Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day? Black Mirror: White Christmas
Charlie Brooker’s technophobic satire Black Mirror has been called, rightly I think, a sort of Twilight Zone for the digital age, with its depiction of dystopian near-futures that play on our wavering feelings about how much of our lives are filtered through technology. Over two series it has targeted our increasing appetite for the twin evils of our time: our capricious tendencies regarding ever-changing, impossible-to-pin-down social media platforms, and our attempts at happiness and validation through rapacious consumerism.
Not every episode’s premise is brilliant, and some of the ideas feel a little too familiar: they seem like slightly tweaked variations on things we’ve seen before. But there’s no denying the bleak humour – and simmering self-loathing – that marks the tone of much of the series. Each playlet is barely over forty minutes, and they seem to have got the timing and the rhythms right: any longer and the joke would wear thin (indeed, one episode satirising our obsession with vapid celebrities and reality TV stretches its running time to over an hour, and I think it outstays its welcome). The pilot episode involving the Prime Minister and a pig may yet stand as the most arch, blackly funny, and most discomforting of the entire show, while another episode portraying a harsh judicial system as tourist attraction plays like The Hunger Games reimagined by Anthony Burgess.
The series has a lot of admirers; some of them big names. Robert Downey Jr. is said to have optioned one of the episodes for a film adaptation. Jon Hamm, fresh off filming the end of Mad Men, made it known he was a fan, and presto! here he is in the Christmas special, along with Rafe Spall, Natalia Tena, and Oona Chaplin.
Combining the two things that people loathe in equal measure – technology and Christmas – is an inspired move by Brooker, and the Christmas special (with a running time of 75 minutes, but that`s okay, because it was really an episode of two halves) feels like the most Twilight Zone-like story of the series, with a twist that M. Night Shyamalan might have dreamt up back when he was writing good stuff (the episode perhaps also owed a tiny little something to Pinter`s The Dumb Waiter).
I won`t spoil it for you, but the episode covered an array of digital age concerns, and it did feel very now: how we are consumed with ways in which to manage our time; predatory pick-up artists; stalking; surveillance; and that old reliable, the social awkwardness of the dreaded office Christmas party.
Hamm and Spall both performed admirably. I have only seen Spall once before (as a nasty psychopath in The Shadow Line). He was rather good in Black Mirror as a man slowly (or perhaps not so slowly) going insane. Hamm seemed to be riffing a little on his Don Draper persona, being commanding, charming, and sleazy all at once. (His character also bent the elbow as well as Don ever did).
Fans of the series will no doubt have notice the many clever nods to earlier episodes that were scattered throughout. Easter eggs: that`s what the kids are calling it these days.
It remains to be seen if Brooker can come up with fresh ideas for a third series. Then again, he might only have to hang around the back-room offices of Channel 4. As the Christmas episode’s credits were rolling, an announcer’s voice notified viewers of a programming change. “The verdict came in this afternoon and Channel 4 has the inside story of how a sexual predator has been brought to justice. Manhunt: Closing in on a British Paedophile is next.”