‘Black Mirror’: Charlie Brooker’s dark, disturbing reflections of who we are

Television review: ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Crazyhead’ and ‘Paying for Sex’

Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie in “Nosedive”, an episode from Charlie Brooker’s new “Black Mirror” series on Netflix

Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie in “Nosedive”, an episode from Charlie Brooker’s new “Black Mirror” series on Netflix

 

Cancel your plans this weekend and instead freak out about the near future with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Netflix). This third season is the biggest so far, with six episodes filled with online hysteria, shame, revenge and guilt. There’s even the odd happy ending to balance the doom.

Most episodes are just one or two details removed from reality, such as superadvanced cars or contact lenses with more apps than your smartphone. This only adds to the fear that we’re well and truly screwed.

The Nosedive episode, for example, which is directed by Joe Wright and written by Brooker, Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, creates a world where people are endlessly rated out of five, so Lacie (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) is always wearing pastels, always smiling and always striving for the perfect score. Unfortunately, she’s stuck at 4.2 – and the lengths she goes to in order to have an Instagram-ready life will feel vaguely familiar.

The veil of a London detective drama is pulled over Hated in the Nation, but it plays on the witch-hunting nature of social media. Starring Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald, it forces us to examine the ethics of online outrage – fans of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed will enjoy it – and what price we should pay for participating, even if we’re just an egg on Twitter going for the celebrity villain of the day.

Playtest provides some comic relief, in the form of a virtual-reality game gone evil. Thanks to Dan Trachtenberg, the director of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Wyatt Russell (the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) it’s still pretty twisted – that’s to be expected – but it’s also a bit of fun. If you can find the fun in psychological torture.

This episode draws on the tension that Trachtenberg does so well, and it concludes with a perfect Aha! moment that will have you slapping your knee and screaming: “Brooker! You bastard!”

As is the way with Black Mirror, when this season gets dark it gets downright disturbing. If the unnerving game of moral roulette in Shut Up and Dance destroys you, or the manipulative military methods in Men Against Fire throw you into a spiral of despair, use San Junipero as an antidote, because whatever faith you lost in humanity will be restored with this heartwarming dip into 1987.

With a bigger budget and big-name directors, Black Mirror loses none of its misery. If anything the heart of the show has only become colder.

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer comparisons are hard to avoid with Crazyhead (E4, Wednesday). Thankfully, the latter seems to be as good as the former. Amy (Cara Theobold) is freshly off medication for hallucinations when she meets Raquel (Susan Wokoma), a demon hunter – or “hell bitch”, as she prefers – who helps her realise that her hallucinations are actually a gift to fight evil.

Not unlike in the Normal Again episode of Buffy, where Buffy’s life as a slayer is the wild fantasy of a resident of a mental-health facility, our two protagonists are in and out of psychiatric treatment and routinely have to evaluate reality. And their reality, unfortunately, has demons. Lots of them. And the Big Bad – that’s villain in Buffyspeak – happens to be a leading psychiatrist. Damn!

Written by Howard Overman, the Misfits creator, Crazyhead features blunt and distinctly British humour. The fear factor is mildly gory – think Shaun of the Dead – so you won’t be sleeping with the light on for weeks on end.

The first episode is a great introduction to our hell bitches, with Raquel delivering sage demon-tracking advice – “If the guy is possessed, his semen is cold” – and Amy bravely stepping into her new role when she has to urinate on her possessed best friend. If you didn’t guess, this show is also about friendship.

The gags come thick and fast in this horror romp, which has you rooting for Amy and Raquel as they face the world and underworld together as soon-to-be best friends. It’s a very simple set-up, and the pace of the first episode hints that there is room for long and clever story arcs to develop, which may lead to a very fleshed-out and entertaining first season.

Paying for Sex (RTÉ2, Monday), a one-off Reality Bites documentary, follows Rachel Moran and Kate McGrew as they campaign on opposing sides of the Sexual Offences Bill, which will make it illegal to pay for sex in Ireland.

Moran is a former teenage sex worker and the author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. She wants to see the Bill cross the finishing line. McGrew is a current sex worker, and she wants to decriminalise the sale of sex entirely.

Prostitution is not illegal in the Republic at the moment as long as it takes place indoors, but most of the activities associated with it, such as soliciting in a public place and operating brothels, are illegal. About one man in 15 pays for sex with women.

Here the two women’s stories are so polarising that the programme seems like a simplified view of prostitution. We hear from “Ann”, a teenager who was trafficked to Ireland from Africa, raped in a so-called safe house and then forced into the sex trade. We also hear from Tom Meagher, who explains the connection between the murder of his wife, Jill Meagher, in Melbourne, and the misogyny that he believes is at the heart of prostitution.

But the documentary shines too little light on the women who need the Bill most, women like “Ann” and other children.

As McGrew is filmed pottering about her apartment, fully clothed and talking to a client on the phone, she appears to be fully in control of her decisions, as are many sex workers. They have chosen their work, and McGrew argues that if the purchase of sex is criminalised it will put sex workers in more danger, as the trade will move deeper underground.

The film covers many topics in an hour, but, regardless of whether the Bill is passed, it looks as if some women will be left unprotected. It’s an unsettling conclusion.

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