Is Black Mirror Actually Good Now?

For years, I’ve held an unpopular opinion about this Science Fiction show. With “USS Callister,” maybe that’s over

 

I’ve disliked Black Mirror since season 1, but there’s so much positive buzz around it each time a new season rolls around that I’m dragged back in to watching an episode or two and being disappointed all over again. The problem is that it casts itself as a serious show filled with original ideas that like, really make you think, maaaan, but it’s more boring than thought-provoking. “Fifteen Million Merits” (S01E02) is the episode where most of society is basically enslaved and a gameshow with absurdly high stakes is used as a method of control. That is not very original at all. There’s also “Nosedive” (S03E01), where your social standing is entirely based on other peoples’ Yelp-like reviews of you, personally. Not as big a sin as the gameshow thing, but still a concept I found about as interesting as yet another “Are iPhones ruining Millennials?” thinkpiece. And then there’s “San Junipero,” whose central concept was uploading your mind after death. This is such a tired and well-tread SF concept that it’s easier to direct you to the TV Tropes page about it instead of giving examples.

There’s nothing wrong with using what came before. There’s nothing new under the sun, and the cultural chiasmata that results from widespread borrowing is part of the fun of Science Fiction. There are two main issues though with Black Mirror‘s lifting of ideas from the ether: one, many reviewers praise it specifically for its imagination, and two, it’s marketed as one hour of self-contained, high-concept television. When you build a show specifically to explore ideas, and people praise your show for how fresh and new those ideas are, the originality of your concepts is important. Season 5 of Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. had a great brain-upload virtual universe storyline, and it didn’t land as hackneyed because it was just one element of a character-driven action drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Black Mirror‘s multiple in-episode rants about the State of Society, its completely on-the-nose moralizing, and its self-seriousness disqualify it from the relaxed critical standards that something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. enjoys. Also, much of the dialogue is flabby, a lot of the episodes are either under- or over-acted, and the actual execution of each show is boring. It’s like eating at a white-tie restaurant where the waiter judges you, except all they serve is Quaker Peaches and Cream oatmeal. It does not live up to its mystique. Nothing wrong with oatmeal, it’s just not an interesting food.

 

The first episode of season 4 is good though, I promise

 

OK. Wow. Got carried away there, because it’s easier to talk about hating something than it is to talk about something being good. With all the preceding off of my chest, I can cover how “USS Callister” gives me hope for the new season.

The concept, in which the boss makes virtual, fully sentient copies of his underlings to do his bidding, may have been directly lifted from Vernor Vinge’s 2003 Hugo-award-winning novella. Again, unoriginal concepts are only show-ruining if they’re the only leg on your stool. What this episode does, in contrast to the handful of previous ones I’ve watched, is take that concept as a foundation and build something on it aside from self-important moralizing.

The CTO of a virtual gaming company runs a bootleg, offline version of his game, in which he’s trapped sentient copies of people he feels have wronged him. They know who and where they are, but they are forced to participate smilingly in a game-universe Star Trek retread, and they face terrible consequences if they don’t play along.

The Star Trek retread is entertaining. The actors involved in this one are more interesting (especially Jimmi Simpson, whom I love in everything he does). I felt real horror while watching the antagonist exercise absolute control over the people he’d trapped in his own personal world. While watching “USS Callister,” I enjoyed an engrossing TV show. During every previous episode of Black Mirror, I was constantly aware that Art was being Practiced Upon Me for my Edification, obviously and tiresomely.

I have high hopes for the rest of Season 4 if this trend continues. Sorry this ended up being mostly about me hating previous seasons of Black Mirror — you can leave a comment with your favorite episodes if you feel I need to educate myself.

Hulu’s Sci-Fi Comedy Future Man is a refreshing surprise

Original and fearless, it answers the question “What would happen if we mixed Terminator with Pineapple Express?”

Future Man is, without a doubt, the greatest janitor-centered time travel comedy of 2017. The concept is straightforward: Josh Futterman, a custodial worker at a biolab, lives with his parents and spends his free time playing Biotic Wars under the moniker Future Man. When he beats the game (the first person to do so), he discovers that it’s actually a recruitment/training simulation. Two future warriors straight out of an 80s B-movie materialize in his bedroom and tell him the Biotic Wars are real and he’s humanity’s savior.

Here it is: https://www.hulu.com/grid/future-man. It’s unfortunately only available with a Hulu account, but you need to be watching A Handmaid’s Tale anyway, so it shouldn’t be that painful.

