TV: Black Mirror (Season 6)

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is polarizing at the best of times, and since its move to Netflix, reactions to the series have been mixed, with critics complaining it’s too predictably dark, thematically repetitive, or flat-out pessimistic to live up to earlier innovations. Through it all, though—for this viewer anyway—it remains the gold standard of modern speculative anthology shows, and while season six is imperfect, it does nothing to change my mind on that score. It doesn’t connect on every swing, but each at-bat is ambitious and intriguing, and this time it spreads its wings in striking, unexpected directions.

The opening outing, “Joan is Awful,” is particularly timely, simultaneously taking AI and Peak TV to task in amusing fashion. Joan (Annie Murphy) is a vaguely discontented HR manager at a tech company whose life is turned upside-down by an overlooked clause in the terms and conditions of a streaming service, which spontaneously bases a prestige TV drama on her life. As Joan’s friends and colleagues watch Salma Hayek (as herself) play a villainous funhouse-mirror version of Joan, her life starts to fall apart—forcing her to takes matters into her own hands. “Joan is Awful” is a perfect showcase for Murphy’s comic talents, which are ably supported by a terrific supporting cast that includes Hayek, Lolly Adefope, Michael Cera, Rob Delaney, Ayo Edebiri, and Jared Goldstein, among many other familiar faces. Is it a little silly and simplistic? Perhaps, but it’s also fun, slickly barbed, and gloriously meta, and it sets the stage nicely for the season, the first building block in a thematic strategy.

“Loch Henry” joins young filmmaking students Davis (Samuel Blenkin) and Pia (Myha’la Herrold) as they visit the Scottish countryside to work on a documentary. The trip involves a stop at Davis’s decrepit home town, where American-born Pia is introduced to Davis’s buttoned-down mother Janet (Monica Dolan) and old friend Stuart (Daniel Portman). When Pia learns that the town’s tourism business was destroyed by a tragic serial-murder spree—one that touched Davis’s family, no less—she convinces Davis they should use that as the subject of their film, thinking it will be much more commercially viable than what they had originally planned. Their subsequent efforts, however, reveal a shocking truth about the past. A structurally tidy dark mystery, “Loch Henry”—like “Joan is Awful”—aims its sights at the modern media landscape, this time by skewering the hazy zone between fiction and truth that characterizes so much of our modern reality-TV landscape.

One of the show’s bigger reaches is “Beyond the Sea,” one of two feature-length episodes this season. Set in an alternate 1969 with more advanced technology, it involves a pair of astronauts, Cliff Stanfield (Aaron Paul) and David Ross (Josh Hartnett), who have undertaken a deep-space mission. To combat their isolation, the astronauts, physically in space, can link back to artificial bodies on Earth to spend time with their families. When David’s family is murdered by a Mansonian cult, he spirals emotionally, and Cliff—worried that David’s mental state may jeopardize the mission (not to mention his own life)—offers to let David link to his replica to get out of the ship. This, ultimately, puts a major strain on Cliff’s marriage, when David falls for Cliff’s wife Lana (Kate Mara). Compared to many Black Mirror episodes, “Beyond the Sea” is leisurely paced and, more fatally, it’s science fictionally unconvincing. The choice to set the show in an alternate past seems contrived primarily to establish scientific limitations that make the plot work, but those limitations are arbitrary and inconsistent. This might have been mitigated by a less-predictable story trajectory, but unfortunately the familiar love-triangle plot goes in the expected directions, delivering the episode to a characteristically bleak endpoint. On the other hand, it does elicit impressively vulnerable performances from Hartnett and Paul, and speaks—albeit peripherally—to the season’s theme, by commenting on the way remote work can cause even greater emotional distances. It doesn’t all come together, but the attempt is certainly interesting.

“Mazey Day” continues the season’s more temporally disjointed track record by sending us to Los Angeles in the early 2000s. Bo (Zazie Beetz) is a papparazzi struggling to make a living tracking down and ruthlessly invading the privacy of celebrities. When her work leads to tragedy, she quits the business—only to be lured back by an old colleague named Hector (Danny Ramirez). If the two of them can get a shot of missing starlet Mazey Day (Clara Rugaard), it will result in a payout more than large enough to dig Bo out of a desperate financial hole. Bo is trepidatious, but since it’s the One Last Job that might really set up her future, she puts her considerable talents to work. The way she accomplishes her objective pushes Black Mirror way off the board into uncharted speculative territory, and while its genre pivot is surprising, its overarching theme slots nicely into Black Mirror tradition, driving a scathing stake through the mean-spirited attention economy that drives so much of our media landscape.

Season six wraps up with the quirky dark comedy of “Demon 79,” a feature-length period piece that ricochets back to England in the late seventies. Meek shopgirl Nida (the delightful Anjana Vasan of We Are Lady Parts) is a lonely automaton going about her business, her simple life characterized by dispiritingly casual racism and sexism. When Nida accidentally triggers a mysterious talisman, she’s plagued by a demon named Gaap (Paapa Essiedu), who informs her that to release herself from the curse, she must commit three murders in three days; otherwise, a nuclear apocalypse will destroy the planet. Nida is a genuinely good person who does everything in her power to resist Gaap’s utterly convincing arguments, which only ensures that her success or failure comes right down to the wire. “Demon 79,” jokingly (?) referred to as a “Red Mirror” episode, is yet another speculative pivot away from the show’s bread-and-butter futurism. As with “Beyond the Sea” and “Mazey Day,” though, the subtle thematic undercurrent is very Black Mirror. It’s set in the past, but it’s really about the present—and perhaps, it is suggested, the future. As in previous seasons, the sociopolitical scalpel is wielded surgically against the the persistent societal problems plaguing us right now. A terrific throwback title sequence puts the viewer into a different headspace, but ultimately the story—given terrific energy by Essiedu and Vasan—wrestles it squarely back into Black Mirror territory. (That said, if Red Mirror became a thing, I’d totally be there for it.)

Based on the wildly mixed reactions it’s receiving, some may feel Black Mirror has turned way too far off the main road in season six, eschewing the near-future prescience that made its reputation in favor of more conventional “big tent” anthology fare in the vein of The Twilight Zone. But I, for one, welcome this season’s restless departures. In the end, they’re really just taking alternate routes to a similar destination, and they change the scenery both interestingly and entertainingly. The production remains first rate, the acting is consistently excellent, and the writing—even when decisions prove questionable—always manages to delivery an intriguing, thought-provoking journey. The new episodes are also seeded with plenty of clever nods and winks to the shared-universe aspects of Black Mirror that started materializing in season four, augmenting the show’s intricate legacy. By their very nature, anthology shows are always going to be a mixed bag; one can hardly blame the show’s mastermind for mixing the bag even further to expand the show’s reach. The results are uneven, but almost universally compelling, even when they fail; it’s more proof of Brooker’s uniquely effective sensibility in this format. There’s a reason this series has outlasted so many imitators.

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