Ironically, the worst thing that could have happened to Black Mirror, the British sci-fi anthology series that’s now a Netflix original, was technical innovation.
For its first two seasons — which were each three episodes long — Black Mirror unspooled on the UK’s Channel 4 (and eventually in the US on the DirecTV-owned Audience Network) in the traditional fashion: one episode per week.
Each season had a weird little build to it, even across three episodes that had nothing to do with each other. There was enough space between airings for viewers to digest and dissect each episode before moving on to the next one.
But watching six episodes of Black Mirror across a couple of days (as I did with Netflix’s third season) turns out to hurt some of its rhythms. It becomes that much easier to notice the series’ tricks, to guess where things are going, to get distracted by trappings that keep you from losing yourself in the story.
Of course, many American viewers first became invested in Black Mirror when Netflix picked up the streaming rights to the series, so maybe this won’t feel any different to them.
But the fact that the show is now being made for Netflix has altered it in subtle ways, beyond just having six episodes instead of three. And the third season continues the show’s trend of being one-third brilliant, one-third pretty good, and one-third kinda stupid — but now there are two times as much of all of those things.
But even as I mostly enjoyed season three, I couldn’t escape the thought that Black Mirror is becoming trapped by its own success.
Season three is more focused on social media than previous seasons, for better or worse
One episode in particular features a sequence that feels like a direct adaptation of the moment in Ronson’s book where disgraced author Jonah Lehrer is forced to watch a stream of tweets reading him the riot act while he attempts to publicly apologize for plagiarism.
Black Mirror has danced around satirizing social media before. In the first two seasons, the show’s primary target often seemed to be reality TV; in season three, that previous flirtation with social media satire becomes a deep dive.
Creator Charlie Brooker fundamentally believes that technology hasn’t changed human nature, so much as enhanced it and made it more efficient, and he also tends to believe that a big part of human nature is our tendency to form ill-informed mobs. You can see how this would intersect with Twitter.
And in some cases, that works out brilliantly. The season’s longest episode, "Hated in the Nation," is essentially the story of what would happen if Mulder and Scully from The X-Files discovered that Twitter pile-ons could be weaponized (believe me, I’ve spoiled nothing), and it’s both tremendously creepy and a lot of fun —even though its central message that people should remember even words online have consequences is easy to guess from the jump.
But more episodes feel constrained by social media satire. The season’s weakest effort, "Nosedive," visually captures what it might be like to live inside of an Instagram filter, but its idea of a world where everybody rates everybody on a scale of one to five stars, and certain sections of society are closed off to those with scores below a particular number, never advances beyond the suggestion, "Wouldn’t this be awful?"
Black Mirror is good when it’s either interesting or unpredictable, and better when it’s both, but "Nosedive’s" satire lacks the bite necessary to make the episode sting.
Black Mirror is working against two key disadvantages in season three
In some ways, Brooker is working against a couple of disadvantages this season. In doubling the number of episodes to six, he’s had to rely more on outside writers ("Nosedive" is from TV veteran Michael Schur and his former Parks & Recreation star Rashida Jones), which dilutes some of the potency his best scripts offer.
What unites Black Mirror isn’t subject matter so much as tone. Where, say, The Twilight Zone was held together by Rod Serling’s introductory segments and the vague sense there would be a twist ending, Black Mirror is held together by its complicated balance of open-hearted humanism and a darkly gleeful sense that human beings have never met a situation they couldn’t make worse. Brooker plays in that space almost effortlessly; other writers struggle with it more.
Yet even Brooker is defeated by a problem beyond his control: Netflix bloat. As with almost all Netflix original series, these episodes of Black Mirror could probably all be shortened by five to 10 minutes without losing too much.
There were two hour-plus episodes in the show’s first seven episodes (those first two seasons and a Christmas special), but the other five were all around 45 minutes. Airing on conventional television kept the show tight.
The third season’s episodes all crest 50 minutes, and all but one crest 55, and you can feel it. There’s a point in every episode where, with about 20 minutes left, it becomes obvious where everything is heading, and instead of speeding up, the storytelling slows down. It’s deeply frustrating.
But this is still Black Mirror — and that means when it’s good, there’s almost nothing better
And yet season three of Black Mirror merits a high score for a couple of reasons.
The first is that even when it’s bad, Black Mirror is almost never boring. You can be watching a completely predictable, seemingly endless tale unfold, and some aspect of the whole thing will still be enjoyable. For instance, the glossy, pastel visuals in "Nosedive," which is directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), make the otherwise weak episode worthwhile.
The second reason is that when Black Mirror hits its admittedly very tiny target, there’s nothing on TV, traditional or streaming, that works quite at this level. Season three only reaches this height once, in the ’80s-set romance "San Junipero," but watching Black Mirror hit that high is almost worth working your way through the other five episodes, if only to get a sense of how "San Junipero" both informs those episodes and is informed by them.
There will be a certain subset of people who read this review and say, "Oh, I’ll just watch ‘San Junipero’!" And certainly, Netflix is counting on samplers, who just check out the episodes that garner the highest marks from critics. (On its press screening site, at least, the episodes aren’t numbered or presented in any obvious order. They’re just listed by title.) Part of the fun of the show — as with any anthology series — is how disconnected every hour is from every other hour.
But if I were to recommend the best way to watch Black Mirror season three, it would be to watch one episode every few days, give it time to properly sit, then move on to the next.
The series might be made up of disparate stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, but the more time you spend ruminating on Black Mirror and turning it over in your head, the more those stories start to seem like part of the same thing, a world we’re all marching toward, like it or not.
The episodes work sans context; they’re better when consumed as different viewpoints on the same unnamable future.
But since you’ll ask, here are the rankings of season three’s six episodes; watch responsibly.
Black Mirror season three debuts Friday, October 21, on Netflix.