Ah. Many, many of you would have watched and most likely thoroughly enjoyed the debut of Charlie Brooker's new series, Black Mirror, this Sunday night. On the surface, the show had it all: a great cast, a fresh mix of horror and humour and necessary social commentary. A quick glance on Twitter will confirm how well it went down. The majority of viewers loved it.
I didn't. I thought it was entertaining, which is paramount to Sunday evening television, but found the show to be blocky, clumsy and awkwardly self-important. Brooker is a well-known expert of bad TV, and it is slightly surprising that his own show would suffer from the same things that would have driven him mad at some point during his Screenwipe days. The sad reality of The National Anthem is that the first 30 minutes can be boiled down to the buzzwords of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Most characters aren't allowed to escape the show without dropping the name of at least one social media company, which I found to be particularly jarring. Yes, the point of this episode is to highlight how reliant and obsessed we have become with these life controlling mediums, but when the script barely has room for anything more than reference, then you know it has problems. At one point, an armed soldier shoots a television journalist by mistaking her for the kidnapper and instead of offering her help, he proceeds to shoot her camera phone (what else?) and utter this tripe: 'There's your RTS award!' That's not immersive, that's not clever. It's not even relevant.
I felt that the episode played like a checklist of all the ways we relate to media, rather than actually making a fresh point. Watching the PM make love to a pig was shocking and grotesque, but was made moot by the rules of the show itself. We're told that Rory Kinnear's character must complete the act, due to perceived public pressure that would boil over into a direct threat to his family. The British public, we are told, will, erm, kill his family in retaliation for not having sex with a pig. OK. I'll bite. But, wait, why don't they get a double to do it? No, that won't work, as we need proof. Then what happened to all the directors out there who can do wonders with angles and mirrors? No. It has to happen because we're making a point here OK. Social media takes the news out of the hands of those who aspire to power. Blah blah blah. For the sake of immersion, I felt let down.
I couldn't help but feel that this episode really didn't cover any new ground. Which is why it failed as an example of 'great television'. As a piece of satire, it presented the issues but refused to explore them in a subtle manner, and relied almost entirely on its grotesque ending to get people thinking. The National Anthem is essentially Brooker's journalism experience distilled into an hour of television. It tells a lot of life like it is, but it never really goes the extra distance to investigate more difficult questions. One good example of this is that Brooker came up with a very similar idea to this in 2003, but has since replaced Terry Wogan with the PM - have we not moved on quite drastically in the intervening years to demand a more cutting edge hour of television? What was so odd about this episode is that it already felt dated, which might just be the nature of the beast Brooker is tackling.
And, no, I don't think 'Would you have sex with a pig on national television?' to be a "difficult' question. It has the beginning of a good debate, but the show never gets into these grey areas, choosing instead to show us time and time again how it is broadcasted, rather than the effects of the event. This should have been the time where the media scandal surrounding Gordon Brown's 'bigoted woman' comments got properly explored and assimilated. Instead, the show moves toward its shocking conclusion with superficial strides. This may, of course, be the point. But it shouldn't have been.
It worries me that so many people will call this the best hour of television of 2011, because that means a lot of people have lived in our Web 2.0 society without ever really being awake to the realities of what we've got ourselves in for. Perhaps the most powerful statement made by Black Mirror's opening episode is that it made such waves, which should go some way to show how bad terrestrial television has become. Next week's installment, 15 Million Merits, tackles the main cause, reality TV. I hope it will do so with more subtly than this.
It wasn't all bad, however. It was bold, engaging and, especially the ending, powerful. I enjoyed the episode and give Brooker and his team huge credit for creating something that made people engage in TV in a manner they haven't done in a long time. Perhaps Black Mirror's greatest legacy will not be the episodes themselves, but the effect they have in the larger world. The more viewers they get, the more attention it garners, the more intelligent TV might get created. And that, that - I'm all for.
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