NOTE: This post contains minor spoilers for Black Mirror. Read at your own peril, I guess.
In early Fall, I set out to write weekly reviews of five currently-airing television series and intermittent pieces on a few others. I made good on this project for a few weeks and then, as you may or may not have noticed, disappeared. Long story short: I had a panic attack that sent me to the emergency room and ushered in a two-week period of daily (sometimes multiple times a day) panic attacks. Counseling, yoga, a patient husband, and the occasional cookie have helped me get my brain under a bit more control since that time, but in the intervening period, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the sources of my anxiety. Like many people who suffer from panic and anxiety disorders, there’s a family history at play, but I can’t help but also notice the degree to which my relationship with technology fuels so much of my unease. On a near-daily basis, the internet provokes the worst tendencies in me, and as someone already prone to isolation and introversion, I find that social media serves to enable that behavior while simultaneously providing the illusion that I’m “communicating.” The logical solution should be to shut down all social media accounts and to stop visiting sites that elicit these reactions, but there are a number of reasons why, at a point in history where the internet plays a vital role in our relationships, careers, and personal pursuits, that’s easier said than done.
It is precisely to those realities that the best and arguably most vital television series in years, Black Mirror, speaks. The series was created by British writer and satirist Charlie Brooker and consists of two seasons of three episodes each, which originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK and now air on DirectTV’s Audience Channel. Episodes are anthology-style, each telling a separate story about the relationships between human beings and our digital tools and toys. Given the format and content, the series garners frequent comparisons to another famous speculative anthology series, The Twilight Zone, although an equally apt comparison might be the short stories of George Saunders (I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Mirror‘s second episode “Fifteen Million Merits” and Saunders’ story “Jon” are meant to take place in the same fictional future).
Despite their apparent differences, we can also draw comparisons between Black Mirror and The Wire, the only other show I know of to provide such keen, unflinching insight into the problems of the world we live in; both series are interested in how larger systems and institutions impact the individuals who participate in them—willingly or not—and usually for the worse. But where I think Black Mirror has an edge over The Wire, a show that Vulture proclaimed “the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years,” is here: As deeply affecting as The Wire may be, its implications are more abstract. The Wire will profoundly shape how viewers think about an assortment of political, economic, and social issues and the ways in which those issues intersect, but unless you happen to be a direct player in the systems The Wire examines, only a minority of the series’ audience will encounter those concerns in any meaningful or concrete way on a day-to-day basis.
Technology, on the other hand…that’s something in which everyone watching Black Mirror has a vested interest, because if you’ve watched or plan to watch the series, you inevitably own either a television or a computer with internet access. You cannot not be a direct player. Like The Wire, Black Mirror’s six episodes tackle broader systemic issues: the enthusiasm with which media appeals to the lowest common denominator, the ease with which it can placate our outrage, our mistrust, and our fears even as it stokes those emotions. But what’s most notable about the series’ concerns—and what makes Black Mirror so damn important—is how immediately personal it all is, how it invites viewers to reconsider our own relationships with the digital, media-saturated worlds in which most of us participate every single day of our lives.
Though each episode is fantastic in its own right, it’s telling that Black Mirror‘s two most powerful episodes, “The Entire History of You” and “Be Right Back,” center on familiar personal relationships rather than dystopian landscapes or international news stories. “The Entire History of You” envisions a future in which all of our life’s memories are recorded on data storage devices in our brains called “Grains” so that we’re able to relive them over and over again, and the episode examines the devastating impact of this technology on a young, married couple’s squabble over the wife’s ex-boyfriend. In many regards, the Grain is just a more futuristic version of our Facebook Timelines, a technology that already archives text, images, and videos so that you can revisit everything from your wedding to the latte you photographed on a random Tuesday in July 2010. As a group, humans are a rather nostalgic bunch, but we’re equally prone to unhealthy curiosity, self-absorption, and jealousy. In our minds, we’re constantly revisiting moments of triumph and defeat, reexamining fights and lost loves and forgotten friends, looking for what possibly could have gone wrong. We ask ourselves what our partners’ exes were like, what their relationships with those people consisted of, what those closest to us are thinking or doing or saying when we’re not around. Technologies like Facebook—or Grains—however, make it all too easy to satisfy those curiosities, to sift through the backlog of our experiences and the lives of others and locate, or at least imagine we can locate, the answers we’re looking for.
