Launched in its native England in 2011, Black Mirror made its official American debut three years later when the streaming giant Netflix added it to its rotation. Unofficially, though, the Charlie Brooker-created anthology series had already slipped through the side door of our pop-culture consciousness, with the words Black Mirror — along with bootleg DVDs and torrents — being eagerly passed around among connoisseurs of cult TV. Displaying the influences of such seminal sci-fi auteurs as Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling, Brooker’s near-future parables about the perils of technology found an eager stateside fanbase entranced by the idea of, say, the British prime minister being forced to engage in carnal relations with a pig or a world where reality shows are the economy’s primary industry.
The mixture of out-there fancifulness and scary plausibility that lies at the heart of so many Black Mirror episodes led Brooker to be regarded as a kind of high-tech soothsayer on these shores. Speaking with Yahoo TV at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Brooker and his producing partner, Annabel Jones, laughed off that exalted reputation. “I’m not trying to moralize or give solutions,” says Brooker, whose extensive list of British TV credits include the zombie miniseries Dead Set and Charlie Booker’s Screenwipe and Newswipe, which cover topical culture and news stories in a tone that’s similar to The Daily Show. “In the U.S., viewers think I’m anti-technology, whereas in the U.K. I’m known for doing comedy. Or I’m just known as a prick!”
Jones says that she and Brooker were as surprised as anyone when word of Black Mirror spread beyond the U.K.’s borders. “We thought the stories were all too U.K.-centric,” she remembers. “But very quickly it got picked up in other countries, in Europe and Asia.” Around the same time that they snagged Mad Men’s Jon Hamm to star in the 2014 Christmas episode, Black Mirror was made legally available in the U.S. via Netflix. “There was a real spike when it went up on Netflix,” Brooker says. “People had been watching it via contraband for a while, so the Netflix release was the tipping point where the ones who had seen it could tell other people, ‘You should go watch it.’ Jon even told us that before he shot the Christmas special, he’d tell people that he was going to be working on Black Mirror, and they’d ask him, ‘What’s that?’ But by the time the episode was done, everyone knew about it.”
That’s why, when Black Mirror returns for its third season on Oct. 21, it will be a full-fledged Netflix series. Asked if working in the streaming realm affords creative freedoms that he didn’t previously enjoy on terrestrial television, Brooker half-jokingly responds: “Well, we had the prime minister f*** a pig on Channel 4 in the U.K. Once you’ve done that, that bar is pretty high!” In other words, don’t expect the Netflix-produced episodes to significantly depart from the tone and content of its British predecessors. “Netflix basically let me do what I wanted. They’re very supportive and have opinions, but never said, ‘You must do this or that.’”
In watching four of Season 3’s six episodes — two of which had their world premiere in Toronto — what’s most notable about this third year is the wide variety of tones and genres that Brooker is riffing on. Take the nostalgia-tinged romance “San Junipero,” which pulsates with the emotional yearning of an old-fashioned Hollywood love story. Or “Nosedive,” a social-media-themed screwball comedy in the tradition of Bringing Up Baby and Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
Meanwhile, “Men Against Fire” provides timely commentary on police-state tactics, wrapped in zombie movie clothing, and “Shut Up and Dance” is predicated on the very real, very modern fear that our online histories will be stolen and used against us. “I was very conscious of trying to broaden the scope a little,” Brooker says. “I didn’t want to be the show where every single time, the audience knows which way it’s going. So across this season, we’ve approached each episode like we’re doing different genre movies.”
That approach resulted in an episode that Brooker sounds particularly proud of: “Hated in the Nation,” which he describes as a “detective story about online rage and anger.” Boasting a feature-length 90-minute runtime, “Hated” is as meticulously plotted as a vintage Philip Marlowe mystery, but unfolds in quasi-future London rather than ‘40s-era Los Angeles. “We tend to focus on the popcorn ideas behind each story, so when there’s social commentary, that’s kind of a plus,” Brooker says. “In ‘Hated,’ we end up commenting on quite a wide variety of things, like the environment. Because all of these stories are self-contained one-offs, we can build these worlds relatively easily. It only needs to last one episode, and then you knock it all down.”
Even before the premiere of Season 3, Netflix made the decision to stay in the Black Mirror business. When we spoke with Brooker and Jones in September, they were already deep in writing the next batch of episodes. “Many of my ideas start out as comic, and then get darker as the script goes along,” Brooker reveals. “And other times, I’ll have the final image in mind, and rewind from there. That’s just how it is with Black Mirror!”
Black Mirror premieres Oct. 21 on Netflix.