Reflections in a Black Mirror




IF BEFORE that tragic day 13 years ago in September, a scripted television series had told the story of not one but two commercial jetliners crashing into the world’s tallest skyscraper towers on a crisp, blue-skied morning, would we have considered it bizarre dystopian fiction?

Trying to remember what life was like before 9/11 (the most recorded event in human history) requires super human effort, because it’s more than just 13 years. It’s a different state of mind.

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami addresses the thorny issue of our collective consciousness before and after the September tragedy when he asks which seems more “real”: the world we might have had if 9/11 had never happened or the way our lives are today?

“Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A,” he writes in a The New York Times essay, “and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not ‘chaos’?”

Is there a quality of dislocation and chaos that has suffused our collective lives that is greater now than in previous eras, or is it simply a function of our perspective and technology?

If your answer is yes, that the world has taken an unreal turn for the worse, you are not alone. The evidence that others believe the same is everywhere in the apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopic narratives spanning all forms of entertainment today.

Young Adult (YA) readers have been following this trend in books and cinema for a long time, but it’s not just young readers. Publisher’s Weekly cites a recent study showing that roughly 55 percent of all YA books are bought by adults over 18, with the largest group being ages 30–44. There are plenty of “mature” fiction representatives of these genres as well, including the stunning Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.

What does it say that audiences young and old are finding these visions satisfying — even perhaps — reassuring?

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Two television series — The Leftovers on HBO and UK Channel 4’s Black Mirror — chart the pervasive fissures of the non-reality that has splintered our reality.

The Leftovers is an HBO series based on Tom Perrotta’s bestselling novel. The first season concluded this summer and a second season has been ordered. More than any other series on television today, The Leftovers deals overtly with what becomes “normal” in the aftermath of an event on the scale of 9/11. In this case the tragedy is a Rapture-like incident gone oddly wrong dubbed “The Sudden Departure,” or simply “10/14” for the date of its occurrence. Two percent of the world’s population — 140 million ordinary people — vanished without a trace.

We learn that the disappeared are a paradoxical group who were not particularly or uniformly pious. The list of missing celebrities includes Bonnie Raitt, Gary Busey, and the Pope. “The Pope, I get the Pope,” a bartender quips, “but Gary fucking Busey?” It’s one of the few light moments in the series.

The drama doggedly focuses on the residents of Mapleton, a fictitious New York suburb, three years after the event and how their preconceptions of life and normalcy are shattered.

Justin Theroux plays Kevin Garvey, Jr., a deeply ambivalent Chief of Police with anger issues, who struggles to keep his family together and the town of Mapleton from descending into chaos as the residents absorb the reality of disappeared husbands, wives, and newborns. He has to contend with a deer stag that haunts his dreams and apparently rampages his kitchen, a mute cigarette-smoking cult named the Guilty Remnants, and an eerie inflatable penguin, among other challenges.

Meanwhile, everyone around him is reeling with untold sorrow and the strain that turns faith into cynicism and paranoia into madness. They all have past infidelities and secrets, our anti-hero not least among them. To say that they are dealing with dislocation and disorder is an understatement. Think Under the Dome without the dome. With this slow-fuse drama, the show runners, novelist Tom Perrotta and Lost creator Damon Lindelof, appear to posit that grief itself is a form of television entertainment, reducing the range of human emotions to that one.

The Leftovers live in a world that is eerie, yet disconcertingly familiar. Or is it our familiarity that is eerie?

In the novel The Leftovers, Perrotta has said his goal was “undermining the apocalyptic genre” with “the intimacy of domestic fiction.” By focusing exclusively on how people have reacted to events rather than the events themselves, he’s consciously alluding to our aftermath experience of 9/11 or “Reality A” as Murakami would have it.

It doesn’t bode well that Perrotta’s co-creator Damon Lindelof has become notorious for wild goose chases and bad endings. Lindelof has hinted to the press that the mystery of The Leftovers will never be explained, a thought-provoking artistic goal (or a cop out) that flies in the face of audience satisfaction. That may change after ratings are evaluated. HBO has precedent for deviating from source material, altering characters and plot points on a fairly regular basis (i.e., Game of Thrones).