“Be Right Back” takes questions of personal data storage a step further by asking what it means that our digital selves will outlive our physical bodies and, perhaps more importantly, whether those two selves bear as much connection to one another as we think they do. The episode’s protagonist, a young illustrator named Martha, is able to collect the digital data left behind by her recently-deceased boyfriend to create a synthetic facsimile of him, a kind of android that looks, walks, and talks just like the man she loved; what she ultimately realizes is that the sum of these digital parts is so much less than the person she lost. I’m not dead yet, but this installment got me thinking in some very troubling ways about my own digital self. I’m a pretty active Facebook user and occasional blogger with a wide network of online acquaintances, but offline there are probably no more than two or three people that know me extremely well. The online version of myself is diminished, diluted, and very self-consciously adapted to the public forums in which I participate. My negative emotions—anger, resentment, fear, jealously, guilt, sadness—are almost always couched in sarcasm or apathy, my deepest and most sincere moments of happiness are either restrained for the sake of decorum or are never expressed at all, and I rarely talk about personal interests unless I think they’ll have some relevance to at least a handful of other people (This last point may be the most terrifying of all: we’ve essentially become human advertisements for the things we enjoy). I’m not alone in this behavior, by any means. Why else are we so irritated when new mothers gush over their babies on Facebook, when lovers exchange ooey-gooey posts on each others’ walls, or when a friend rants about his most recent life drama? Why else do we prefer the convenience of clicking “Share” or “Like” over articulating an actual position or opinion? We know the unwritten rules of online behavior, and the actions that most annoy us are ones that directly violate the most important rule: Share only the surface; the internet does not want your real feelings.
Having gulped Black Mirror down in its entirety very quickly, I’ve been sitting around with the series’ themes in my head over the past several days, feeling suddenly hyper-aware of my virtual life. Last Tuesday morning while browsing my Facebook News Feed, I came across the tragic story of a boy from hometown who had gone missing for several days and whose body had just been discovered on the side of a bridge. Only seconds passed between the moment I finished reading that story and the moment I found myself scanning a snarky blog post about Abigail Breslin’s red carpet appearance at a recent film premiere. “Little Miss Slutshine,” one early commenter had remarked in reference to Breslin’s heavy makeup and high hemline. Someone else suggested that maybe the original commenter should refrain from calling a seventeen-year-old child “slutty.” “You sound like a lot of fun,” the first commenter replied. I had another panic attack the next day.
#1: David Bowie
Dear Mr. Bowie,
Thank you for stealing that baby and making my childhood way cooler.
Thank you for wearing this coat at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards and reigniting my love for you.
Thank you for falling from the stars to become a rock’n’roll messiah for a teenage girl who needed one badly.
Thank you for inspiring this movie, no matter how much you disavow it.
Thank you for working with these guys.
Thank you for crafting a body of work that (mostly) gets better and better with every subsequent listen.
Now, will you tour again, please? If not, come ’round for tea sometime. We live quite close to one another, you and I.
#2: Harry Potter
I would venture to guess that most Potter fans came to the series–in book or film form–at a young age, that the lives and adventures of Harry and his friends are an indelible part of their own childhood memories. Not so for me. I had heard of the books, sure. Who hadn’t? But by the time they were being read by anyone I knew, I was a teenager and far too cool and mature for boy wizards. I’d seen the movies (at this time, only Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets had been released), and that was enough for me. My best friend picked up the series our senior year of high school, though, and pestered me to just get over myself and read them already. If I had known then that I was about to embark on a journey that would shape ages 17-24 for me, I might have given in to her request with a little less reluctance, but somewhere around page 5 of the first book, I managed to push past reluctance and will myself over to Rowling’s magical prose.
Flash forward 8 years. There is little if anything I could say to express how grateful I am for the Potter books, or to convey how much they’ve meant to me over that stretch of time; I simply don’t have words. Suffice it to say that the end of Harry Potter coincided with an end for me, too. Not the end of childhood; like I said before, I was long past that part of my life when I discovered the series. But I am a grownup now–completely, officially, sort of. Harry Potter’s end didn’t make me one, but it sure came at a prescient moment in my own life. Over the course of my love affair with Harry Potter, I’ve inhabited 9 apartments, earned 2 college degrees, had 2 serious relationships, and now find myself married and living in New York City, over 600 miles from where I started this journey, with my first Thanksgiving pumpkin pie baking in the oven. I also find myself typing this entry with Nick Cave’s “O Children”–the song to which David Yates choreographed that beautiful dance scene between Harry and Hermione in the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 film–playing in the background, and I’m barely holding back tears at the thought of two scared kids in a tent in the middle of nowhere, putting terror and sadness out of their minds for just a moment of fun. I may not be in the middle of a war against dark wizards, but I am constantly at odds with myself as I settle into adulthood, and like Harry and Hermione, I’m so happy to set all that responsibility aside for just a second to write this post and fondly recall the magic of my time spent with Harry & Co.–from butterbeer parties at Nicole’s house to reading and writing fan fiction; from midnight shows to book releases; from wizard rock concerts my first week of college to my master’s degree project on the series…and finally from sharing my love of Rowling’s wonderful creation with my husband, surprised as he was to find so much pleasure in the wizarding world, to hopefully one day sharing Harry’s adventures with our children.
