'Black Mirror's Lackluster Season 5 Threatens Its 'Twilight Zone' Legacy
The latest season of the Netflix series had serious issues that cause us to question whether it's past its prime.
When CBS All Access revealed Jordan Peele's take on the Twilight Zone, comparisons were immediately made to Netflix's popular anthology series, Black Mirror. It was questioned whether there was even a need for a Twilight Zone reboot in an era where Black Mirror already held the reins left by Rod Serling. Since its debut in 2011, Black Mirror has become a hotbed for think pieces and discussion regarding showrunner Charlie Booker's approach to technology. Each season has become progressively more ambitious, aided by A-list guest stars and directors.
So when Season 5 quietly (by Netflix standards) dropped on Wednesday, there was immediate trepidation. The new season of Black Mirror is just three episodes. There are big names this time around, but they are far from the talents employed in previous seasons. When going through all three episodes, the prognosis is immediate: Season 5 is a total miss. Sure, "Striking Vipers" and "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" lend themselves to analysis, but it's hard to understand why these three would be presented as the only installments of an entire season.
Looking at the original 1960s incarnation of The Twilight Zone makes it even clearer why Season 5 of Black Mirror is a failure. After three successful seasons, showrunner Rod Serling was burnt out by 1961. He'd served as a creator, screenwriter, and executive producer so it was understandable that he needed a break. Yet the series wasn't canceled because of Serling's exhaustion, but because of a scheduling snafu at CBS. Since The Twilight Zone didn't find advertisers in a timely fashion, it was replaced on the schedule and, for a time, canceled. When the series was re-upped in 1963, it was more as a replacement for another TV show that didn't end up on-air. Instead of returning to their standard thirty-minute format (twenty-minutes with commercials), The Twilight Zone had to fill an entire hour.
And that's what Black Mirror feels like this season: Charlie Brooker's struggle to fill an hour of television. What made The Twilight Zone legendary, and what resonated throughout the first few seasons of Black Mirror, was both the cultural specificity of the stories sandwiched into deeply personal storytelling. The Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder" was both a frightening story about conformity as well an indictment about the rise of plastic surgery. Conversely, the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" told a specific queer love story wrapped up in an uplifting tale of how technology could prohibit a fear of the afterlife. These stories felt grander on an existential scale, but could just as easily be read as simply tales of love and/or fear.
This multilayered storytelling is what's lost in the fifth installment of Black Mirror. All three episodes fail to do little more than regurgitate the "technology is bad" mythos the series has always been about; the distinction is that this mentality is the episodes primary objective. Episode two, "Smithereens," is little more than an hour-long condemnation of app culture. Andrew Scott plays Chris, a ride-share driver who holds hostage an intern from a social networking company. Unfortunately Chris is only doing this because he harbors guilt for killing his fiancée in a car crash. The reason: he was looking at his phone.
Really, Chris' motivations are poorly written in the episode. He blames the specific app company for the crash, but why not the cell phone company that created his phone and aided in his distraction? Outside of that, the whole "apps can kill" plot line sounds like one of those "it can wait" commercials about texting and driving. It's dated. The Twilight Zone may have had its share of episodes surrounding nuclear war or racism, issues that affected those living in the '60s, but they remained timeless; never committed to a specific era. "Smithereens" is dated from the introduction of its Facebook-esque app.
Other episodes have more modernized takes on technology, like the controversial "Striking Vipers" and its approach to VR. This is the episode that desperately hopes to recapture "San Junipero"s magic with a possible queer romance between two male friends and their interactions in a VR fighting game. The episode is too wrapped up in the technological aspects than the interactions between the men at the center of the story. "Striking Vipers" understands why technology is a problem, but it never explains why the characters interact with it. Last season's "U.S.S. Callister" has a more focused approach to tech with its critique of toxic masculinity in gaming. There's an awareness of how gaming becomes a breeding ground for power-hungry men. In "Striking Vipers" there's little thought put in to how the gaming culture's misogyny and heterosexuality factors into a queer romance.
The boppy Miley Cyrus episode "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is an outlier. Jack (Madison Davenport) and Rachel (Angourie Rice) are two wildly different sisters struggling in their own ways over the loss of their mother. Rachel loses herself in admiration for the pop star Ashley O (Cyrus) and a new "virtual companion" of the singer. (Think if Britney Spears made an Alexa based off herself.) The converging story sees Cyrus as an exhausted pop star trying to get out from under the thumb of her scheming manager. The two plot lines are fun separately but can't blend into a coherent whole, thus rendering an unsatisfying narrative.
So is Charlie Brooker, like Rod Serling, emotionally drained? Season 5 indicates it. It might be time for Brooker to at least start co-writing more regularly or giving screenwriting duties to outside writers. The legacy of being the new Twilight Zone is Black Mirror's to lose, and they will lose it if they continue to put out half-baked episodes that feel dropped only to grab eyeballs. By this point, audiences know what Black Mirror is going to say and what the themes of their episodes are going to revolve around. Now they just need to figure out if there's new ground to cover and ultimately tell audiences why they should care (or what they should fear).