It's been a good run for zombie lovers. And for fans of aliens, viruses, rogue storms, televised hunger games — oh, and don't forget robot overlords. But is it possible that our appetite for dystopian sci-fi entertainment is beginning to wane?
A look at the current most popular TV shows of the past year would suggest probably not.
But while AMC's "The Walking Dead" continues to dominate the rating charts, there does seem to be a shift in the dystopian sci-fi entertainment so many of us have come to love in recent years. Even if we're not completely sated, many of us are at least hungry for smarter films and television shows about the future.
Enter Netflix's "Black Mirror," described by the streaming service as a "sci-fi anthology series (that) explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity's greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide."
Love it or hate it, "Black Mirror" does succeed impressively at times — and also fails just as consistently — in delivering smart satiric entertainment. Its strengths and weaknesses tell us a lot about what's working well, and what still needs some fixing, in the streaming services that are driving innovation in this "platinum age" of great television.
The good news first: "Black Mirror," a British-produced series created by Charlie Brooker and Annabelle Jones, is more surprising and thought-provoking than anything currently on traditional network television. Each installment works as a stand-alone story with a different set of actors — and like that other excellent Netflix series "Stranger Things," it features only a handful of expensive-looking episodes in each of its four seasons.
As social and political satire, the series is often sharply accurate as it tackles topics that rarely get addressed in a lot of the blandly scripted entertainment network TV generally serves up. How many other shows, for example, address manipulative dating apps, the anxious pursuit of approval through social media sites and the hollow escapism of virtual reality — and actually make them entertaining?
Let's look at the episode "USS Callister." Here's a show that reflects on our current crisis with sexual harassment in the workplace and other brands of "toxic masculinity" on the internet and in gaming culture — and, as far as I see it, does so all while parodying our nostalgia for classic sci-fi series like Star Trek. It was perhaps the best hour of television that I've seen in several years, masterfully blending together darkly funny satire, great acting and cool CGI effects into a work of emotionally and intellectually cathartic entertainment.
But of course, "Black Mirror" has its problems, and they aren't small.
The unusual level of freedom Netflix gives to the creators of original shows can also occasionally short circuit the best qualities of entertainment, and "Black Mirror" stumbles over a number of the pitfalls. For starters, because each story in the series differs so radically in tone, genre and sometimes quality, a viewer often feels jerked about from episode to episode, pleasantly surprised by a bit of comedy or heart at the center of one tale, and then turned off by a high concentration of nihilism and misanthropy in the next.
Additionally, Brooker and Jones are inconsistent in how effectively they exercise the freedom that comes with working outside of the bounds of traditional network censorship. Their best episodes use violence and horror thoughtfully, underscoring the cautionary messages at the center of the script; in the weakest installments, however, the profanity, sexual themes and graphic violence is gratuitous and undermines the series' high-minded, satiric intentions. A few episodes even end up regurgitating the same sensationalistic imagery and gore of exploitative, R-rated, sci-horror spectacles. Ironically, as well — given the series' distrust of technology in general — there are some over-the-top digital effects in one or two cases that overshadow the stories' more nuanced commentary.
Though rated MA on Netflix, it is currently possible to watch edited versions of each episode, thankfully, through a locally based content-filtering company. (That option might not last for too long, however, given the company's current legal troubles). But I'd love to see Netflix exert a bit of editorial control — asking creators to opt for some creative restraint instead of MA-style abandon — or offering viewers edited versions of its more ambitious shows.
If Netflix were to show some creativity and leadership with these issues, a show like "Black Mirror" could be even better: more consistent in tone, more precise in its satiric effects, and more accessible and powerful in its cultural reach. Smartly dystopian satire shouldn't be just for the MA content-tolerating fans of sci-fi horror, after all — regular families in which both the teenage kids and the parents are addicted to cellphones (our own personal "black mirrors") and social media could also use a show that playfully confronts us with dark visions of our future selves.
Note: "Black Mirror" contains graphic violence, sexual content and strong language.