In the Muggle world, there are no time-turners; we can’t go back. But even if I had the chance to relive those (mostly) carefree years, I think I’d stay put. Hermione tells us in Prisoner of Azkaban that “bad things happen to wizards who meddle with time.” Presumably the same holds true for Muggles. Even so, I’m so lucky to have known the Boy Who Lived and luckier still to have lived with him, if only for a brief while.
Tomorrow – #1: Turn and face the strange…
Breaking Bad or Mad Men, it is not, but I can’t imagine another show more suited to rate so high on my personal list of pop-culture-I’m-thankful-for. Arguably one of the best shows (it’s perhaps a close second to Friday Night Lights) and definitely the most ambitious show to ever air on network television, ABC’s Lost was exactly the kind of television programming you couldn’t get enough of: really compelling characters, and an enormous heap of mystery and suspense. It was the perfect kind of show for network TV, a show that could simultaneously garner solid ratings (if you ignore that pesky stretch of season 3) and consistent critical praise. It’s no wonder the networks have been attempting to recreate Lost every season (see: The Event, Fringe, Flash Forward, V, Terra Nova, the forthcoming Awake, and the recent onslaught of fairy tale shows) since its finale aired. With its John “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Locke mentality, Lost tried to be a lot of things–a drama, a thriller, an adventure story, a character(s) study, a romance, science fiction, philosophy, mythology–and it did so many of those things successfully, and for that reason it may go down in TV history as one of the most influential shows of this era. Would something like Game of Thrones exist and succeed on TV without it? Probably not; Lost was the litmus test for whether a genre show could be high-quality and live up to, for lack of a better word, “literary” standards. Meanwhile, it perfected the cliffhanger, got viewers to trust and invest in a long-game unfolding of plot elements, played with chronology and storytelling in new and interesting ways, and created some of the most memorable characters to ever grace the small screen.
All that’s well and good, but why does the show mean so much to me? I’m not sure I could say, exactly, but it did and continues to do so. Lost was my entry into “good TV.” Pre-Lost, my adult-life TV viewing had been limited to a lot of crap: mostly sitcom reruns and reality shows. Several people had recommended the show to me, though, so post-season 2, my ex and I picked it up on Netflix. Within a week, we had upgraded to the 2 DVDs at a time Netflix package, because we couldn’t get enough of it! It carried me through several intellectually and personally formative years; maybe that’s the ticket to my feelings about it. The further removed I am from the finale, the less confident I feel that it was a successful wrapping-up of all the show’s story elements, but as that episode unfolded, it dawned on me that it wasn’t convoluted mythology or explanations of time travel I cared about; it was characters that mattered, those deeply flawed castaways that had evolved so dramatically over six compelling seasons of TV, who discovered their abilities, their limitations, and ultimately their destinies. I understood finally that I hadn’t been watching a show about a weird island or smoke monsters or moving cabins or four-toed statues or time or space, but a show where characters reacted to, formed relationships around, and were ultimately shaped by those mysteries, and that was even better. And now, more than a year later, there’s plenty good TV to keep me occupied, but nothing has yet filled the Lost void for me. I’m sad it’s gone, but I look forward to so much of the television to come that will inevitably be shaped by its legacy.
Tomorrow – #2: Yer a wizard, Harry…
I wanted to take a breather today from the official list of gratitude to celebrate some other pop culture artifacts for which I’m thankful this year. Enjoy some abbreviated commentary on the things that didn’t make the short list:
Antony Hegarty. He’s got one of the most divisive voices in music, but for my money, no other vocalist evokes such a pure and expansive range of emotion. He also happens to practically be our next door neighbor. Antony fills my heart to the brim and then shatters it dramatically.
Stephen Fry. Ah, my favorite Renaissance man! Thank you for reminding me weekly that intellectual curiosity is alive and kicking in at least one country in the Western Hemisphere.
Parenthood. This is a new love for me and the husband. I’m amazed at how many conversations it’s prompted between us about marriage, family and, well, parenthood. Thanks again, Jason Katims, for creating such a meaningful show!
LCD Soundsystem. If only for writing this song, the significance of which I’ve remarked on previously at Awful Art Party.
