In a world where you can hardly ride an elevator or climb in the back of a taxi without confronting a screen, Black Mirror provides a valuable service: The anthology series uses speculative storytelling to ask how technology mediates our lives. Often, it does this by by physically manifesting ideas that we confront every day on a flat screen. Two episodes from the show’s upcoming third season that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday — the first new installments to be released since the 2014 Christmas special starring Jon Hamm — brilliantly flesh out the absurdities of our tech-addled world, presenting alternate visions of life lived in virtual spaces.
Spoiler warning — if you’d prefer to be totally surprised by these new episodes, turn back now! The first episode of the new batch, streaming on Netflix in October, is “San Junipero,” which poses the question: What if heaven were a place on earth? At the start, an awkward young woman named Yorkie (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) enters a beachside nightclub circa 1987. Dressed in a combination of high-waisted khaki shorts and a striped sweater, Yorkie immediately stands out among the sequins and shoulder pads. She catches the eye of Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who buys her a drink and drags her out onto the dance floor.
Black Mirror takes place in a not-so-distant future, so the episode’s retro setting immediately flags your attention. Has Yorkie traveled through time or space to get to San Junipero? When Kelly places her hand on Yorkie’s leg, Yorkie freaks out and leaves. But when she returns to the club a week later, she follows Kelly to the bathroom. “I don’t know how to do this,” Yorkie admits. “Can you just make this easy for me?” Finally, she goes home with Kelly.
I won’t spoil the surprise, but eventually we learn the truth about San Junipero, and why Yorkie and Kelly are really there. TV is awash in dark visions of a dystopian future; in “San Junipero,” technological advances enable a utopian future that can help people close the gap between the lives they have and the lives they want — between who they are in the world and who they are in their hearts.
“Nosedive” presents a somewhat less magnanimous idea of technology’s influence. In this episode — written by Parks and Rec alum Rashida Jones and creator Mike Schur and directed by Joe Wright — the virtual world has a far more nefarious affect on people’s lives. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, a chipper young woman who lives with her slacker brother (Happy Valley’s James Norton). With her lease up in a few weeks, she has her sights set on a pristine apartment in a “lifestyle community” called Pelican Cove (her brother takes one look at the brochure and declares it a “eugenics program”).
There’s just one problem: Lacie’s ranking. In the world of “Nosedive,” everyone’s social media profiles are instantly available when in close proximity, and every interaction is rated out of five stars: Lacie rates the barista who prepares your morning coffee, and he rates her; she gives her colleague a boost after some forced elevator chit-chat, and vice-versa. If someone already has a high number, her rating will have a greater affect on your overall rank. In Lacie’s office, one poor schmuck’s low rating has rendered him a pariah.
Does all this sound familiar? Are you nodding your head in desperate recognition? I was throughout “Nosedive,” which tracks Lacie’s frantic attempt to up her rating so she can afford the pricey Pelican Cove apartment — it offers a discount to anyone with a rank of 4.5 or higher.
But it’s not so easy to keep up that number in a world where those star ratings are a constant punish and reward. “Nosedive” channels the frustration of attempting to put a cheery spin on everything you do, of constantly having to present your “best self” to the world, even if you’re screaming on the inside. You know the indescribable rage of shouting at a call-center employee while he calmly repeats his scripted lines on the other end of the phone? By the end of “Nosedive,” Lacie knows that feeling well.
Black Mirror is a show about technology, of course. But it uses these speculative advances in technology not to suggest ways in which they can improve upon humanity, but as a spigot to tap into what makes us flawed and imperfect. When you peer into Black Mirror’s crystal ball, those blemishes appear a lot more essential to our sense of self than any gadget.
Black Mirror Season 3 hits Netflix on Oct. 21.