‘Black Mirror’ Evolves in Season 4

The popular, trippy "Twilight Zone"-inspired series is back for another season

click to enlarge The cast of "Black Mirror," with Jesse Plemons in foreground - PHOTO: Jonathan Prime/Netflix
PHOTO: Jonathan Prime/Netflix
The cast of "Black Mirror," with Jesse Plemons in foreground

With just a few weeks’ notice, addictive sci-fi anthology Black Mirror debuted its fourth season on Netflix just before the end of 2017. While the seasons are short (the first two featured just three episodes each, plus a Christmas special; since its move to Netflix, seasons have doubled in size), the deliciously dark Twilight Zone-inspired series packs a lot into each story. Heavy themes, fantastic known and under-the-radar actors and experimental directors populate what feel more like mini films than television episodes. In that respect, Season 4 is no different.

The typically futuristic series teases us with a retro season opener, “USS Callister,” that at first seems like a Star Trek spoof. But this cheesy space travel sequence is actually an immersive video game played by its creator. Though a captain and hero in his own digital world, the computer programmer is, in reality, surrounded by arrogant, disrespectful colleagues at the gaming company he co-founded. You can’t help but feel for the guy, bullied by his associates and his inferiors — until you see just how he feeds his geek angst and exacts revenge.

My favorite of the season, “USS Callister” represents the full range of what Black Mirror can be: twisty, dark and humorous with real-world implications.

“Arkangel” employs a quintessential Black Mirror trope: microchips for children. When a woman’s child wanders away from the playground for a few hours (but is found safe), she elects to implant a chip in her daughter that not only tracks her location but her health and everything she is exposed to. At what point do a parent’s efforts to protect her children actually inflict harm? It’s helicopter parenting to the extreme.

Shot in Iceland, the beautiful landscape of “Crocodile” gives way to a disturbing domino fall when a terrible accident sets a woman on a destructive path of cover-ups. Tech takes a backseat here, but it does play a role in a machine that can scan a person’s memories and is used to investigate crimes and insurance claims. 

Taking a lighter turn, “Hang the DJ” explores the ubiquitous world of online dating and asks: what if an app not only selected compatible matches but told you exactly how long the relationship would last? In this universe, users agree to a prescribed timeline regardless of their true feelings toward one another, as if it’s imperative they experience different sub-par courtships in order to find “The One.” We watch one couple hit it off only to find they’ve got mere hours together, and we then follow them through an amusing series of rocky relationships and one-night-stands. It has gained comparisons to last season’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero” as a rare rom-com episode with a happy ending.

Next up is Black Mirror’s take on the zombie apocalypse — replacing undead humans with killer robots. The shortest of this season, “Metalhead” is a completely stripped-down episode: In black and white, following one character with very little dialogue and devoid of a twist, it might seem like a misstep for the series. But at its essence it’s a man vs. machine horror, especially considering these bots look strikingly similar to those already on the market.

“Black Museum” is one satisfyingly meta finale. A young woman wanders into a museum dedicated to the types of technology seen throughout the series. Much like viewers, she takes in the wild sights and stories of tech gone wrong. Look closely and you’ll see nods to several past episodes, now preserved in the museum. Of course, our protagonist is there to do more than just see a roadside attraction.

Overall, this fourth installment is a fitting addition to the Black Mirror canon, though it did leave me still craving one crazy, mind-boggling tale that would stick with me long after. The show must keep evolving as it has, relying less on dystopian devices and more on story and characters to drive this binge-worthy series. Perhaps its presence on Netflix is a bit of a hindrance — maybe it would be better to savor each episode, letting its ramifications sit with us before devouring another. But we’re not a patient audience and it’s difficult to hold back. An audience addicted to a show, unable to resist consuming it in one sitting — now that sounds like a Black Mirror episode in itself.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern

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