2.01- "Be Right Back"
Channel 4 is doing it and doing it and doing it well. And they've been doing it for quite a while now. From Father Ted, Black Books, Jam, Brass Eye, Spaced, Bromwell High, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, IT Crowd, The In-Betweeners, Nathan Barley, Dead Set, and Misfits, to this year's Utopia, some of my all-time favorite UK television has originated at Channel 4. In 2011, celebrated writer and satirist, Charlie Brooker, brought to screen a modern approach to science fiction storytelling that recalled the halcyon days of The Twilight Zone, while being fully integrated into the modern television landscape.
In three hour-long episodes, two written by Brooker (one of which was co-written by his wife Konnie Huq) and a third by The Thick of It's Jesse Armstrong, Black Mirror unleashed upon the world some of the best serious science fiction filmmaking of the 21st Century. Hell, maybe the 20th, as well.
It was science fiction of ideas, with very few melodramatic or escapist trappings to make it palatable to the masses. In fact, the masses be damned. This was real capital S, capital F, Science Fiction. Each episode worked as serious drama, but with the trappings of a near future that was palpable in its realism and intensity. Brooker has been responsible for some of the most biting satire and flat-out merciless skewering of contemporary culture to make it to the screen, and this was no exception.
So, yeah, the first episode of Series One was about a "terrorist" blackmailing the Prime Minister into fucking a pig, live on-camera for the entire country to watch. But it was also serious social and political criticism at play. Each episode took contemporary technological advances and extrapolated out a few years, and then put real human beings with real human relationships into those worlds and created some of the greatest science fiction television in history.
And it stands as great serious dramatic television, as well, whether you pay attention to the science fiction trappings or not.
What I'm saying is, if you have the opportunity, you need to watch Series One of Black Mirror. No questions asked. Go order it now. I'll wait. But be warned: It doesn't care if you like it and won't do anything to sooth your feelings. It may also insult you and smack you around a little bit.
Now that you're back, you also need to watch Series Two of Black Mirror as it airs, no questions asked, as soon as you can. Watch it live, record it, get a friend to copy it for you, acquire it somehow if you're not in the UK. Whether you like science fiction or not.
This is as good as contemporary drama gets.
Series Two kicks off with the Brooker scripted "Be Right Back" and is directed by Owen Harris, who was responsible for bringing the back half of Misfits Series Two into the station. For those of you marking your scorecards, those were some good damn episodes. This story is focused almost entirely on Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), young lovers who live in a near-future world of near-constant access to social networking a la Facebook and Twitter.
This time out, though, Brooker focuses on the emotional content as much as the social satire – so much so that some people might think the edge is gone or dulled. That is not the case.
There are story elements here that establish just how pervasive social media is in this near-future world, and it's not far off from what we have now. It's just slicker and more integrated into every aspect of life. And Ash is clearly addicted to it. He is constantly Tweeting, Facebooking, or whatever else they have in this world, even while he and Martha are moving out to the beautiful, rustic countryside of his family's old home.
And even out in the country, the internet and phone access is immersive.
That is the underlying criticism at the heart of the episode that is only exacerbated once we have established our characters and crash them violently into the plot point that gets the wheels rolling. Ash dies suddenly and Martha is left alone in his family house, mourning and lost. Until a friend signs her up for a new social networking experience that allows Brooker to really turn the screws through his examination of how we interact with our social mediums, tempering that satire with a real examination of grief.
This new software accesses all of Ash's public online interactions and communicates via email in Ash's eerily realistic voice and mannerisms. It is horrifying, but comforting in a disturbed way. So much so that she then uploads personal emails, videos, audio files, etc. to make the experience more realistic. Who wouldn't want to have a little longer with a lost loved one? It's such a sweet spot of emotional vulnerability, and played so perfectly by Atwell, that if you don't tear up or just cry at least once during the airing, then you have a cold butt for a heart.
Seriously, I could watch Atwell all day long. She's that good here.
Gleeson's turn as both Ash and the Social Media Construct Ash is subtle and painful in ways that aren't immediately obvious, but are brought to surface thanks to Brooker's amazing script. There are little things about Ash's personality that were never highlighted in the way he presented himself online – an idealized version of himself, as we all do to some extent – and therefore absent in the Construct Ash. That surprising disconnect between an almost believable reproduction and Martha's expectations begin building as the episode progresses, adding more and more tension and anxiety. And when Martha upgrades to an experi
mental physical Ash Construct, his constant almost-human presence becomes something unbearable as she finds herself more and more isolated with a physical manifestation of her obsessive clinging to Ash's memory. Eventually shame and hostility enter into Martha's grieving process as well, and things take a very unhealthy turn.
The greatest part of the episode is how real Atwell plays the grief. At first she wants nothing to do with the email version of Ash, but upon discovering that she's pregnant and alone (her sister is around, but has a family and life of her own that keeps her distant), she desperately needs to connect with his memory and quickly finds herself unable to leave it alone.
That addiction could be played in ways that focus Brooker's usual misanthropic satire on Martha, but Brooker stays clear of that approach. This is maybe the most sympathetic work that Brooker's ever produced. We can see Martha slipping into a more and more damaged psychological state, but she is never judged. Instead we walk hand in hand with her through the pain and the eventual realization that she can't get Ash back.
There's even a touch of hope in the end when we discover that Ash, relegated to the attic with all the rest of his family's memories and keepsakes, plays a strange part in the life of Martha and Ash's daughter. Martha, after a dramatic emotional explosion culminating in a wrenching ultimatum, seems to have never really recovered. Construct Ash is something she continues to keep at arm's length, while allowing her daughter to grow up with him as a playmate of sorts.
It's bittersweet and so real it's heartbreaking, sidestepping the typical melodramatic plot devices to instead focus on real grief and loss. "Be Right Back" is one of those pieces of work that can be held up as an example of the best that is possible with the medium. Not just science fiction television, but television in general.
Black Mirror airs Monday nights at 10:00 on Channel 4.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now forKindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.