The Speculative Dread of “Black Mirror”
In 1999, at the age of twenty-eight, Charlie Brooker, the British satirist who is now a television auteur, was at a low ebb. He’d spent most of his twenties freelancing forPC Zone,a little-read gaming magazine, where he was able to indulge his obscene and misanthropic sense of humor. Among other items, he contributed a regular comic strip about video-game culture, “Cybertwats,” and a back-page column, “Sick Notes,” in which he would solicit hate mail from subscribers and respond in kind. But Brooker, a gaming addict who’d left Westminster University without a degree, was feeling directionless. At parties, it was an ordeal to explain how he earned a living. “They’d look at you like you’d said, ‘I do coloring in,’ ” he once told a reporter. “ ‘I’ve got these coloring-in books, and I color things in.’ ” He wanted to write for television, but was hampered by self-doubt. Marooned on his sofa “like a woozy sea lion,” he spent weeks at a time scowling at the reality shows, talent competitions, and celebrity vehicles that were beginning to dominate Britain’s programming. Once, after a breakup, he turned his set on its side so he could watch while lying down.
As a means of imposing order on his desultory existence, Brooker started a Web site, which he vowed to update every two weeks. Comprised of lurid listings for imaginary TV shows, TVGoHome (the name was inspired by a piece of xenophobic graffiti) gave Brooker a format in which to hone his gift for brutal extrapolation. The Web site was designed to resemble theRadio Times , the popular TV guide published until recently by the BBC. The listings took the reader to an alternate reality, in which the latent prurience and sadism of the nation’s favorite shows were laid bare:
1:45 — Boom Goes Lovergirl
Hilarious hidden-camera action as insular nerds spend weeks being led up the garden path by sophisticated androids posing as attractive women, secretly wired to explode as soon as the word “love” is spoken.
3:30 — Strapped to Your Dad
Troublesome teenagers strapped arm, leg and hip to their fathers in order to feel his erection rousing against them as he is shown wild pornography over their shoulder.
12:50am — Fun Goose or War
Edge-of-the-seat gameshow in which two ageing bachelors are flown over an African warzone and commanded to draw a cartoon goose on the back of a shovel with a lump of coal. The creator of the most amusing sketch is slowly fellated by a prostitute with a mouthful of honey, while the loser parachutes into the middle of the raging battle below armed with only a dustbin lid, a clockwork pistol, and a webcam glued to his forehead.
Britain has always been fond of its cranks and cynics, and soon TVGoHome was drawing more than a hundred thousand readers a month. Seventeen years later, it is hard not to see the Web site, which Brooker retired in 2002, as the prototype for “Black Mirror,” his acclaimed and eerily clairvoyant series about the unintended consequences of technological innovation. Like TVGoHome, “Black Mirror” is powered by an engine of speculative dread. As an anthology show, it is made up of stand-alone episodes, each featuring its own fictional world and cast of characters. Some episodes use existing technologies as the basis for their nightmare scenarios. What if an Anonymous-style group of hacktivists began blackmailing members of the public with unsavory snippets of their Internet browsing history? What if a popular cartoon character, controlled by an actor at the helm of a live-motion-capture system, successfully ran for Parliament on an anti-establishment platform? Others entertain unsettling day-after-tomorrow hypotheses. What if people had a microchip embedded in their necks that recorded their lives and allowed them to replay memories at will? What if there was a software program that enabled a bereaved person to communicate with a lost loved one by creating an avatar using the deceased’s digital footprint?
The show, which first aired in Britain, on Channel 4, in 2011, became an international hit, with licensing rights sold in more than ninety territories. In 2014, Netflix acquired exclusive U.S. streaming rights for the first two seasons. Last year, Brooker and his longtime collaborator Annabel Jones signed a contract with Netflix to make twelve new episodes. (The deal was reportedly worth forty million dollars.) “Black Mirror” answers to a mood of global unease about the breakneck pace of technological development; Brooker’s audience already knows what it is like to witness the sudden arrival of the future—or, as he put it in his weekly column for theGuardian , to recognize how “nuts-deep into the future we already are.” Last month, on the day the third season was released, a cyberattack crashed several popular Web sites, including Spotify, Reddit, and Netflix.