The show takes a little time to get off the ground. The first couple of episodes are rough because it’s so clearly wish fulfillment — the loser with a dead-end job gets to hang out with Time Marines. As it becomes more and more clear that any easy tropes Future Man uses are there to be subverted, the narrative becomes more interesting. By episode 5, the rightness of the war against the Biotics is called into question, and what was a goofy, fun sci-fi romp becomes a goofy, fun, sci-fi romp filled with moral ambiguity and existential doubt. It’s an amazing turn — one minute you’re laughing at Rogenesque (Seth is a producer) dick jokes, and the next you’re asking what reality is. The skeleton of this show is a time-travel comedy, but it’s fleshed out with writing that trusts the audience, true character development, and really careful attention to plot.

Entertainment is the defining feature of each episode — every one is laugh-out-loud funny. This ranges from dumb, crude jokes (the instant the soldiers materialize in Josh’s bedroom, he’s masturbating) to extremely complex and rewarding long-arc humor — grizzled warrior Wolf discovers a hidden talent for cuisine and spends the rest of the show conflicted between his persona as a Michelin-level talent and a man who can rip someone’s head off with his bare hands.

Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is to become a super soldier or die

The attention to character is a big part of what gives the show real substance. Tiger and Wolf are parodies of 80s action heroes, and they absolutely are everything you’d expect as a result: trained killers, strong, direct, and unversed in 21st century niceties. Unlike the 80s movies that inspired these two, Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is become a super soldier or die. At one point, Josh attempts to kiss Tiger, and she almost throws up. She asks why he would want to put “ratholes” together (“What else would you call the hole you stuff rats into?”), revealing the deep intimacy issues created in a kill-or-be-killed world. In addition to a realistic portrayal of the dark side of being a badass future soldier, the show shepherds each of the leading characters through personal development. Josh becomes more dedicated, more confident, and more able to work towards his goals. Tiger becomes more willing to express emotions, and Wolf (in what is possibly the best episode of the series) moves from being an unquestioning grunt into pursuing personal fulfillment to the hilt. It’s a goofy comedy, but its serious attention to true human emotion keeps it from being only that.

[E]ach change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results

The time travel in Future Man is the most painstaking exploration of the concept to make it to any type of screen in the last few years. The central conflict involves going back in time to assassinate the inventor of the super serum that creates the genocidal Biotics. The show is mainly a catalogue of how the multiple attempts and failures of the main trio shred the timeline more and more irreparably. Actions have consequences, and that is such an important quality of good narrative. For example, the most disappointing thing about Doctor Who’s decline in the post-Tennant years is its creeping but inexorable movement away from time travel having rules. In Doctor Who, if something is broken beyond repair, the Doctor can literally just scream I’M THE DOCTOR, completely ignore all rules of internal narrative consistency, and change everything to suit him. The writers make no reference to previously unbreakable rules, to commonly accepted time travel tropes, or even a decent explanation of exactly what it is the Doctor is doing. The absolute lack of consequences has transformed Doctor Who from a show written with kids in mind to a kids’ show. Future Man is on the other end of the spectrum — each change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results (the funniest and most trivial of which is Josh accidentally making his parents name him “Joosh”). The explanations for how time travel works don’t necessarily make sense because time travel itself doesn’t make sense, but the writers never insult the audience with hand-waving — they stick to their internally-consistent guns and explore consequences rationally.

While the show doesn’t get its feet under it until about episode four, it is impressive once it gets going. The writers chose what they wanted this show to be with no consideration for who would want to follow, no focus-group simplification — they just went for it, and the resulting joy of creation translates into a palpable energy in every scene. The contrast at the center of the show is constantly stimulating — it’s very much a goofy bro sci-fi show, but it explores its morals and characters with the utmost seriousness. Even if this show had no other saving graces, the montage where Wolf falls in love with the 80s is, by itself, worth the Hulu subscription.

Rick and Morty is what happens when Dan Harmon gets carte blanche

I am extraordinarily late to this party, but Rick and Morty is the best currently-running cartoon on television. It’s also currently available for free on the Adult Swim website. It is endlessly inventive, does not shy away from complexity, and does a surprisingly good job on exploring character traits for a 23-minute show. It’s the baby of Dan Harmon, so if you liked the absolute absurdity of some of Community’s plotlines, you’ll appreciate the same style. The absurdity coupled with the effectively limitless conceptual space of the SF setting results in a show that is constantly entertaining because it’s constantly new. Think about all the times Community got ridiculous — the Halloween zombie episode, the paintball episode, etc. — and then think about what would happen if you moved that aesthetic from a show about community college to a show about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass. I’m getting ahead of myself. This show is about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass, a cynical, alcoholic 60-year-old who is probably the smartest being in existence. He’s a man who built a robot at the breakfast table because he needed something to pass him the butter. He built a butter-passing robot in like two minutes because he was lazy.