It’s assumed after disaster that a community will come together. In fact numerous sociological studies show that people have a natural solidarity after tragedy that links altruism and self-esteem. Even MRI findings have revealed that the action of making charitable donations triggers parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. The disintegration of the people of Mapleton post-disaster signals that there is something deeply amiss in that normative process. Why are they at each other’s throats instead? The reciprocal urge to come together seems somehow suppressed.

Watching the injustices in Mapleton mount — and they are endless — the series captures the intangible unease that communities all across America have experienced. The Leftovers offers a disquieting assessment of our collective post-tragedy response to the events of that long ago September, one we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the 24/7 news cycle.

Initially after the fall of 2001 there was, in fact, a national and worldwide outpouring of goodwill. But two wars and over a decade later, a growing apprehension and discord has followed, as if our problems are beyond our capabilities to solve. Communal cynicism and helplessness is the pervasive symptom, but what is the cause? Have we lost the urge to come together and heal? The fact that we, as viewers, don’t find the way people react in Mapleton as foreign speaks volumes about our current mindset. We have a new communal modus operandi to tragedy ­­— we hold back, wait, and watch to see where the cracks in sanity develop.

The Leftovers is about hope — mostly about not having it. Personal purgatory is hopelessness, and the issue of purgatory is never far from this series’ focus. In fact, some viewers have theorized that the “left behind” aren’t the leftovers after all. They are the ones who are actually raptured and are being tested by God, which would explain the more supernatural elements of the story, but would run completely against Perrotta’s best-selling novel, whose ending is hardly secret.

Where the novel was contemplative and filled with heart and humor, the television series is unrelenting, bare bones trauma and, as such, so grimly in keeping with the world we live in that it plays as synonymous with our current condition and fails to offer insight. In that way it’s uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Perhaps the more significant purgatory is the one we’re experiencing watching The Leftovers.

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Another angle on our current state of malaise is how technology has played a role in our dislocation. Black Mirror, a pitch-dark satiric anthology from the warped mind of UK Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, examines how technology has monopolized the void of our shadowy discontent and in the process exacerbated that void, making it more extreme, ambiguous, and protracted.

The word “technology” itself has undergone a fast moving evolution from an etymology referring to the study of mechanical and industrial arts, to the arts themselves, and recently to the current usage where we refer to technology as “mobile” and “personal.”

All of these disruptive “personal technologies” have each in their own way insinuated a place in what would have been the natural process of the knitting back together of our collective psyche after disaster, perhaps playing a role in delaying that coming together and driving a wedge that further suspends the unreality of things as they are.

It’s important to remember that not only was 9/11 the most recorded event in history but also, not coincidently, a milestone in the realignment of communication that has precipitated a global dismantling of virtually all previous information systems. The aftermath decade that followed 9/11 was the time in which graphic porn became a ubiquitous presence in the online experience of tweens and teens (mostly boys), when cyber-bullying became a problem on social networks, and when people stopped being able to find each other in train stations and airports and on street corners without their phones.

It ushered in an era when it came to be perfectly natural to be sitting at a dinner table where everyone is texting and a time that’s seen more people playing and watching competitive video games — eSports like League of Legends and DOTA2 — than watching the NBA Finals or the World Series.

We live in an age where people meet the Queen of England or the President of the United States just to take a selfie and where the audience at any rock concert is a sea of blue lights. It’s a world where during a riot more people stand by holding up their little phones, recording the few who are confronting police and smashing windows.

It is the decade where technology became crack. The one we’re living in. From this perspective, a show like Black Mirror writes itself.

For these and many other reasons, Black Mirror is vital viewing. It’s a UK Channel 4 production comprised of two seasons, a mere six episodes, but it’s guaranteed to sear its unflinching vision into your corneas. The series promises to break out in the coming year with the casting of Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Rafe Spall (One Day), and Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones) in a much-anticipated Christmas Special.

The black mirror is your phone, your tablet, your laptop or television. It’s all the screens that are black when not in use, yet reflect your image regardless of whether they’re turned off or not.

