Is there a more perfect paranoia-stirring cocktail than the Internet and bees?
Both are at the center of a standout episode from the third season of Charlie Brooker’s cult-favorite anthology series “Black Mirror,” which has drawn apt comparisons to “The Twilight Zone” for its suspenseful stories about the consequences of technology. The show premiered on British television in 2011, but its most recent episode was a 2014 Christmas special starring Jon Hamm. Season 3 marks the series’ move to Netflix, where you can watch all six episodes starting Friday.
It’s a twisted sort of joke that you need a WiFi connection to watch a show that makes the act of unplugging so appealing. But the real genius of “Black Mirror” lies in its dissection of humanity — how our emotions, compulsions and fears inform our use of technology. Season 3 masterfully carries on this tradition, skewering Internet vigilantism, invasion of privacy and the false personas we present on social media.
Although fan theories abound on how various episodes may be connected, you don’t need to watch them in sequential order or even catch up on previous seasons (although I’d recommend doing so eventually, because they’re that good). Each installment functions almost as its own short film, with a distinct texture, soundtrack and tone.
In “Nosedive,” director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) creates a visually stunning universe that looks like a pastel “Pleasantville.” The episode, co-written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, imagines a world where everyone is assigned a numerical rating, which fluctuates (based on virtual and real-life interactions), determining their social status. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, an insecure woman consumed with increasing her score.
In this universe, you can see anyone’s score and social feeds while you’re talking to them, taking passive-aggressive small talk to a new level. A consultant advises Lacie that she needs “upvotes from quality people,” meaning those with a score in the “high fours,” so she’s thrilled when a childhood friend (Alice Eve) who’s a stellar 4.8 asks her to be the maid of honor at her wedding. This, as anyone who has ever agreed to take part in this tradition could predict, is when things start to go south. The episode is infused with wry humor — Cherry Jones makes a memorable appearance as a woman with a different approach to her self-image — but it’s also appropriately creepy.
While there are more American actors in this season than we’re used to seeing on the show, Anglophiles should rest assured knowing “Black Mirror” hasn’t made a full Brexit. “Playtest” (directed by Dan Trachtenberg of “10 Cloverfield Lane”) bridges the Anglo-American divide with a horror tale about Cooper (Wyatt Russell), a globe-trotting American who signs up to test a video game still in development in Britain. Being the easygoing bloke that he is, Cooper agrees to undergo the “small medical procedure” required to participate in the test, and things get pretty scary from there. It’s an unexpectedly emotional thrill ride.
Also set in the U.K. is “Shut Up and Dance,” easily the season’s most unsettling episode. The story places Kenny, a socially awkward teen (Alex Lawther), and a middle-aged stranger (Jerome Flynn) at the center of an Internet blackmail scheme. The episode is especially unnerving because, unlike most “Black Mirror” installments, which tend to take place in the near future or contain technology not yet available to us, the themes in “Shut Up and Dance” are well within reach.
“Hated in the Nation” is set in London, far enough into the future for the city to be warming up to autonomous cars but not so far that we’ve moved on from Twitter. A police detective (Kelly Macdonald) and her younger, tech-savvy colleague (Faye Marsay) investigate the death of a writer who became the subject of Internet scorn after a controversial column. Without giving away too much, the plot also involves government agencies and those bees I mentioned earlier.
“Hated in the Nation” balances its surrealism with timely sociopolitical commentary — something Brooker does especially well. “The Waldo Moment,” a Season 2 episode that finds an irreverent cartoon bear launching a Parliament bid, has been credited with essentially predicting Donald Trump’s rise. Brooker recently told Vulture that the 2013 episode was “loosely based” on former London mayor Boris Johnson, who has drawn comparisons to the Republican presidential nominee.
There’s more commentary in “Men Against Fire,” which offers a dystopian analysis of how technology could affect warfare. Malachi Kirby (“Roots”) stars as a soldier who is horrified to learn the truth behind the equipment he and his comrades are using. The story unfolds slowly and ambiguously, typical of “Black Mirror” episodes.
“San Junipero” takes a noticeable departure from earlier installments. It’s largely set in the 1980s, and the show factors in all the perms, arcade games and neon lighting of the era, in addition to a soundtrack that includes Belinda Carlisle, the Smiths and Robert Palmer. The nostalgia renders an upbeat melancholy to the episode, which stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (sans British accent).
It’s a magnificent episode. Initially, it might not be what fans would expect from “Black Mirror,” but stick with it. The show, like the technology it explores, is one that you can hardly ever predict.
Black Mirror Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix, along with the first two seasons.