Originality And Uncertainty Still Reign As 'Black Mirror' Enters Its 5th Season

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 1:53 pm

When CBS All Access unveiled its new version of The Twilight Zone earlier this year, the general consensus was that the initial episodes in the new series had fallen short of Rod Serling's original version. Not only were they unworthy of The Twilight Zone of old, but they also weren't nearly as good, or as smart, as a show that had begun in England in 2011, Black Mirror.

Watching Black Mirror's three brand-new installments on Netflix makes it clear that the series, in our current TV universe, claims and holds the fantasy anthology series crown. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones head the team behind this show, which uses the technology of today — and the possible technology of tomorrow — to frame, inform or drive its stories.

Brooker wrote all three of these new episodes, and their scope is as wide as their impact is deep. One story is about a pop star whose personality is marketed in an Alexa-style computer figurine. Another is about a driver for an Uber-type company who blames a social media company for his personal tragedy. And a third — the most haunting and daring of the three — is about two buddies who try out a new, virtual reality version of a favorite hand-to-hand combat video game they played some 10 years earlier.

The video game episode is titled "Striking Vipers," after the new VR game, and it's my favorite of the three, because I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I was pretty sure I knew where this episode was going once the two characters dove into their game, but I was so wrong — and the larger questions that began being posed were so challenging — that I ended up being as blown away by the ideas as by the truly dazzling special effects.

That's not to slight the other new episodes, by the way. Each of them creates a new world, introduces new characters and sets in motion a story that ultimately goes deep in very uncharted territory. The episode called "Smithereens" stars Andrew Scott — the sexy priest in the new season of Amazon's Fleabag — as a hired driver who kidnaps a passenger. That passenger is played by Damson Idris — who, oddly enough, also appears in the new Twilight Zone series. In that show's time-loop episode, called "Replay," he plays a student heading for college who is confronted by one dangerous situation after another.

The Black Mirror episode titled "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" stars Miley Cyrus as a pink-wigged pop star whose manipulative manager has found a new way to exploit her using a tiny new high-tech toy called Ashley Too. The toy, which is part artificial intelligence, part talking-and-dancing action figure, is aimed at teenage fans. And it clearly hits the target when a young girl named Rachel (Angourie Rice) gets Ashley Too as a gift, and turns it on with a voice command.

Fans of the original Twilight Zone may be flashing back to the spooky "Living Doll" episode, in which a talking doll named Talky Tina ended up terrorizing Telly Savalas — and jumpstarting a generation of Chucky movies. But once again, Black Mirror is interested in going somewhere new. By the end, not only do we get a strong performance from Cyrus — but we also get to consider some very intriguing questions about the nature of celebrity, and the limits and expectations of fandom.

Notice that I've said almost nothing about what actually happens in these new episodes. That's because originality and uncertainty and unpredictability aren't just ingredients in the Black Mirror stew. They are the stew. And to experience just how good, and how different, this anthology series is — and has been, from the very start — you just have to sample it for yourself.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Black Mirror," the imaginative anthology series by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, returns today on Netflix with a fifth season of episodes. There are only three new installments this time around, but our TV critic David Bianculli says each of them is excellent and thought-provoking.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When CBS All Access unveiled its new version of Rod Serling's classic "The Twilight Zone" earlier this year, the general consensus was that the initial episodes in that new series had fallen short. Not only were they unworthy of "The Twilight Zone" of old, they also weren't nearly as good or as smart as a show that had begun in England in 2011, "Black Mirror." Watching that show's three brand-new installments on Netflix makes it clear that "Black Mirror" in our current TV universe claims and holds the fantasy anthology series crown.

Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones head the team behind the series, which uses the technology of today and the possible technology of tomorrow to frame and form or drive its stories. Brooker wrote all three of these new ones, and their scope is as wide as their impact is deep. One story is about a pop star whose personality is marketed in an Alexa-type computer figurine. Another is about a driver for an Uber-type company who blames a social media company for his personal tragedy. And a third - the most haunting and daring of the three - is about two video-game-playing buddies who, more than 10 years later, try out the new virtual-reality version of one of their favorite old hand-to-hand combat games. The guy trying the game for the first time and completely unaware of what he's about to get into is played by Anthony Mackie, who plays the Falcon in the "Avengers" movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Danny) OK. What do I do?

