The new third season of the anthology series Black Mirror rolls out Friday on Netflix, with twice as many episodes — six — as the two previous seasons, but about the same amount of pleasure. Which is to say, approximately half as much. This show, created by the British writer and critic Charlie Brooker, trades on near-future scenarios that tend to contain nightmarish twists and has frequently been compared to The Twilight Zone. The comparison is also useful as a criticism: Some episodes of Mirror would benefit from being a half-hour, as most of the episodes of Rod Serling’s venerated oldie were.
Black Mirror has a bigger budget this season, and with that has come an American invasion: Most of the new season seems to have American actors at the center of the action. This development is most striking in “Nosedive,” starring Bryce Dallas Howard and co-written by Brooker with Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur and Rashida Jones. It’s a cunning production, in which Howard’s character, like everyone else in this particular universe, strives constantly to receive high ratings on a social-media scale. To lose “points” is to face grave embarrassment, and Howard does so as she tries to get to the wedding of a high-rated friend, played by Alice Eve. Howard’s misadventures (which include a hitchhike ride with a wonderful Cherry Jones as a tough trucker) are funny but go on too long.
So does “Shut Up and Dance,” which starts with a teenager caught tugging one off to Internet porn, then being blackmailed by someone running malware on the kid’s laptop — as well as the computers of a variety of other people who’ve committed other embarrassing sins. As directed by James Watkins (The Woman in Black), the episode builds in tension only to peter out, as it were, at the end.
I’m going to skip one episode I thought was just a dull dud, “Men Against Fire,” and give brief praise to one of the best Mirrors, “San Junipero,” co-starring Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis: This love story between two women, carried across the arc of their lives, should be seen with minimal description, so you can savor its surprises and lovely romanticism.
“San Junipero” is one of the few Mirrors that’s not a bleak downer. Certainly “Playtest,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) is an effective virtual-reality horror show, with a protagonist put through awful experiences after signing on to do some consumer testing of a new VR adventure game.
“Hated in the Nation” hammers home this season’s prominent Black Mirror theme — that social media is, at bottom, quite evil. It stars Kelly Macdonald as a British cop called upon to investigate the death of a woman who may have been murdered after being targeted by online haters. The plot involves a bunch of mechanical insects whose bad behavior I will not spoil other than to say I kept thinking of Eddie Izzard’s great old “I’m covered in bees!” routine.
All in all, it’s a season of Black Mirror you’ll enjoy if you like your sci-fi/fantasy/horror laced heavily with social commentary. Me, I wish the messages were ladled on with a lighter hand.
Black Mirror Season 3 begins streaming Friday on Netflix.