On Twitter, Stephen King described “Black Mirror” as “terrifying, funny, intelligent. It’s like The Twilight Zone, only rated R.” Zadie Smith considers it one of the best things to appear on British TV in decades. “It’s the ultimate commentary on shit television by virtue of being head and shoulders above everything else,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It reminds me of TVGoHome in that it’s formed out of a sort of exquisite rage, but it’s also so terrifically and fully imagined—the speculative fiction element is sublime.”
In May, I met with Brooker, who is now forty-five, on location at Harpsden Court, a rambling country house in South Oxfordshire, which “Black Mirror” had commandeered to film an episode of its third season. “I suppose that in TVGoHome there’s a dry, deadpan presentation of a horrendous idea,” he said. “And then they’ve often come true. Someone sent me a link to a new show the other day. It was something like ‘Joanna Lumley Swimming with Dogs.’ And they were like, ‘This is straight out of TVGoHome.’ ”
Brooker was sitting hunched over a MacBook, his graying quiff, crafty eyes, and sullen mouth caught in the screen’s pale glare. In person, he radiates a negative exuberance, though he is milder, more tentative than his work might lead you to expect. A scrum of crew members were preparing for a scene to be shot in an upstairs bedroom. The room had a maximum occupancy of fifteen, so Brooker and Jones, his fellow showrunner, were monitoring the day’s progress through a live video linkup in an oak-panelled hall downstairs. “I assume the whole floor collapses if there are sixteen people,” Brooker said. “But it doesn’t specify their weight or size on the door, which is worrying.”
“When we were rehearsing yesterday, Charlie was literally doing a head count,” Jones said. Their relationship seemed to be founded on affectionate reciprocal mockery. “He was terrified the floor was going to fall through.”
“I’m terrified of most things, to be fair,” Brooker said.
The techno-dystopian “what if”s that Brooker poses in “Black Mirror” are far-fetched, but his meticulous attention to detail gives the show a remarkable plausibility. “I’ve never been interested in the school of sci-fi that’s about, you know, aliens with croissant-shaped foreheads flying about through Sector Alpha-6,” Brooker said. “I can’t get a foothold on that.” Instead, he grounds his high-concept stories in the humanly mundane. Like “The Twilight Zone,” another anthology series that distilled the ambient paranoia of its age, “Black Mirror” ranges effortlessly across genres, cannibalizing everything from police procedurals and kitchen-sink dramas to eighties music videos and feminine-hygiene commercials; it is manifestly the work of someone who has clocked up many hours of screen time. But the show returns again and again to the domestic: horror, Brooker understands, begins at home.
In “The Entire History of You,” the episode about the microchip, or “grain,” that records people’s memories, a group of well-off thirty-somethings sit around a dinner table making small talk. When one member of the party reveals that she is “going grainless,” an awkward silence descends. “Is that a political thing?” another character asks. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t do it,” a third says. It isn’t so much the shock of the new as the shock of recognition that makes the moment so disconcerting. We have all been involved in conversations about smartphone holdouts, and anyone who has resisted joining Facebook or Twitter has felt the subtle coercion of consensus.
Each episode of “Black Mirror” establishes the background of normality against which a decisive tweak will stand out all the more starkly. In “The National Anthem,” the show’s début episode, set in a fictional Britain, Princess Susannah, a popular member of the Royal Family, is abducted. Her release hinges on a single demand: the Prime Minister must have unsimulated sex with a pig on live television. “The idea had been knocking around for a while,” Brooker said. “Originally, it was a beloved celebrity that’s blackmailed into fucking a pig on live TV. Society wouldn’t quite be the same. How would you deal with censorship after that?” A few years later, he was watching the counterterrorism drama “24,” one of his favorite shows, when a new possibility occurred to him. “I thought, God, you could do it like that,” he said, his voice recalling the hushed awe of artistic revelation. “The way to do it would be to play it straight.”
In 2010, Brooker and Jones took the premise, along with several other story lines, to Shane Allen, then the head of comedy at Channel 4, and proposed a new series. Allen had commissioned “Dead Set” (2008), Brooker’s first foray into television drama, in which the inhabitants of the “Big Brother” house are the last to learn of a zombie apocalypse ravaging the outside world. (The master joke is that nobody is alive to watch.) The five-part series enjoyed critical and commercial success, but Allen was dubious about “Black Mirror,” and especially about “The National Anthem.”
“It’s one of those things where your knee-jerk response is ‘I’m not sure you can do that,’ ” Allen told me recently at BBC headquarters, in central London, where he is now in charge of comedy. “My boss at the time wasn’t too impressed with it.” The possibility of using another animal was briefly considered. “A chicken?” Allen said when I pressed him for details. “Or a horse? It was a mad conversation.”
Commercial viability was another concern. British TV budgets are negligible compared with those in the U.S., and many U.K. shows rely on deficit funding from distributors, who typically sell programs to international markets in bulk. Anthology shows are costly to make and often struggle to build an audience. Nevertheless, Brooker was given a tentative go-ahead and produced the first fifteen pages of a script for “The National Anthem” in a few days. “It was crisp, it was brilliant,” Allen recalled. In lesser hands, he suggested, the premise would have turned farcical; Brooker’s genius was to take “a ridiculous idea and make it feel very rooted and real.”
“The National Anthem” falls into the category of “Black Mirror” episodes that could conceivably occur today with the technology at our disposal: social media and the television news are all that is needed to bring about its wretched consummation. They are also the means by which Brooker persuades us to suspend our disbelief at the idea that the British government would give in to a kidnapper’s demand, let alone the demand that is made of Michael Callow, the Prime Minister. Throughout the episode, the screen pulsates with news crawls and graphics, polling results, tweets. We briefly see a video of the kidnapped Princess on YouTube; it has received 19,345,973 views and, in a sardonic touch, more likes (8,471) than dislikes (8,004).
We also see Callow’s wife, Jane, scrolling through her Twitter feed, her face taut with the rising pressure of tears:
WAKE UP SHEEPLE THIS IS FALSE FLAG OPERATION – GET SYMPATHY FOR PM THEN BOMB YEMEN #PMpig, #kidnap, #trottergate, #bilderberg
OINK OINK CALLOW :–D #PMpig, #kidnap
He better not think about his wife during it cos it’ll put him off! #pigfuckercallow #PMpig
Like most episodes of “Black Mirror,” “The National Anthem” is a forty-five-minute panic attack. But it wouldn’t be as harrowing, or as poignant, if we didn’t care about the effect of the unfolding crisis on the Callows’ marriage.
Hearth and home are also at the center of “Playtest,” the episode that was being filmed at Harpsden Court, which Brooker characterized as a “horror romp” in the vein of “Evil Dead 2.” In the episode, Cooper, a young American backpacker, played by Wyatt Russell, is stranded in London, the last stop on a round-the-world trip, after his credit card is hacked. To earn money for a plane ticket back to the U.S., he responds to an online ad posted by a video-game company to test a new “interactive augmented reality system” that uses a neural implant called a “mushroom” to generate audiovisual hallucinations based on the user’s deepest fears. Brooker spends the opening minutes establishing his protagonist’s troubled family history. Cooper’s father has recently died after a descent into Alzheimer’s, and his relationship with his mother is strained. Early one morning, he gathers his bags and tiptoes down the stairs of his childhood home so as not to wake her. It is typical of Brooker’s grimly ironic narrative sensibility that Cooper’s escapism should bring him to a technologically enhanced haunted house, a dark parody of home.