But Black Mirror isn’t just about all the technology we carry around in our pockets that are supported by the ephemeral notion of “the Cloud” (that ephemeral concept of service), which includes mind-boggling millions of square feet of brick and mortar servers around the world pumping out our personal data measured in exabytes (of which 30 percent is porn). Black Mirror is a dire warning of what’s underneath our obsession and dependence on those sleek, stylish devices.

The real question Brooker’s series asks isn’t some journalistic softball about whether we’re being exploited by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook, but rather why our lives are so devoid of deeper benefits and beliefs that would normally compel us to look away from those ubiquitous screens and face the issues of our lives and times. It’s not what we think and say about technology — it’s what our technology says about us.

Take the first episode entitled “The National Anthem,” (a story that could take place tomorrow), which begins in the middle of the night with a vibrating smartphone by the bedside of the Prime Minister of England. On the phone, he’s told that the much beloved “Facebook Princess” (think Kate Middleton), the first Royal to ever accept a marriage proposal via social media, has been kidnapped. There’s a video of the battered, weeping princess begging for her life. Moreover, the video is already on YouTube. And it’s gone viral. The PM’s media team jumps into action, reeling from the revelation, desperately trying to “get ahead of the story.” But there’s more. The only way they can save her, according to the kidnapper’s demands and truncated timetable, is for the Prime Minister to fornicate with a pig, on live television, via webcast, in front of the entire nation. How’s that for a setup?

This compact drama is carefully crafted and inherently satiric, filled with engrossing and human details as the tension rises and the deadline moves ever closer for the PM to meet the kidnapper’s demands. The sheer audacity of the premise is both ridiculous and riveting mainly because it’s not played for comedy. It stays focused on the human drama of the characters. There isn’t a wink. The most compelling figures in the narrative are the PM’s wife, who finds the humiliation impossible to recover from, and the PM himself, who is determined to rise above it all and remain electable despite being forced to comply with the piggy-shagging demand.

The story unfolds in a jaw-dropping sequence of turns. The government can force a media blackout on the press, but it’s helpless in a free society when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. The episode is unflinching in its depiction of the utter ugliness made possible by the anonymity of the internet and the appetite of millions of viewers who are both appalled and fascinated by the mechanics of the ministerial-porcine humiliation. Viewers are all too willing to sacrifice their decency and humanity in order to watch the viral sensation. They seem unable to resist until it’s too late. Sound familiar?

Black Mirror may seem to traffic in extremes, but nothing is that far from our “normal” lives. It’s as if Brooker were projecting the next impossible dilemma the world might face. What if a group, like ISIS, kidnapped a member of the Royal Family? It doesn’t seem as absurd then.

But perhaps the most unsettling is the first episode of the second season, “Be Right Back,” because it surgically delves into the emotional heart of how we cherish and remember each other through our digital footprint. It’s also the least cynical. A pleasingly rumpled 20-something couple in love, gentle, unassuming Martha (Hayley Atwell from Captain America) and affable Ash (the immensely talented Domhnall Gleeson of the recently released Frank), suffer a tragic loss. Ash dies in an accident on the highway that may or may not have been caused by using his cellphone while driving, leaving Martha alone without her soul mate.

In the midst of her sudden grief, she realizes she’s pregnant and achingly longs for her lost lover. A girlfriend suggests a new predictive software company’s phone app that replicates her deceased boyfriend’s personality and voice from the threads of his uploaded life, every tweet, message, post, Instagram, Snapchat photo, and voicemail, including even the porn links he used to visit. Martha’s grief is soon mitigated by Ash’s voice, which is amazingly responsive and even aware of himself as an absurd artificial creation.

The technology cuts terrifyingly close to what’s possible today, especially when you consider LivesOn, an actual company (no joke) that offers to keep you tweeting even after you’ve died. Their slogan is “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

Like most apps, the recreation of Ash’s voice is an appealing diversion until Ash offers an upgrade. “This may sound creepy,” he says in a perfectly tuned, off-hand sales pitch, “But there’s another level of this available.” And in a giant leap beyond Spike Jonze’s Her, the unseen technology company sends Martha a perfect replica of Ash.

“You look like him – on a good day,” Martha remarks, to which the new replica Ash observes by way of explanation, “The photos we keep tend to be flattering.”

