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‘Black Mirror’s Identity Crisis and What the New Sixth Season Can Do to Fix It

Oh, Black Mirror. What on Earth will we do with you? A science fiction anthology series from the mind of creator Charlie Brooker, it first began back in 2011 and made quite a splash. Dark yet incisive, it showed how the terrors of an increasingly technological world have become intertwined with our own lives. Just as we are shaping technology, we are also being shaped by it in equal measure. It is a work of speculative fiction that has become one of the most-watched shows of its kind once it was picked up by the streaming service Netflix back in 2015. Since its most recent fifth season aired, there was a lot of uncertainty about what would come next and if it would continue on at all following disputes over who actually had the rights to it. That was all put to bed with today’s news that development would begin on the sixth season with Brooker heading the ship once more. Of course, there is still much that should be fixed from its fifth season.

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According to the initial reports, the hope is to expand the number of episodes being made and also increase their production budget to make them more cinematic. This isn’t entirely unexpected as the series already dipped its toe into making a feature film with the choose your own adventure story that was Bandersnatch. While that was certainly an inventive take on the story that attempted to chart its own path, it didn’t reach the same emotional heights of the seasons that had preceded it. In addition to delaying production on the fifth season, it also proved to be fortuitous as all that followed it was largely lacking in emotional impact. It is all part of how the show is in a bit of an identity crisis, wanting to become more of a cinematic event while losing sight of the best parts of its beginning that made it so beloved. It is bringing in more stars and growing bigger without being as well-written as it was when it started out. It is worth remembering that it was never about the star power or the dollar signs of what went into it. Rather, it was about the strong stories at the center and what they said about us.


There has been the persistent feeling that the show has been gradually softening the darker aspects of its stories. Even as someone who found redeeming qualities in the “Striking Vipers” episode, especially in regards to the performances, it all felt safe and predictable with a genuine misunderstanding of what it actually wanted to be by the time it all concluded. It was without the same gumption and unflinching sense of dread that made episodes like “Shut Up and Dance” stick with you long after the credits rolled. Season 5 had restrained itself, playing out with far too much of an emphasis on being digestible in how it abandoned the more sinister subtlety that had been woven throughout the series before that. The intensity and insights we had come to expect evaporated in favor of inexplicably trite storytelling that has felt more like after-school specials than frightening reflections of our future.


Can you even remember the other two episodes of Season 5? One was the muddled and meandering “Smithereens” where a cab driver takes a man hostage. It didn’t really even feel like a Black Mirror episode, instead playing out as a belabored police drama that didn’t end up working as that either. It tried to jam in some later reflections on technology to make it more like we expected though it all came across as forced and poorly constructed. The other was “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” an episode about fame that failed to provide any sharp observations before coming to a convenient conclusion that robbed it of any payoff. They would both be forgettable if they weren’t so completely forced and facile. They marked a real low point in the series, becoming the worst reviewed and least engaging episodes thus far. Yes, expectations were high but they still proved to be a genuine letdown even when compared to the more middling episodes of the series. At least those episodes were going for big swings. These ones just felt like they were checking their swing, limiting their aspirations to the point of being ambling and almost completely absent of what made it all work before.


It is all part of how the show’s current trajectory has been restrained to the point of being shallow, introducing what could be interesting new ideas but never really taking them into the impactful depths it has the potential to reach. This is something that could and should be fixed, mostly by returning to its roots. Whether it is the sublime “San Junipero” or the deeply unsettling “White Christmas,” the show is at its best when it doesn’t hold itself back from fully leaning into the science fiction genre. The most recent output has lost sight of this, sanding down its more creative flair and grim tone into almost nothing. No matter how much of an increase in the budget the new seasons get, the nuts and bolts of the writing are what needs to be made the priority in whatever comes next. If it still lacks the imagination that made its earlier seasons so striking, then all the money in the world won’t fix the problems that are haunting it. Throwing more resources at something while still playing it safe is only going to leave everything feeling like a higher-budget spectacle that remains creatively bankrupt in what matters most: a sense of inventiveness. Without it, we will be left once more with forgettable episodes that never find their stride and only fall flat on their face.


This is because the show is at its best when it fully plunges into the darkness on the other side of the black mirror. The episodes that still remain forever etched into our minds are the ones that don’t run away from this, jumping with abandon into the unknowns of the future we are creating for ourselves. Even the ones that are the most futuristic find a compelling core in reflecting the truths that are already taking form in our time. The new season can’t be afraid of being both bold and bleak as it was when it started out, delving into the uglier aspects of ourselves without blinking an eye. It has been a disappointment to see how recent episodes have persistently seemed to blink and avert their gaze, affixing their attention on more superficial stories. It is better to aspire to more expansive and evocative themes that may fall short than to not try at all. To regain the sense of creativity it once had, the new season should be willing to let loose more and embrace its audacious origins. This is necessary to do if it wants to claw its way back up from its current low point and avoid the pitfalls of its past.


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