At Harpsden Court, someone called out, “Quiet, please! The time is nigh!” Brooker and Jones put on their headphones and huddled around the video monitors, which stood in front of an open fireplace. In the scene, Russell is slouched against a four-poster bed, pleading with two members of the video-game company to turn off the augmented-reality system. Earlier, Brooker had suggested that Russell play the scene with even greater abandon than
he had in previous takes; he wanted to insure that his frenzy was commensurate with the ghastly situation in which he found himself. As Russell took another stab at it—“Stop!” he howled repeatedly, his voice at full stretch, while two impassive musclemen lugged him away—Brooker flexed his eyebrows and winced. This seemed to signal approval.
Brooker grew up a Quaker in the small Oxfordshire village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, a short drive from Harpsden Court. His father was a social worker. His mother worked at a gift shop; her parents were actively involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Brooker speaks of certain shows from his childhood as though he were yet to recover from them. A 1982 episode of “Q.E.D.,” the BBC’s popular science program, explored what would happen if a one-megaton nuclear bomb exploded over St. Paul’s Cathedral, in central London. In the episode, the viewer sees a map of the city, a large portion of it shaded red, while a matter-of-fact narrator tells us, “Everywhere inside this seven-mile radius—for example, at the shops in Holland Park Avenue—the effect on directly exposed flesh is the same: it behaves like the meat in the butcher’s window.” The film cuts to time-lapse footage of fat oozing off a strung-up pig carcass.
“I still sort of expect to die in a nuclear holocaust,” Brooker told me over lunch, which we ate on the ground floor of a double-decker dining trailer for the cast and crew a few fields over from Harpsden Court. “I think that’s where the pessimism comes from,” he continued. “I remember a history teacher who taught us a whole lesson and then at the end said, ‘It doesn’t matter anyway, ’cause we’ll all blow ourselves up.’ I was like, ‘Oh right, thanks. Does that mean I don’t have to do the exam?’ ”
Brooker’s video-game habit was inaugurated one afternoon in the late seventies during a trip to the local swimming pool, where he encountered his first arcade machine. “The notion that you could control what was on the screen was just magical,” he told me. Even when he didn’t have enough money, he would move the joystick as he watched a game’s demo and persuade himself that he was playing. “I don’t think that feeling ever really went away,” he said. “I have to buy every new games console that comes out.”
In 1999, Brooker was introduced to one of his heroes, Chris Morris, the creator of the spoof current-affairs programs “The Day Today” and “Brass Eye,” which many consider a high-water mark of British television comedy. Morris, an admirer of TVGoHome, was especially taken with the recurring character Nathan Barley, “an upper-middle-class London media prickhole” whose day-to-day activities—networking, d.j.ing at pubs, getting overpriced haircuts—form the basis of a fly-on-the-wall documentary series. Morris proposed to Brooker that they turn Barley and the vacuous new-media scene he exemplified into a sitcom.
“Nathan Barley,” which Brooker described as feeling “a bit like sci-fi at the time,” now appears to have been the R. & D. department for “Black Mirror.” Gadgets abound; Barley’s cell phone, the Wasp T-12, which can also function as a camera, a projector, and a set of “MP3 decks,” predates the first iPhone by a couple of years. “It’s got apps, only they’re physical,” Brooker said. “We hadn’t thought these things were going to be on the screen.” Working on the series, he recalled, he and Morris would have “conversations that lasted for ages about the typeface on a poster in the background.”
As showrunner on “Black Mirror,” Brooker is similarly scrupulous. The believability of each episode depends on maintaining the complex internal logic of its dystopic world, so he watches for the kinds of inconsistencies that can be unwittingly introduced during filming and editing. In “Playtest,” an employee of the video-game company assures Cooper that the spectres he sees during the trial are merely holograms and can’t harm him, a claim that comes to seem increasingly suspect. During a fight scene between him and a woman who may or may not be a hallucination, a bottle of wine is knocked to the floor. Brooker, Jones, and Dan Trachtenberg, the episode’s director, pondering the levels of reality to which different props and characters belonged, discussed at length whether the bottle would shatter. (They eventually ruled that it would.) In “San Junipero,” another new episode that involves simulated reality, two characters are caught in a downpour. As filming got under way, Brooker began to doubt whether it would rain at all in this particular world. He spent a week and a half debating the point with the director before conceding that he was “just being a prick about it.”
