To celebrate the return of Charlie Brooker’s dark science fiction anthology series, here’s my review of the first episode of season three.
As a huge Twilight Zone fan, Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror has quickly become a firm favourite. For those not familiar with the show, it is an anthology series, with each episode set in a near future setting. Normally the episodes focus on how technology influences our lives, although the first – and now most infamous – episode “The National Anthem” sees a Princess being held hostage and the Prime Minister being blackmailed into having… “relations” with a pig.
There are episodes based around slight advances, such as how improved CGI technology allows a cartoon character to run in a local election in “The Waldo Moment”, while some took place in a totally different world, such as “Fifteen Million Merits” which sees a society of people peddling on exercise bikes to power their surroundings and earn credits for food.
The twisted realities that have been created have all felt very real, and Booker’s idea that they represent “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy” has kept them feeling fresh and uncomfortably close to home.
The new season, after a move to Netflix, opens with “Nosedive”. Written by Michael Schur (co-creater of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and a writer on The Office and Parks & Recreation) and Rashid Jones (ANN PERKINS! from Parks & Rec), and directed by Joe Wright (of Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Hannah fame), this stars Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve. The basic concept of the episode is that everyone has a score, based on the ratings you are given by the people around you. An extension of Trip Advisor and Uber’s scoring system into everyday life, if you will. There are contact lenses with facial recognition that allow you to see a Facebook-style page for everyone you meet in real life, and a quick swipe on your phone gives anyone around you a score out of 5.
Howard plays Lacie Pound, a young woman who works hard to maintain her 4.2 score. She diligently rates everyone she meets 5 stars, and spends her downtime rating old friend’s photos. She is living with her brother, but when she finds an apartment she likes, but cannot afford, she needs to increase her rating to 4.5 to qualify for a reduced rent. She meets with a “Reputelligent Agent” a cross between a PR consultant, a social media guru, and a life coach, who tells her that to increase her score quickly, she needs to get rated by higher ranked people. Uploading a picture of a toy from her youth called Mr Rags reconnects her to an old childhood friend Noami (Alice Eve) – a 4.8! – who invites her to be her Maid of Honour at her upcoming wedding. This is just chance Lacie needs, as a great speech in front of such an influential crowd will push her rating higher than ever. But things start to go wrong for Lacie, and her score starts to go in the wrong direction. Can she make it to the wedding and save her rating?
“Nosedive” is a big step-up in both budget and scope for the show, and it is clear why it was chosen as the first episode – if that means anything with the new streaming, binge-watching, TV distribution model. Bryce Dallas Howard is excellent as the thoroughly nice Lacie, and Alice Eve plays her role of the seemingly perfect women-with-everything -her heart-desires to a tee. In a world where bloggers can earn millions from their social media accounts, her outlook on life is not that far-fetched.
The story has been done before – Community and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia have both had episodes that pushed very similar pretexts to comedic extremes – but this world feels so chillingly real. Lacie has a coffee and a cookie one morning, takes a bite and sets it up for a cute picture. Almost any Instagram feed will have something similar. The grimace Lacie gives when she tastes the coffee, compared to the 5 star rating she gives the barista, hints that she knows the disconnect between the real world and her score. Then there’s the character played by Cherry Jones (who was the President in Season 7 and 8 of 24), a lorry driver who picks Lacie up. She is an ex-4.6, but is living free from the system, and is now a 1.8. After her husband died, she stopped caring about what people think and started saying what she wanted when she wanted. Her 4.3 husband was denied treatment for a man with a 4.4 rating. When one of Lacie’s workmates goes through a break-up and the office all side with his ex, his rating plummets until he can no longer get into the office. These snippets are absolutely fascinating. The very best anthology show episodes – like the very best short stories – leave you wanting to investigate the world more, and this is definitely one of them.
Black Mirror started in 2011, and since then our society has grown even more attached to technology. Instagram was just a start-up at that time, but its influence has grown and grown. Even since this episode’s release, there have been various news stories (admittedly of dubious reliability) from China about the government introducing a “rating” system for its citizens. “Nosedive” investigates the way it has shaped society and the world it could go on to create. It has all the trappings of a sci-fi fantasy parable, but the images of people stood around glued to their phones feel like they could be happening right now. Or at least, in 10 minutes time, if we’re clumsy.
All 4 seasons of Black Mirror are available on Netflix, and the first two are on All4.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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A previous version of this article appeared on TheSnootyUshers.com in 2016.