'Black Mirror' Season 4: TV Review

Download. It's excellent as usual.
12/29/2017

Charlie Brooker's gem of a series is back to make you (even more) worried about technology in its fourth season on Netflix.

Every new season of Black Mirror brings with it a dangerous game of expectations. Will this season be more outrageous or presciently spot-on about a tech future barely imagined than previous seasons?

It's shockingly unfair to creator Charlie Brooker, since the aim of the show is not to outdo itself in every subsequent season, or to act as some dark oracle about the near future.

And yet, that too often is the criteria by which we judge each new set of episodes.

But Black Mirror shouldn't be judged on "predicting," through its aggressively original storytelling, the future ethical or moral debate on speculative tech and its effects on those who use it.

There was a time, you know, when it was enough for a show to do something well repeatedly, to be original, when one was free to praise its incisive directing or wonderful acting without feeling compelled to knock it down a peg because one of the episodes posits a future with jetpacks.

That said, wow, Brooker really does know more than anyone else dabbling in this kind of tech/future morality play how to precisely mine ever-escalating scenarios, ratcheting up the ethical trade-offs and moral quandaries facing the players.

Season four of Black Mirror, dropping all six of its episodes on Dec. 29, absolutely continues the brilliance so evident in the previous three (all-too-short) seasons. No fan of TV, particularly fans of Black Mirror, wants any kind of spoiler, so going into too much detail on plotting is a disservice to those who rightfully want to be surprised by how Brooker explores all emotional and ethical layers of the issues presented.

This much is certain — Brooker continues to solidify himself as one of the most creative writers in the medium. Even when the unfair creep of expectations rears up, Black Mirror and Brooker deliver. He's more than just clever about rendering the so-called "techno-paranoia" that bedevils (mostly) the people who both remember when none of these cool things existed and live in a time when they do, and the issues that result. Those issues, which are the backbone of the series, are painstaking teased out in degrees of nuance, which is precisely why Black Mirror remains so brilliant. It's not the shock of the new or the unknown, it's how the story is delivered.

Part of that comes from how the various actors and directors intuit Brooker's writing, the tone underneath and how, despite every episode being a stand-alone, there's a through-line to them. It's one of the traits Black Mirror gets the least amount of credit for — this is a series that could be a disaster in the wrong hands as it seeks to capitalize on its past successes. But every actor, from Brits that might not be as famous in the States to, say, Jon Hamm or Bryce Dallas Howard, understands the idea of meshing with the material, as do various newer American directors to the series, like Tim Van Patten and Jodie Foster this season, whose work falls in line with early-season British directors like Owen Harris and Carl Tibbetts. That Brooker and fellow executive producer Annabel Jones share the wealth so successfully with directors and actors is a key element to Black Mirror continuing to work.

In season four, Brooker revisits familiar themes of recovered memories ("Crocodile"), how adoptive tech seems great at first and then, well, doesn't ("Arkangel" — which, like many Black Mirror episodes, is wonderfully concise but would also make a fine stand-alone movie fleshed out with another hour); giving up control for convenience ("Hang the DJ"); while all have aspects that veer into romance, comedy, parenting, etc., with smart emotional takes littered throughout. And yes, it probably goes without saying that so little of anything ends well or, more importantly, as expected, but the trip there is still exhilarating and entertaining.

Black Mirror has always been more about the human condition than it is about tech hardware or software. Well documented human psychological reactions are there for Brooker to play with by introducing advanced technology, a hallmark of the series.

It's a testament to Brooker's ambition and willingness to experiment that viewers have distinctly different favorite episodes. This is a series where the very first episode (in which a politician is coerced into having sex with a pig live on television) either steered people away (a shame, given how great it was and what was to follow) or alerted them that if they were up for anything, the ride would be worth it. And since then, those who signed up have gotten a little of everything, including the Emmy-winning gem that was last season's "San Junipero" — an episode that would have never happened had Brooker focused solely on "techno-paranoia."

This season he even gives a meta wink to the perceived conceptual drive of the series with an episode called "Black Museum," a real standout even when it hits familiar Black Mirror themes, which is all you can hope for when tracking continued greatness.

Created and written by: Charlie Brooker

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Rosemarie DeWitt, Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Jesse Plemons, Douglas Hodge, Letitia Wright, Maxine Peake, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel.