes of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking program but can you imagine what it actually would have been like to have that show as a weekly event? To not have a clue what the writers had in store for you? My Dad tells me it was a show he had to beg his parents to stay up to watch, not even because it was on too late, but because it was too frightening. And was it frightening because it was gory or filled with gross monsters and disturbing images? No, it was scary because it was topical. Rod Serling and his team of writers weren’t talking about the future or the past; they were talking about right now. They were using fantastical stories about monsters, aliens, time travel, alternate realities, dopplegangers,and many other things to examine the society they were living in and critique it. There’s a reason The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is taught in high school English classes across the country. It made a real and terrifying point about how people behave when they are afraid of something that they don’t understand. There are even parallels to it in many current news stories. The Zone was not a horror or science fiction show; it was a scathing commentary on modern society.
Attempts to revive The Twilight Zone have been largely unsuccessful. The 80’s version did an admirable job (and is the subject for another post) as many of it’s episodes stuck with the main idea behind the original series. But there were also dumb episodes, lazy ones, and the special effects were always terrible. Then there was the disastrous early 2000’s version that didn’t seem to have a clue as to why it existed other to cash in on a brand name. Other anthology shows tried and failed to capture the magic. The short lived Night Visions had some good ideas but didn’t know how to execute them. Tales From the Crypt, while fun, was more about gore and nudity than anything else and Masters of Horror was the very definition of a mixed bag. Even Serling’s other show, Night Gallery, tried too hard to be scary and many episodes fell flat as a result. For decades, it seemed like no show would ever come close to capturing the magic that Serling did with his first series. Then a few years ago, a British madman named Charlie Brooker created a show called Black Mirror. It’s the successor to The Twilight Zone, the only successor. An anthology show that is solely concerned with the here and now and that provides commentary on where we are headed as a society through fantastical, yet not hard to believe, stories that are terrifying and shockingly moving. I’ll make a confession: I watched the entire run of the series, which amounts to six episodes, through less than ethical means over a year ago. But now, the series is on Netflix and I’m here to convince to drop everything you’re doing and watch it immediately.
I think the main reason Black Mirror was unavailable in America for so long is for the simple reason that it was too fucked up. Let’s face it, we are still primarily a puritan country. We’re afraid of sex, afraid of dangerous or new ideas, and petrified of looking too closely at ourselves. For Christ’s sake, there are actually folks in this country who still believe that Gay people should not be allowed to get married. For a place that claims to encourage free speech, we’re awfully old-fashioned, tight-lipped, and just plain ignorant. Not all of us, of course, but there is a disturbing number of people who, for lack of better terms, are just cruel, close minded, fucking idiots. And guess what? A lot of them watch TV. Would the same people who worshipped Honey Boo Boo be interested in watching a show that criticizes them for doing so? Probably not. So Black Mirror didn’t make its way over here until Netflix presumably said “fuck it” and bought the rights.
Created by Charlie Brooker, a satirist, political writer and broadcaster, Black Mirror is a twisted anthology show that wants to examine where we are headed as a species. When it was first picked up, Brooker said this about it: “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” It looks at topical issues like love, politics, reality television, the justice system, relationships, the media and presents them in a way that is equal parts relatable and scary. Just like the The Twilight Zone.
Take the first episode for example. In it, the British princess (a thinly disguised Kate Middleton) is kidnapped by a group of anarchists. They have one simple demand. They will kill the princess by 5 pm unless the prime minister goes on national television and has sex with a pig. You read that correctly. Now that your brain has processed that synopsis, you’re probably laughing. I was too when I first read that premise. Here’s the thing though: it’s not funny at all. Brooker and his crew of actors treat the material as deadly serious and use it to examine the way we look at politicians. Do we care about what they stand for or do we just want to see them degraded? Would we watch such an act on TV just because we could or would we take a moral stand? The answers Brooker comes to may not please you and he isn’t afraid to take down anyone. The characters who condemn the PM’s choice to go through with the act and yet watch it anyway are portrayed as the most unflattering monsters, for that’s what they are. It’s so easy to take the moral high ground and then succumb to your base desires while hiding under the guise of “I don’t condone this but everybody else is watching so why shouldn’t I?” That’s the reason shows like Duck Dynasty were so successful.
All episodes deal with similar disturbing ideas. Episode two imagines a future where shows like American Idol are the be-all-end-all of human ambition. Episode three presents us with a not to distant future where human memories are catalogued and recorded. A season two episode presents us with a justice system that has become so similar to reality TV it’s hard to distinguish between the two systems while another presents us with a very bizarre political candidate. But Brooker does not write in a heavy handed, lecturing manner. Every episode feels distinctly possible and he doesn’t condemn us so much as examine us. He’s not a man on a soap box but a true revolutionary thinker (like Rod Serling) who has looked at where we are headed and decided it’s a pretty scary destination. But he also understands that the destination can be changed if we’re smart enough to change course at the last minute. This makes Black Mirror as hopeful as it is bleak even though that may sound like a strange dichotomy.
To examine that point further, let’s talk about the show’s finest hour for a second. The season two premiere, titled Be Right Back, features Hayley Atwell and Domhall Gleeson as a happily married couple. They have petty arguments (Gleeson is on his phone too much) but love and understand each other. When Gleeson is killed in a car crash, Atwell is beside herself. She then discovers a service that allows her to talk to an artificial version of her husband based upon his tweets, Facebook statuses, and text messages. At first the service is just a series of texts but then she upgrades to a version of his voice. When that’s not enough, she sends away for a synthetic version of him. It’s a robot that acts like and looks like her husband but she soon discovers that it knows the words but not the music. Spike Jonze’s moderately successful film, Her, dealt with similar ideas in a much more long-winded and obvious way. Be Right Back tackles the same concepts, namely that a machine can create a human connection, and does so with so much more warmth, intelligence, and devastation. We know a story like this can’t end well but Brooker makes us care about these characters (robot and human) so much that we cannot help but root for them. It’s an utterly heart-breaking hour of television and one that understands how desperate we can be for a human connection that feels real. Hell, aren’t all Facebook statuses like that? People ‘like’ what we have to say and sometimes comment, all of which allows us to pretend for a fraction of a second that we are not alone.
The only downfall of the show is that there are only six episodes. However, a Christmas special will be airing on December 16th and it will consist of three interconnected stories with Jon Hamm as the narrator (he is apparently a big fan of the show). I can’t wait. But in the meantime, watch the first six episodes. If you miss The Twilight Zone, take comfort in the fact that Black Mirror is filling the gap. Any fan of science-ficton, horror, or satire owes it to themselves to take a look at this series. It’s one for the books.