Brooker was determined to make the devices and screens and interfaces used in “Black Mirror” seem authentic. “In Hollywood, if the hero receives an e-mail there’ll be a giant animation of a fucking envelope spinning around,” he said. “We try to avoid those kinds of histrionic computers.” In “Be Right Back,” the episode about the software for the bereaved, the female protagonist, whose husband has recently died in a car accident, receives an e-mail from an online bookseller with the subject line “Martha, people in your position bought the following.” When she opens it, the message shows an array of grief-counselling books, each accompanied by customer reviews. We glimpse the screen, and Martha’s irritated response to it, for only a second. (In the future world of the episode, deleting an e-mail simply requires making a fist in the air and opening your hand again, as though crumpling up a piece of paper and tossing it away.) But the vignette stands for an accumulation of such intrusive moments—the death of solitude by a thousand digital cuts.
At the root of the show’s creepy prescience lies Brooker’s entrepreneurial grasp of what people desire, or might be made to desire. He frequently receives tweets and e-mails about real-world developments that echo details from the show. Samsung recently patented a “smart” contact lens that projects images directly into the user’s eye; the characters in “The Entire History of You” use a similar item, a kind of phenomenological DVR, to record and replay their lives in real time.
“The National Anthem” first aired in late 2011. Last year, an unauthorized biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron quoted an anonymous member of Parliament who claimed to have witnessed Cameron during his student days at Oxford placing “a private part of his anatomy” inside the mouth of a dead pig during a hazing ritual for an exclusive social club. Twitter did what Twitter does with such material, but the BBC and other traditional news organizations initially resisted covering the story. The situation plays out in an almost identical manner in “The National Anthem.” Even the Twitter hashtags that appear in the episode—“#PMpig,” “#trottergate”—showed up on the actual Web.
“Who’d have thought the pig-fucking episode would be the most accurate one?” Brooker said. “I didn’t know anything about that, by the way. I’d never heard the rumor. So when that story broke I was quite weirded out and genuinely worried for a short period that maybe reality is a simulation designed to confuse.” He exhaled. “I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
For all its imaginative range, Brooker’s work regularly returns to a particular character type: the wayward, disaffected young man who has more rage than he knows what to do with. Nathan Barley spends much of his time trying to win the approval of a jaundiced hack named Dan Ashcroft, who has won minor celebrity for his articles deriding “the idiots” who make up his milieu, those “self-regarding consumer slaves” who “babble into handheld twit machines.” One TVGoHome listing describes an episode of a documentary series called “Britain’s Angriest Failures,” devoted to a man who “explains how everything on television is produced by a cabal of guffawing nepotists hell-bent on filling the schedules with simple-minded rubbish, while lying in front of his television smoking cannabis on a grimy towelling robe.”
In 2000, Brooker began working on the satirical news program “The 11 O’Clock Show” and writing his TV column for theGuardian . A few years later, the column grew into a weekly review program, “Screenwipe,” in which Brooker, ensconced in the living room of his South London flat, wryly taxonomized TV conventions (“TV presenters are basically imaginary friends, and they come in four main types ”) and delivered baroquely vituperative monologues straight into the camera.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the crotchety couch pundit and Brooker himself. Shane Allen, a producer on “The 11 O’Clock Show,” told me about a New Year’s Eve party in the early aughts at which Brooker, having spent most of the night sitting quietly by himself, rose from his chair, put on the song “I Hate People,” by the hardcore punk group the Anti-Nowhere League (chorus: “I hate people / I hate the human race / I hate people / I hate your ugly face”), proceeded to “wave his arse at everybody in the room, singing the song word for word, and then just sat down as though nothing had happened.”
