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'Black Mirror' S6, Episode 1 & 2 Recap: The Never Ending Loop of Content Creation
The sixth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror recently premiered on Netflix. We take a look at the first two episodes: "Joan is Awful" and “Loch Henry.”
When executive producer Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror premiered in 2011 on the British network Channel 4, it drew clear ancestral lines to other serial shows about freaky alternate worlds, but with a twist. Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits are precursors, sure, but their conceit seemed further away from our ADHD norms. And the creators faced new challenges as caesuras between versions of the show in 2011, 2016 (when bought the rights), and 2023 saw the birth of otherworldly tech like social media and artificial intelligence, two modes that could either broaden human consciousness or swiftly destroy it. By extension, Brooker, who is 52, seems at once captivated by technology and appropriately frightened as well. The show has suffered somewhat from the breakneck development of the actual black mirrors of its name: screens.
Think of this: when it premiered in 2011, “The Entire History of You,” an episode about microchips in human brains recording a person’s every memory seemed just far-flung enough to offer a scare but, more importantly, spark discussions about fidelity and privacy in a marriage. About three weeks ago, Apple guru Tim Cook introduced the “Vision Pro” a clunky visor that could record your entire day’s worth of visual information and order you a coffee at that. Black Mirror has become a shorthand for every speedy, ominous gadget and bot that could ruin humanity as we grow more dependent on the kind of convenience that only asks us to pay with our souls. (Boston Dynamics is Black Mirror. Facebook data-mining is Black Mirror. ChatGPT is Black Mirror. And so on.)
"Joan Is Awful" and the social media currency of shame
The first episode of season 6, which premiered on Netflix earlier this month, trades on a few concepts that run rampant in the zeitgeist, namely multiverse theory and the constant voyeurism of “content.” Annie Murphy stars in “Joan Is Awful,” the kind of throwback to Twilight Zone mechanics that makes a TV nerd like me salivate. “What’s In The Box” is a 1964 episode of Twilight Zone that features an older married couple dragging through domestic doldrums with little love for each other and less regard for needs beyond hot dinner and a place to sleep. The main character, Joe, a dumpy cab driver who’s cheating on his wife, sees a version of his affair on a newly repaired television set. The predictive play from hell shows the fatal end to their miserable nuptials, driving Joe to the brink where he commits the unspeakable acts he’s just watched.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because “Joan Is Awful” follows a similar format, with Annie Murphy (formerly of Schitt’s Creek), playing a media executive tasked with downsizing at her company, and more mundanely, surviving the banality of her relationship at home. Murphy’s Joan plops down on her couch to watch Streamberry, a cheeky play on Netflix’s own ubiquitous red-branded insignia, and you can’t help but feel the modern day chill of ugly consumption. As Joan sees her workday unfold just as it did in her “real life,” as viewers we may delight briefly in the stunt of this plot line but it’s too familiar to disrupt what we know. I watch hundreds of YouTube videos, TikTok rants, Twitter fights, and the common function of cameras recording our every move feels inescapable, but also acceptably numb.. Joan’s shame at being exposed as a cheater to her boyfriend is played for laughs but, this year alone, I’ve watched a Mormon swinger scandal unfold on TikTok, and an influencer rebrand herself after fidelity upended her cooking channel. Shame is social media currency and we consume it as such. How are we to believe Joan’s (and then Salma Hayek’s) shame when every hour of every day, we get free access to millions of anonymous people’s most embarrassing days? What Brooker and his cohort get right here is clear though: we are now the object of consumption and the addiction fueling it, a never ending loop of content creation and dull but usual embarrassment.
“Loch Henry” and the fetishization of true crime
In its second episode, “Loch Henry,” the consumption chain stretches overseas and across racial lines. A young couple visits rural Scotland to record their first documentary for film school. What starts out as an awkward clash between cultures, and Myha’la Herrod’s brash Americanness as “Pia” clashing with a mousy Samuel Blenkin as “Davis,” turns into a murder mystery. Brooker’s writing lacks the snap of early episodes as he pantomimes skittish beliefs about “woke-ism” through local-speak in a pub, but the action picks up later as the couple decides to pursue a better story than the climate crisis bore-fest Davis had dreamt up. Although the acts predictably weave in repressed Puritanism and small-town apprehension, it’s the final riff of scenes that murkily points to a new obsession among creators. Can we describe the evils of consumption while ultimately being prey to its whims?
The true crime genre has fertilized podcasts and Netflix’s massive platform and super-powered the passive ingestion of gruesome and cruelty. Earlier this year, Netflix and HBO released separate documentaries on the Murdaugh Murders, proving that no town or fortune was too small to obsess over if the crime was abhorrent enough for a 10-episode miniseries. I watched them both. Again, I trafficked in shame, but privately and typically so. “Loch Henry” nudges us toward the recognition of this unease while swooping the camera in on Davis as he holds his BAFTA and weeps in a luxury hotel room over his dead girlfriend and mother. Although he’s nabbed the biggest prize, he’s laid himself bloodied at the altar of content. The irony of Netflix producing a tale like this asks and answers their quintessential question: Are you still watching?
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