For five years, Charlie Brooker has been playing out his fears and fantasies about the fraught interactions between technology, society, and the security state with his infrequent anthology series “Black Mirror.” From the get-go, what’s been intriguing about the show is how high-concept its elaborately cyberpunk horror stories are. The actors are frequently well-known film stars, such as Jon Hamm, Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, and Jessica Findlay-Brown. And despite running just about an hour in length, each episode has found a way to establish a world, with its own rules and proprietary technologies, before finding a way to ruthlessly cut to the core of its contradictions.
For example, in “National Anthem,” the first episode of the show’s first season, in 2011, the prime minister (Rory Kinnear) is forced — through a combination of media exposure, celebrity hostage, and security concerns — to have sex with a pig on live television. It’s just a 48-minute episode, and yet “Black Mirror” makes the conclusion inevitable. It’s horrible, and of course also just a little funny, in a deep and twisted way that’s hard to fully acknowledge.
Though the fantasies in “Black Mirror” hinge on technology, and almost all take place in a near-future that’s just a bit more high-tech than our own, Brooker’s real obsession is with those unsavory corners of human nature. Does a device that plays back all of our memories as if they were home videos make our lives better, or does it make us go slowly insane? Would an android substitute of a lost loved one make us feel better about death? Do people really need more power to isolate, marginalize, shame, and humiliate each other?
In one of the show’s most outstanding and horrifying episodes, “White Bear,” all that separates a crowd’s punishment of a woman (Victoria Skillane) from the days of a barbaric, medieval witch hunt is that the onlookers cheerfully pull out their smartphones and film her as she is mercilessly tortured. Technology is sometimes the cause and sometimes just the conduit, but the show’s object of fascination is how horrible we can be to each other.
The new season is no exception, delivering six episodes that are each odd and telling little snapshots. The series jumped from Channel 4 to Netflix, and this third go-round nearly doubles the existing number of “Black Mirror” episodes. The new episodes aren’t perfect. Brooker, who has joint or solo writing credit on every installment, is more successful at building devastating second acts than he is at earning his endings, and several episodes turn again and again to social media’s terrors, as if vigilante justice and mob mentality didn’t exist before hashtags. “White Christmas,” the show’s most recent (and stand-alone) episode, didn’t feel quite as novel and unsettling as previous chapters, and some of those shortcomings are present here. Partly because the series is known for such involved and fully formed installments, it’s hard to not notice when an episode is cutting corners.
But with a more robust episode order, this season of “Black Mirror” offers not just the commentary that exists within each episode, but also the overarching view of putting all of these particular stories together. Some episodes balance out others, and the season contains not just a collection of tales but an assortment of genres, too. “Hated in the Nation” is a detective story fed by B-movie tropes; “Shut Up and Dance,” a twisted action thriller. “San Junipero” — one of the best episodes the show has ever made, right up there with “Be Right Back” — is a romance. Taken all together, the season’s episodes attempt to offer a collection of visions and interpretations of life in the Internet Age for many different kinds of people — the gamers and the Facebookers, the teens and the elderly.
And as ever, Brooker has a knack for homing in on an unsettling implication, and turning the screws with slow deliberation until something has to give. Even imperfect episodes leave indelible impressions on the viewer, such as “Shut Up and Dance,” which is slightly overlong and repetitive, but also imparts a lingering sense of being watched. “Nosedive,” written by Brooker, Michael Schur, and Rashida Jones, stars Bryce Dallas Howard as a woman desperate to increase her “rating” on social media by obtaining, essentially, as many likes as possible. Howard’s character is frustrating precisely because she is too much like the most insecure parts of ourselves — the part that counts, silently, how many likes one has gotten on a post. With devastating accuracy, “Black Mirror” poses questions about authenticity, expression, and agency, exploring not just the specs of our technical world but the intimacies, or lack thereof, that it provides us.
Most fascinating, and necessary, is Brooker’s examination of social media’s outrage mobs, which can take on any sort of political ideology and flatten it to Manichean, nuance-free yelling. At times, the show’s explorations can seem a bit too holier-than-thou, a knee-jerk “free speech” response to the “scourge” of political correctness. But rather than veer toward preachiness, the show observes how unprepared law enforcement is for online threats; how difficult it is for our political system to govern the privately owned sandbox of free speech and user profiles. In “Hated in the Nation,” Brooker pivots from social media’s unknowably diffuse intent to government surveillance’s unknowably vast intelligence — observing how both blur the divide between the public and private spheres, and asking if either massive network ends up making us more connected or safer.
This season of “Black Mirror” does one thing unprecedented, though: In “San Junipero,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis as two tourists in a strange town, the show suggests that there might be an upside to our gadget-saturated lifestyle. It may be the only episode of “Black Mirror” that proposes something positive about technology, although many will probably disagree on whether or not the episode has a happy ending. Still, for those watching “Black Mirror” on a streaming platform — or reading this review in a browser or smartphone — it’s soothing to be reminded, sincerely or otherwise, that there are upsides to this terrifying new world we live in.