In 2008, Brooker received a spoof news article from one of his admirers about Kerry Katona, a member of the British pop group Atomic Kitten. Katona, who had a history of drug addiction, had recently appeared on the daytime talk show “This Morning” to promote a new reality series. She was clearly intoxicated, and her speech veered in and out of intelligibility. The article described Katona as a “mentally hilarious ex-girl band jizz puppet” and a “pram-faced shit-muncher.” Brooker was mortified. “I couldn’t work out which was worse,” he wrote in theGuardian . “The fact that they’d written this in the first place or the assumption that I, specifically, would find it funny.”
In 2010, Brooker retired the column and married Konnie Huq, a former host of the classic BBC children’s variety program “Blue Peter.” They now have two young children. “It’s like getting new software installed in your head,” Brooker said of being a father, though he rejected the idea that it had mellowed him. “If anything, I’ve got to get crosser. There are people who are going to be around after I’m dead who I give a shit about.”
“Black Mirror” is as scabrous as anything Brooker has done, but it is also clearly the work of a person who has thought through the risks and limitations of default-mode misanthropy. In “The Waldo Moment,” the episode about a blue cartoon bear who successfully stands for Parliament, the disaffected public can’t get enough of Waldo’s ribald anti-politics. Critics were unconvinced when it aired in 2013, and Brooker told me he agreed that the ending, which skips forward to a Waldo-dominated global police state, is too abrupt. Now it seems prophetic. On the night of November 8th, as a Trump Presidency began to look increasingly likely, the show’s Twitter account posted: “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.”
“Black Mirror” is full of the cynical types that populate Brooker’s earlier work, but they are presented with a new subtlety and skepticism. In the climactic scene of “The Waldo Moment,” Jamie Salter, the depressive comedian who voices Waldo, tries to make amends with his young Labour opponent, whose career he has wrecked during the campaign. She is unreceptive. “I was at least attempting to represent—well, I don’t know, not just bollocks to everything,” she says. “If you were preaching revolution, well, that would be something. But you’re not, because that would require courage. And a mind-set. And what have you got? Who are you? What are you for?” Salter, unable to meet her gaze, has no answer.
I asked Brooker the same thing—what he felt he was “for”—when we met at the Gore Hotel, an upscale establishment on a street of pollarded trees in Kensington, just around the corner from the Royal Albert Hall. He paused over his meal. “Now, there’s a profoundly disturbing question,” he said.
Brooker first achieved recognition by, as he put it, “standing outside the tent pissing in.” But he is no revolutionary; his world view is essentially cautious, humanistic. “I think most people are inherently good,” he said. “When they throw themselves behind some ugly cause, it’s usually out of fear or because they’re not availed of all the facts. The show generally reflects that. It’s usually just people with a weakness who end up fucking up. We don’t have many mustache-twirling villains. But I am a worrier and I do think things are going to go horribly wrong by accident.”
Saul Bellow once described human beings as “the not-yet-stabilized animal.” The majority of people, he wrote, “will never attain equilibrium and . . . are by nature captious, fretful, irritable, uncomfortable, looking for relief from their travail and angry that it does not come.” Brooker possesses the same intuitive understanding of humans as works in progress. Bellow’s characters look for relief in ideology or religion; Brooker’s, afflicted by grief, boredom, loneliness, and desire, are drawn to the promise of stability held out by technological optimization. Like all such promises, this one proves to be illusory, and their wishfulness comes at a cost.
The bill arrived, and Brooker insisted on paying. The PIN pad blipped obediently as he entered his number, then let out a low, querulous screech.
“Oh, it’s not that, is it,” he said. “Hold on.”
He tried a different combination, with the same result.
“I could’ve sworn that’s what it was.”
Our waitress smiled politely.
“Shall I try this one more time?” he asked. “Or does that then lock me out of my card?”
Brooker paid in cash. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, he said, as we got up to leave. It seemed an answer to my question. Brooker is for a world in which, no matter how advanced our technology becomes, generous allowances continue to be made for human error. ♦