The future is still pretty damn bleak in Black Mirror’s third season, its most ambitious run yet and the first made for Netflix with an American audience in mind. And yet there’s more hopeful humanism in this crop of dystopian tales, more than half of which bring the science-fiction anthology’s doomsday British wit to the States with a refreshing crop of strong female leads to remind us how terminally dependent we are on the iPhones, apps, gadgets, doodads, and next-gen inventions that may sooner kill us than make for better living.
The first two series of Charlie Brooker’s anthology served up some of the sharpest sci-fi in years when it debuted across the pond in 2011, illuminating all the terrifying ways the technology we crave and the media we consume are destined to make us more miserable. Making its way to the U.S. years later, it exploded into an international hit, and now the new Netflix berth has only widened the sandbox for Brooker & Co.
But along with more episodes, Hollywood talent, and a more expansive universe (neurotic Americans! Annoying Americans! Lesbian heroines who are also, wait for it—Americans!), Black Mirror’s new season has an even sharper focus on satirizing the way we live online now, in 2016—and how our individual choices have repercussions on the strangers whose lives intersect with ours on the internet.
Social media, for example, plays a huge part in very different ways in two standout episodes that will have you sharply reconsidering the way you use hashtags and rate your Uber drivers. Augmented reality is another emergent real-life technology that serves as a fertile backdrop for new Black Mirror nightmares. In a slight departure from the theme, another episode casts a critical eye on the advancement of military-weapons programming in the new millennium. But as in previous seasons, these new alt-future fables come with the same pointed warning: Beware the cost of technologies that dehumanize the human experience while purporting to enhance it.
Also: Stop being so thirsty on the ’gram, because your daily quest to take the perfect selfie is sapping your soul (and is generally not a good look).
Alas, they’re not all winners, but the best of these six new episodes have a transformative power, the kind of intellectual-emotional wallop that waits for the right moment to strike. And with an increase in star wattage comes a handful of standout performances. In the wickedly funny “Nosedive,” directed by Joe Wright and scripted by Brooker with Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Rashida Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard gets a comedic showcase as a Type A woman driven to desperate measures in a society where one’s likeability index is the most important currency.
In a show that’s seen a plotline about a British politician having sex with a pig literally mirrored in real life (see: Season 1’s “The National Anthem,” starring Rory Kinnear), it’s Howard’s episode that bears the most terrifying verisimilitude of realism—and her swiftly deteriorating grasp on sanity, in a world in which one’s self-value is intertwined with their social-networking status, that feels all too familiar.
“Playtest,” directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane helmer Dan Trachtenberg, is another gem with a gut punch anchored by a performer who gets to unleash his comedic chops. Wyatt Russell stars as a goofy American abroad hired to be a game-testing guinea pig for a huge video game developer working on a highly secretive new platform. The conceit essentially allows Russell to put on a one-man show, displaying glimmers of his dad Kurt’s comic charisma in what, for much of its hour-long runtime, plays as a meta-haunted house horror flick but builds to one intense turn after another.
Other installments rely on one central gimmicky twist, with mixed results. The near-constant anxiety of “Shut Up and Dance,” about a British teenager blackmailed by malware-armed hackers, wears thin but redeems itself with a satisfying endgame. “Men Against Fire” starts out like a low-budget Starship Troopers fan film but doesn’t turn out half as sharply as that would have been. (If only.)
Brooker makes up for it with “Hated in the Nation,” a feature-length police procedural following two lady cops (Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay) investigating the mysterious slaying of a tabloid journalist. What begins as an engrossing cop thriller-character piece takes on new dimensions with the introduction of mechanized AI, mob outrage, and social media, a resounding admonishment of the psychological violence our collective hive minds do unto strangers on the internet.
The most exquisite gift Black Mirror gives us in this new collection of stories, however, is also its most ponderously heartfelt and existential. “San Junipero” stars Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie, a shy tomboy in a 1980s fever dream who meets the outgoing Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a dance club and falls hard. Their seaside fling is cut short, but the real stakes of their once-in-a-lifetime connection reveal themselves over the most deeply emotional episode of the season.
Davis and Mbatha-Raw transcend a few talky exchanges to bring “San Junipero” achingly alive, in the way “Be Right Back” and “The Entire History of You” ripped open the wounds of the heart and embraced the dark impulses that drive us to seek the tools to ease our pain. Brooker’s world-building is at its best and most layered here, and director Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends) weaves together a tapestry textured with moments of pure, redemptive exhilaration. The episode’s coda signs off with the kind of sweetly melancholic salve that might even give us cynical souls hope for humanity’s near-distant future.