For all the digital gimmickry and drool-worthy gadgetry deployed in the British TV anthology “Black Mirror,” it’s an image as old and organic as storytelling itself that lingers for me after a quick binge-watch: A solitary artist pushes back from her easel, stands and stretches and walks to the window, to find there a moth beating its powdery wings against the panes.
There’s no duh-duh-duh on the soundtrack to underscore the appearance of that eternal death-symbol — “Black Mirror,” a buzzy must-watch since its December Netflix rollout, is mostly too sophisticated for that sort of nonsense — but you know in your gut that poor Martha will never see her gangly ginger boyfriend again.
That’s no spoiler: The episode, “Be Right Back,” which leads off the second of the show’s tidy three-pack seasons, advertises itself up front as the tale of a woman who reconnects with her late partner using a cloud-based service that data-mines his social-media legacy and other ephemera to simulate his personality. (He was a charming smartass with an unfortunate tendency to text and drive.)
And like every other episode of “Black Mirror,” which takes its title from the sort of glossy blank slate you’re quite possibly reading this through, “Be Right Back” posits some intriguing technological possibilities, then digs quite earnestly into the question comedians are always posing ironically: What could possibly go wrong?
But that intimate, low-key, human moment with Martha proves as characteristic of writer/producer Charlie Brooker’s eerie, chilly futurescapes — scenes contemplated through a Google Glass darkly, and with a jaundiced eye, too — as do the inventively weird if all-too-conceivable consequences that come with digital advances designed to make life better, easier, more elegant, more efficient.
The best of the series’ seven episodes — notably “Be Right Back” and another story involving a marriage in distress and the implanted memory chips that preserve all the he-said/she-said — are like deftly hewn short stories; they’re as spare as the self-contained format requires, but confident in their characters and their conceits and their settings. Confident, too, of their power to clench at the heart.
Of course it’s hard to escape the irony of being prodded about the perils of techno-addiction within the frame of an entertainment brought to you by a company whose market value depends on the very ubiquity of those black mirrors. And though the episodes are all handsomely shot, not every installment is a paragon of narrative grace or thematic originality; not one, but two of them (“15 Million Merits” and “The Waldo Moment”) consider societies anesthetized by cynical Establishments, whether commercial or political, and center on hero loners who seize a public moment to indulge in brash bully-pulpit truth-telling. Paddy Chayefsky and Peter Finch went there in “Network,” and that was in 1976.
“Black Mirror” is undeniably seductive, though, as visually sleek as a Jony Ive fantasy, and as addictive as anything from the petri dishes at Zynga. It plays with topics and tropes much on our collective minds, among them privacy, terrorism, techno-voyeurism, and the worst impulses of the digital mob, and its class-act cast includes faces familiar from “Downton Abbey” and HBO’s “Rome.” Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” stars in “White Christmas,” a 90-minute special episode that aired last December.
And along with the delicious, creeping dread that comes with watching it — Brooker’s inspirations reportedly include “The Twilight Zone,” and at its mordant best the show inspires pleasingly shuddery memories of Poe — the gadget porn is downright gorgeous.
I know you’re mourning your ginger, Martha, but if grief is gonna keep you from using that swoopy digital sketchpad, I’ll take it right off your hands.
Trey Graham has covered the arts and pop culture for NPR, USA Today and other outlets. He’s a winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Reach him @treygraham.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.