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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Heritage

Bite the hand that streams! Charlie Brooker is trolling Netflix – and it’s breathtaking

A Streamberry original … Annie Murphy as Joan in Black Mirror’s Joan Is Awful.
A Streamberry original … Annie Murphy as Joan in Black Mirror’s Joan Is Awful. Photograph: Netflix

A few weeks into the pandemic, Charlie Brooker didn’t know what to do with Black Mirror. “At the moment I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart, so I’m not working away on one of those,” he told the Radio Times in May 2020. “I’m sort of keen to revisit my comic skill set, so I’ve been writing scripts aimed at making myself laugh.”

It’s weird to think that the pandemic came at exactly the right time for Black Mirror. 2019’s three-episode season five was a near-unanimous dud; a pointlessly grim Black-Mirror-by-numbers exercise, overwrought and overacted, that went through the motions so wearily that it felt like the end of something. The good news, then, is that Brooker was able to fully reboot what Black Mirror is during his time away. The less good news is that he probably didn’t reboot it enough.

For some years now, Black Mirror has been stymied by the sense that it exists solely as a vessel for predicting the future. Samsung has patented a video-recording contact lens that acts like the chip from The Entire History of You. Neural networks can reproduce the vocabulary and speech patterns of your dead loved ones, like in Be Right Back. The Chinese government has tested a system that punishes citizens who demonstrate poor social etiquette, like in Nosedive. There was that whole thing about David Cameron being inside a pig.

But to watch the newest batch of Black Mirror episodes is to sense that Brooker really, really doesn’t want that to happen again. For much of the new season, technology barely even features at all. In fact, the most traditionally Black Mirrorish episode – the feature-length space-set Aaron Paul melodrama Beyond the Sea – is easily the weakest of the lot. But the rest of it has the feeling of a self-willed backlash against everything that Black Mirror used to be. Unless humanity is suddenly overwhelmed by an onslaught of demons and werewolves (which admittedly, the way things are going, isn’t impossible) then the sense is that Brooker is all too eager to relinquish his role as soothsayer-in-chief.

Immaculate … Demon 79.
Immaculate … Paapa Essiedu in Demon 79. Photograph: Netflix

The final episode of the season, a co-write with Bisha K Ali entitled Demon 79, feels like the biggest departure of all. The opening credits describe the episode as “Red Mirror,” a branded offshoot that eschews technological satire in favour of straight-up period horror. It’s a successful experiment, largely thanks to Paapa Essiedu’s immaculate turn as a put-upon demon trying to stave off Armageddon, and it hints at a whole new future for Brooker and Black Mirror.

Or at least it would, if he hadn’t already created an even better one. The first two episodes of season six primarily exist as a way to allow Brooker to lash out at his paymasters in extremely petulant (and wonderful) fashion. There is Loch Henry which, once it lumbers up enough momentum, becomes one of the most precise critiques of true-crime documentaries – the genre that clogs up a million Netflix submenus – that has ever been made. Every uneasy feeling you have ever experienced watching one of these documentaries is parcelled up and delivered with barely concealed fury.

Uneasy watching … Myha’la Herrold and Samuel Blenkin Loch Henry.
Uneasy watching … Myha’la Herrold and Samuel Blenkin Loch Henry. Photograph: Netflix

The same goes for the standout episode of the season, and potentially the entire show; the opener Joan is Awful. Not only is it the funniest Black Mirror episode ever, but the sheer force of its satire – aimed at glossy, dramatised biopic series like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Dirty John – is truly breathtaking. To watch either of these two episodes is to understand that Brooker has now come full circle. These aren’t television episodes. They’re entries from the spoof television listings site he used to run, TV Go Home. And, quite honestly, they’re all the better for it.

The unifying antagonist of both Joan is Awful and Loch Henry is Streamberry, an all-powerful streaming service with a distinctive Netflix-style red logo and “Tu-dum” jingle. Black Mirror depicts Streamberry executives as craven engagement-obsessed opportunists who exist without any form of moral centre whatsoever, and the episodes would feel like extreme self-sabotage if it weren’t for the fact that Netflix pays Brooker millions of dollars for his content. They’re so effective, and so much more focused than Brooker has been for years, that you’d like to see him sharpen his axe even further.

If season six has any message at all, it is that Brooker has now outgrown Black Mirror. This isn’t a bad thing. If there are no more new Black Mirror episodes, I won’t be particularly sad. But if they’re replaced by a full run of Streamberry Presents, we might be in for something very special.

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