That is the question implicitly posed by Charlie Brooker’s latest TV offering, ‘Black Mirror’, which aired on Sunday 4th December. Following the critically acclaimed Screenwipe and Brooker’s popular column in The Guardian, expectations for the three part ‘series’ have been high. And, if the first episode is anything to go by, Black Mirror will provide plenty of controversy.
Brooker of course is no stranger to poking fun at power, having long insisted that David Cameron is in fact a lizard. No, not in the metaphorical sense: literally. While that may appeal to a niche sense of humour, Black Mirror cleverly and ironically draws in those viewers who quite like the idea of the British PM being forced to ‘make love’ to a pig, live on TV, as well as those who think they are watching critically, ironically perhaps, and intrigued by the questions the show raises about modern technology, politics, and voyeurism.
The plot sees ‘Princess Susannah’ captured and held hostage, with a simple, untraceable demand video uploaded to Youtube. Despite injunctions and aggressive internet policy, the video goes viral and it’s not long before major news corporations decide to break ranks and cover the story. The PM’s aides report back on the ebbs and flows of British public opinion as the young princess is seen to be in considerable distress. Inevitably for the fictionalised PM, it’s not long before a situation of ‘if she dies her blood won’t be on your hands’ develops into an inescapable need to perform an indecent act with a farmyard animal, filmed by a man with a handheld camera. And, after an hour, the show reaches its ineluctable (ahem) climax.
There are some great comedy moments; for instance, as he’s walking to the room containing the sedated swine, the PM is urged not to go too fast for fear of appearing ‘eager’ or worse still ‘enjoying it’. Black Mirror then is a critique of polling and the pandering to public opinion seen in modern politics. It is also a reflection on contemporary trends in social media and the internet generally, especially the role such technology plays in eroding political power. But most of all, Black Mirror is a critique of us, the British public. Not many countries would welcome and celebrate a production like Brooker’s. And Brooker recognises the positive and negative aspects of this fact. A strong, liberal, desire to poke fun at power, in order to disarm it, might just be an especially or even peculiarly ‘British’ trait. Perhaps, however, so is the desire to witness celebrity distress. Brooker’s scenario stands at the logical pinnacle of a trend of reality TV shows, designed to humiliate the famous. Consider, for example, that it was not long ago one such programme on Channel 5 did show ‘an indecent act’ with a pig.
Brooker’s ultimate victory lies in his ability to include the viewer – ironic or otherwise – within the critique he is offering. Princess Susannah is released, it ultimately transpires, thirty minutes before the PM and the pig are introduced. Her captor, quite correctly, realised that the streets would be empty at that point, since everybody would be watching a screen in anticipation of the degradation it promised to show. You (and me!), the viewer, were one of those glued to the TV, awaiting that final scene.
Black Mirror is available to watch on Channel 4’s 4OD.
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