'Black Mirror' reflects a high-tech world with wicked style

FRAZIER MOORE
Associated Press
FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2016 file photo, Charlie Brooker, the creator, writer and executive producer of "Black Mirror," poses at the premiere of the new season at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto. The anthology series takes you through a high-tech looking glass with jittery tales sure to lodge in your brain for years to come. It reclaims the hallowed realm of "The Twilight Zone" for a new millennium. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — William Shatner's bumpy flight. Burgess Meredith's smashed eyeglasses. The fateful misinterpretation of the phrase "to serve man." Even after a half-century, these memes can still deliver a jolt of recognition.

But if you're drawing a blank instead, that's OK. The anthology series "Black Mirror" takes you through a high-tech looking glass with jittery tales sure to lodge in your brain for years to come, as it reclaims the hallowed realm of "The Twilight Zone" for a new millennium.

Netflix has just released six new episodes that supplement seven previous hours created for British television.

Among the new crop, "Hated in the Nation" unveils what is literally a killer app that lets people choose the day's most disliked individual— who will then be put to death. "Men Against Fire" chillingly confronts prejudice on the battle front. "Nosedive" takes social-media "likes" to the nth degree of crazed approval-seeking. "Shut Up and Dance" exposes a teenage boy who, after his computer is hacked, will do anything to keep his private life private.

"Black Mirror" is set in the present, or in an all-too-plausible near-future, with tales that are, by turns, descriptive or cautionary or devilishly speculative. Some episodes are grim, some perversely playful. Most are shot through with a streak of mordant humor. Some you will love. A few may put you off.

But it's fair to say that all come loaded with a potent "Uh-oh!" payoff.

How to further explain the essence of "Black Mirror"? Ask Charlie Brooker, its creator, co-producer and the writer of most of its episodes.

"It's like umami," he quips. "It must be something like that."

Brooker, 45, is an English media critic, satirist, TV personality and screenwriter whose piercing contributions to Brit cultural life may have been a bit too U.K.-centric to have made the leap to American shores. Until now.

Perhaps it's no surprise that Brooker's starting point for "Black Mirror" was his childhood obsession with America's "The Twilight Zone," with its socially progressive parables, twist-y endings and shivers delivered down the viewer's spine.

Airing in the early 1960s, it drew inspiration from timely touch points: the Bomb; outer space; racism and the Red scare. Decades later, as Brooker set about framing his new series, he asked himself, "What's the big thing worrying people now?" To him, the answer seemed obvious: the disruptive effects of ever-mounting technology.

Episodes of the show he comes up with typically unfold in an oblique, contemplative fashion, reflecting a modern age when technology, notwithstanding each breakthrough, is largely taken for granted. Brooker realizes that, unlike in the not-so-distant past, technology today is seldom found to be thrilling but rather, at its best, "cool." This guarantees that, when it bursts on the scene in a "Black Mirror" yarn, its effect is all the more disturbing.

That said, Brooker would like to straighten out a common misconception: "There are people who say this is 'the anti-technology show.' That really makes me cross!"

He doesn't look cross. He is rumpled, affable and animated as he corrects the record: "You COULDN'T do this show if you weren't interested in technology. I love all that stuff! Writing the episodes, I'll pace myself: 'When I get to the end of this scene, I can go on my PlayStation a bit.'

"Usually, the technology isn't to blame in the stories," he adds. "It's just facilitating some weakness in our character. It saddens me when people think this show is written by an angry old man who's furious at pixels."

In Brooker's mind, "Black Mirror" treats technology as if it were a drug whose side effects— some benign, some dire — are being analyzed. "Hopefully the show isn't wagging a finger at you. It's really down to the viewer what they take away."

Another half-dozen episodes are in the works for release in a year or so, and beyond that, "as long as we have ideas, and people want to watch, we'll carry on," he promises.

He acknowledges it's hard to stay ahead of the curve.

"But because we're sort of dreaming out loud onto the page, we can start with a 'what-if' idea and identify the human story at the heart of it. Then we work out some technological means of allowing it to happen. But luckily, I don't have to work out how the wiring works.

"Usually," he confides, "the broad idea is something that makes me laugh on some level. And then I'll be describing it to Annabel (Jones), my co-showrunner, and she'll go, 'Oh, my God, that's horrible!' And then, to appall her even more, I will embellish it. And at the point when I'm REALLY laughing, and she's near tears, we know we're in the 'Black Mirror' section of the Venn diagram."

Finally, "Black Mirror" defined! Now you can't say you weren't warned.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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