The eponymous pair of the show is this super-genius, Rick and his rather stupid grandson, Morty. Rick has returned to the family after years of absence, and his daughter Beth has abandonment issues and is terrified he’ll leave again. This creates tension with her husband, Jerry, who does not like Rick because he makes him feel stupid (he is) and has a bad influence on his son. There’s also Morty’s sister, Summer, who is mostly interesting because she’s a normal teenage girl — she’s the only character who is not dysfunctional. The relationship of these characters is one hint of the greatness of this show. It’s a zany sci-fi hijinks cartoon that also addresses the reality of human interaction. For example, the failing marriage between Morty’s mom and dad, two deeply hurt and codependent people, is an ongoing topic across all episodes.

The main draw of the show is its sheer inventiveness. In one episode, Jerry is annoyed that the family dog is so stupid. He pesters Rick until he solves the problem by putting an intelligence helmet on the dog. The dog spends a little while fetching slippers, using the toilet, etc. Then he achieves self-awareness, modifies his helmet to bestow super-intelligence, enslaves the family, and starts building an enhanced dog army. In another episode, Rick gives the family a Mr. Meeseeks box. The box is alien tech. When the user hits a button, a humanoid Mr. Meeseeks pops into existence, solves a problem you set for it, and then de-manifests. The dad, Jerry, asks for help getting two strokes off his golf game, but he’s so bad at everything that the Meeseeks can’t help him, gets distraught, and hits the Meeseeks button itself, asking a second Meeseeks to help it help Jerry. This process repeats until there are dozens of Mr. Meeseeks all experiencing an existential crisis. The only way to stop a homicidal rampage is for Jerry to actually improve his golf game. There’s the one where aliens place Rick and Morty (and accidentally Jerry) in a simulation of their normal lives, hoping to trick Rick into giving them one of his technological secrets. The problem is, the simulation is really low-rent, and the only person dumb enough not to notice anything wrong (people walking through trees, his wife responding to him robotically and using the exact same words, seeing the same three people over and over again throughout the town due to the limits of the simulation’s processing power) is Jerry, and as a result, the poor dumb bastard has the best day of his life. Every episode has some high-concept core around which all the wackiness happens. The cardinal sin of bad art in any medium is to be boring, and this constant renewal of ideas puts Rick and Morty on the opposite side of that spectrum.

The interactions between Rick and Morty also add to the show’s appeal. On one side, you have a sociopathic genius who once built an entire pocket universe, filled with beings to whom he was a god, just to use as a car battery. On the other, there’s a kid who isn’t that smart, but also thinks that maybe doing whatever you want with no regard for destruction, mayhem, or morals maybe isn’t the best path. For example:

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what the show is all about. Rick sells a gun to an assassin to get enough money to go to a galactic Dave and Buster’s. Morty, horrified at his callous disregard for life, refuses to have a good time. This has all the other elements of a Rick and Morty show: the weirdness of them going to a galactic arcade, the variety of all the background aliens there, the high-concept of one of the arcade games taking the player through an entire life from childhood through death, the cynicism of Rick saying “55 years, not bad!” while Morty, still confused from the virtual reality, desperately asks “Where’s my wife?!”

The key element that ties everything else together is Rick himself. The character is so compelling because of the dynamic tension between wanting to root for the smartest guy in the room and being horrified by what a complete asshole he is. He can out-think anyone, build the coolest machines, and take his grandson on eye-opening adventures of breathtaking scope. On the other hand, he abandoned his daughter, is a galactic criminal, and seems literally not to care about anyone’s life, human, alien, or otherwise. He embodies the Darth Vader/Walter White effect, in which individuals of extraordinary competence, no matter how morally repugnant, appeal to audiences. Also, although he is completely unrepentant, he does have one single redeeming factor that the show buries deep: whenever he has to choose between the safety of his family and himself, he sacrifices himself. That one tiny spot of humanity colors the rest of his character and elevates him (just barely) to good-guy status. Well, not a “good” guy, but you get the picture.

The last episode of this show came out a year and a half ago, after a hell of a cliffhanger. Legions of fans have been painfully awaiting its return, and now I join their ranks. However long it takes for season three to premiere, it will be worth the wait. I’ll leave you with one more clip that will probably serve as a better indication of whether you should invest in this show than anything I’ve said. It’s the cold open for one of the episodes. If it makes you laugh, watch the show. If it’s too weird and off-putting for you, don’t watch the show.