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II: (As Karl) Oh, right. They showed me in the store. You put the game chip in.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Done.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) Now grab the disc doohickey and stick it up - side of here.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Left or right side?

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) It doesn't matter.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Done.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) OK. Now hold down the sync button on the controller.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Nothing's happening.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) We haven't chosen our fighters yet. So I am...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As announcer) Roxette.

MACKIE: (As Danny) OK. So where's my guy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As announcer) Lance.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Damn. All right, Lance. Let's go.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) OK. You have to brace yourself.

MACKIE: (As Danny) Brace myself, come on.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) You ready?

MACKIE: (As Danny) Yeah, I'm ready.

ABDUL-MATEEN: (As Karl) Three, two, one.

BIANCULLI: This episode is titled "Striking Vipers" after the new virtual-reality video game. And it's my favorite of the three because I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Once the two characters dove into their game and the look and action and violence of their initial battle was established so vividly and excitingly, I was pretty sure I knew where this episode was going. But I was so wrong, and the larger questions that began being posed were so challenging that I ended up being as blown away by the ideas as by the truly dazzling special effects. That's not to slight the other new episodes, by the way. Each of them creates a new world, introduces new characters and sets in motion a story that, ultimately, goes deep in very uncharted territory.

Another episode called "Smithereens" stars Andrew Scott, the sexy priest in the new season of Amazon's "Fleabag," as a hired driver who kidnaps a passenger. That passenger is played by Damson Idris, who, oddly enough, has a direct connection to the new "Twilight Zone" series. In that show, in the time-loop episode called "Replay," he played the student heading for college but confronted by one dangerous situation after another.

And the third episode, titled "Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too," stars Miley Cyrus as a pink-wigged pop star, whose manipulative manager has found a new way to exploit her. There's a tiny, new high-tech toy called Ashley Too - part artificial intelligence, part talking and dancing mini action figure that's aimed at teenage fans - and clearly hits the target, as when a young girl named Rachel, played by Angourie Rice, gets Ashley Too as a gift and turns it on with a voice command, while Rachel's older sister Jack watches disapprovingly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")

ANGOURIE RICE: (As Rachel) Ashley, wake up.

MILEY CYRUS: (As Ashley) Hey, there. I'm Ashley Too. What's your name?

RICE: (As Rachel) Rachel.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) It's so great to meet you, Rachel.

RICE: (As Rachel) You too. Oh, my God, I'm such a huge fan.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) Thanks. Let's get to know each other. How old are you?

RICE: (As Rachel) I'm 15 today.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) Happy birthday. Fifteen is a great age.

RICE: (As Rachel) (Laughter) Thank you.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) So tell me. Have you got any brothers or sisters?

RICE: (As Rachel) Just Jack. She's over there.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) Hi, Jack.

MADISON DAVENPORT: (As Jack) Hi, [expletive].

CYRUS: (As Ashley) Jack, I think you made a bad word choice there.

RICE: (As Rachel) Just ignore her, Ashley.

CYRUS: (As Ashley) I'll make note of that.

BIANCULLI: Fans of the original "Twilight Zone" hearing that may be flashing back to the spooky Talky Tina episode, in which a talking doll ended up terrorizing Telly Savalas and jumpstarting a generation of "Chucky" movies. But once again, "Black Mirror" is interested in going somewhere new. By the end, not only do we get a strong performance from Miley Cyrus, but we get to consider some very intriguing questions about the nature of celebrity and the limits and expectations of fandom. Notice that I've said almost nothing about what actually happens in these new episodes. That's because originality and uncertainty and unpredictability aren't just ingredients in the "Black Mirror" stew. They are the stew. And to experience just how good and how different this anthology series is and has been from the very start, you just have to sample it for yourself.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times international correspondent and former Cairo bureau chief. We'll talk about what's behind President Trump's alignment with the crown princes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Are the princes' agendas in the best interests of the U.S.? President Trump has sometimes sided with the princes against the advice of his own advisers and Congress. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK, JAN GARBAREK, PALLE MIKKELBORG & PETER ERSKINE'S "INTROENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.