“Be Right Back” speaks to one of the most basic human emotions we all inevitably experience: the loss of a loved one. We know it’s not practical, but we want the person we loved to return. A vacuum is created, a dislocation of heart and mind, and we would be more than willing to forego reality in order to have them back. By giving into the temptation of a convenient technology, a kind of service that was unthinkable previously, Martha is frozen in her grief. The “app” allows Martha to never quite accept the loss, and the process is stunted before achieving Kübler-Ross’s all-important fifth stage.

Soon the situation becomes unnervingly worse. Although sex with replica Ash is even better than the real thing — he can turn his erection on and off — Ash’s unthinking, unending, selfless devotion unnerves Martha, bringing out the unpleasant dark side of her character. She grows increasingly disturbed with replica Ash’s lack of resistance and free will and pushes him to his limits (eerily similar to the way you’d test new software), finally commanding him to jump off a cliff to his destruction. Ash is perplexed by this command and then artificially, on cue, begins to cry and plead for his life. Martha screams and the screen goes black.

But there’s more. In a coda, we discover the depths this unsettling virtual technology has taken the tidy, mild-mannered Martha. Her daughter, now fully grown, asks for an extra piece of cake to take upstairs, and Martha gives her a knowing parental look of forbearance. “It is my birthday and it’s the weekend,” her daughter replies. As the attic door creaks open we find Ash facing a wall, standing ever-vigilant, always on and living in a world without time. “I brought you some cake,” the little girl says. A sublime sense of perversion overtakes the story. “I know you don’t eat anything. I’m just using you to get an extra slice,” she adds, spinning the viewer off into further disturbing scenarios.

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Each episode of Black Mirror is driven by the wit and skill of a master satirist who nudges us uncomfortably close to our reality while calling on our intelligence to observe and draw conclusions. Charlie Brooker is a Brit worthy of Rod Serling’s mantle and the evocation, from a different epoch, of The Twilight Zone, not just because he’s resurrected the anthology format, but also because he shares Serling’s fearless surgical confrontation with our unreality, our clinging to a normalcy in a world that has long transformed beyond our recognition.

Brooker knows that the fabric of our lives has been shredded and puttied up and patched with various sexy devices that are nice to hold and keep getting thinner and lighter (even if we don’t), with longer battery life and smoother interfaces. They fill the holes temporarily (using those massively energy inefficient server farms of the Cloud) but never change our condition.

Most would agree that it’s hard to know what to do about the real life dystopian horror-movie taking place across the world right now. There is the sense that our natural response to tragedy was subverted after 9/11 and that even our ability to feel tragedy has been debased in a way that we no longer are moved by atrocities in much the same way that chronic drug-users fail to achieve the same high they once had.

Technology arrives to the rescue on a charging white horse — or in the sleek packaging of a new iPhone upgrade — and it may change our lives as promised, but who we are remains the same.

Both of these shows, The Leftovers and Black Mirror — one vastly more successful than the other — begin to outline the contours of our malaise. And through this prism the strangeness of our new world starts to come into focus. Stripping away our no-win cultural conundrum and the eye-popping distraction of technology, we are faced, as we should be, with our humanity or lack there of. It may be enough to allow us to begin to address — Reality A — the only one we have.

As Murakami offers, “Perhaps the solution begins from softly accepting chaos not as something that ‘should not be there,’ to be rejected fundamentally in principle, but as something that ‘is there in actual fact.’”

This reminds one of the post-9/11 ubiquity of the phrase, “it is what it is,” which popped up everywhere as a tonic and seems now as vacuous and as apt as ever.

We may not yet have a way to solve the problems of our world, but both these immensely insightful series offer an opportunity to delineate and come to terms with our current state, bringing us as a society to understand the unreality around us. And perhaps, unlike Martha, the lonely lover with the man in the attic, we can avoid being trapped in the Catch-22 of technology that patches up our daily lives and only placates our concerns, and move on to that crucial, final stage of loss and grieving — acceptance.

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Mitchell Kriegman is a television writer and producer and the author of Being Audrey Hepburn: A Novel.

 

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