Luke Owen reviews the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror…
“In Serling’s day, the atom bomb, civil rights, McCarthyism, psychiatry and the space race were of primary concern. Today he’d be writing about terrorism, the economy, the media, privacy and our relationship with technology.” – Charlie Brooker on Black Mirror
Last Sunday saw the premiere of Charlie Brooker’s new anthology TV show Black Mirror – a show that Brooker himself has said was indirectly inspired by shows like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Tales of The Unexpected and The Outer Limits. It is a three part mini-series which will tell a different story each week in true anthology style with a focus on technology, the media and the world we live in today.
In the first episode The National Anthem, we see Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) involved in an almost terrorist-like threat during the kidnapping of Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson). The kidnappers have one demand and one demand only – Callow must have sex with a pig on live TV. “What’s the playbook?” The Prime Minister asks his advisor. “This is virgin territory Mister Prime Minister” he replies, “There is no playbook”.
While a lot darker than most Twilight Zone outings, The National Anthem was an incredibly well acted, well thought out and superbly written black comedy drama that I’d imagine Serling would have been impressed with. It satirises the use of Social Media in day to day life and how it not only affects public opinion, but also the mass media itself. The news channels have had an injunction placed upon them by the government, but the video is up on Youtube for all to see and it’s trending worldwide across Twitter – so why should they have to keep quiet? If everyone knows the story, what’s the point of a group of people telling another group of people with a platform that they can’t tell those that already know?
It also lampoons how the public’s opinions can swing on a dime with one simple act and how we voice said opinions. The nation is united behind their Prime Minister until one of his aides tries to backdoor their way out of this situation and indirectly causes harm to the kidnapped princess. This triggers a public backlash response to the PM not via angry voices, but from 140 character long sentences complete with hashtags.
But, as with the great Twilight Zone episodes of old, The National Anthem cannot rely solely on a clever idea executed well. Luckily, Rory Kinnear draws an audience in with an incredible and believable performance that was so captivating and engaging. His supporting cast all did their jobs well too and even though the episode featured a lot of characters, it never felt over-crowded. However, because of this only Callow got to have anything resembling a character-arch and everyone else was just filler. But, as with most anthology series, that is usually the case and certainly does not ruin the show.
If I was to give the episode some criticism, I would say that the storyline involving Mallika was a little pointless. Her contact in 10 Downing Street claims that he can’t give her any information until they have had a date. Not wanting to wait that long, news reporter Mallika convinces him to give her the information by sending him nude photos of herself that she has taken with her camera phone in the toilets at work. While it was a clever satirisation on how we can use modern technology to get what we need quicker than we used to (as well as women using sexualisation to exploit easily led men), the plot thread never really gave a satisfying conclusion and eventually and was used as nothing more than to ‘sending up’ how we use of mobile phones.
For me, the genius of The National Anthem lays in how the episode mirrored its own audience’s reactions. Because the exact plot of the episode was kept under such close wraps, we could not have expected what the kidnappers demands could have been. Upon hearing that the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig, much like the people of this fictional world, we treat it as a laughing matter. But as the story progresses and the thought of a man having sex with a pig on live TV becomes a reality, we become apprehensive to see what will happen with an ever growing sense of morbid curiosity. And then when the act finally takes place we watch with a sense of disgust, shame and an inability to look away – just like the nation watching their Prime Minister partake in bestiality. It’s this subtle genius that separates Black Mirror from the other generic TV tripe that channels are currently churning out – just as The Twilight Zone had done 50 years ago.
The National Anthem is a very well made, well acted and above all, brilliantly written piece of TV that makes it audience ponder how modern technology can create a situation where nobody is really in control as well as we now perceive voyeurism and TV as one and the same. It’s a real shame that Black Mirror is only running for three episodes, because this really could have been the 21st Century Twilight Zone I’ve been waiting for.