The A.V. Club. Zero reasonable discussions, perhaps, but it’s the source of the vast majority of my pop culture news, analysis, and discovery. I don’t know how I ever processed films, shows, or music without these guys!
Stay tuned tomorrow for more Thankgiving Goes Pop!
#4: Louis C.K.
This might sound absurd to some, but I don’t think ever knew just what I found sexy in men until I started paying attention to Louis C.K. Forget about George Clooney. Jon Hamm, you say? I’ll pass (OK, well, maybe not, but…). Give me my foul-mouthed, middle-aged, divorced, paunchy, balding ginger comedian any day. I mean it! C.K. actually is, despite his total denial of this fact, a reasonably good-looking dude; that’s a nice start, but it’s almost completely beside the point. He’s smart, but entirely without pretense. He’s self-possessed. He’s frank. He’s funny as hell. Jon Hamm is the guy you want to go home with for a night (alright, maybe two); Louis C.K. is the guy, if you’re me, that you want to marry. And, basically, I did marry him. Watching C.K.’s standup, I’m always a little taken aback by the uncanny similarities between my husband and my favorite comedian. And the above list of sexy attributes? That’s pretty much the guy I wake up next to every morning. I chose well, though perhaps the fact that I chose the spouse I did is precisely why I find C.K. so attractive and, well, wonderful.
And let’s not forget about C.K.’s brilliant FX show, Louie. In two seasons, Louie has done some of the most creative and original work in the history of television comedy. Nay, in the history television, period. Eschewing the laugh-track multi-cam model, the mockumentary style, and the drama-aping serialization, all hallmarks of the contemporary sitcom, Louis C.K. has managed to create a series that is extremely personal (C.K. has complete creative control over and stars in a show in which he plays a barely-fictional version of himself) while still performing what I read as a kind of commentary on the places from which humor arises: sex, religion, family, parenthood, growing old–all the biggies, but also just the tedious minutiae of everyday life. That Louie manages to capture the humor, tragedy, absurdity, and truth of each of these subjects; that it does this by filtering these subjects through the perspective of a very particular and interesting central character; that it allows itself to spend a lot of time not being funny–because aren’t all of those subjects at some point or another massive bummers?–is what makes this show so special and important. Louie deals in big ideas, but those big ideas have meaning only because they are intimately and uniquely experienced–by C.K. himself on the show, and by each of us every day.
In his most recently recorded stand-up set, Hilarious, C.K. remonstrates our culture’s tendency to be hyperbolic with words like ‘amazing’–and, of course, ‘hilarious’ itself–and to thereby make the words meaningless (“You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? Really?”); certainly ‘genius’ is one such over-employed word. That said, I don’t think I’m being at all hyperbolic in calling Louis C.K. a genius. A sexy, sexy genius.
Tomorrow – #3: Dude, you’ve got some…Arzt…on you.
#5: Anne Rice
Sometime around middle school, I took a break from caring about being smart or creative or interesting. I wanted to be a cheerleader, so I quit the academic team. I wanted to be cool, so I wore American Eagle and Abercrombie like everyone else. My efforts on those fronts never amounted to much; by the end of it I still couldn’t do a back handspring, which meant I wasn’t going far in my cheerleading career, and a seven-inch growth spurt quickly rendered my preppy wardrobe obsolete. So when high school rolled around, I needed something new to latch onto. I found it my own basement, hiding in a waterlogged box full of my mom’s old books.
Anne Rice was a revelation for me. Like with so many other of my nostalgic loves, my sensibilities have evolved enough by this point that I can recognize Rice’s substantial flaws as a writer, but Twilight her Vampire Chronicles are not, and thank God! No sparkling here, thank you! Just meditations on morality, mortality, pain, pleasure, and the possibilities of having forever to live out those experiences over and over again. Rice’s work, at its best, is all at once contemplative, moving, luxuriant, and erotically charged. Her vampire mythology is so totally realized that I found myself believing (or, at least, wishing I could believe) that these vampires existed and spent their unending stretch of existence prowling grand cities like New Orleans and Paris in search of human blood and the mysteries of the freaking universe–which, of course, was about 1000 times more interesting to me than being an angsty high schooler in rural Kentucky.
Needless to say, I was hooked. Lestat de Lioncourt, Rice’s sexy Byronic antihero, had sunk in his fangs, and he wasn’t letting go. While I was reading Rice’s Chronicles, I didn’t do much else, not even on the summer vacation during which I was working my way through The Queen of the Damned, the third book of the series. But then, I wasn’t just absorbed in the reading. Before I knew it, I had developed my own cast of vampiric characters…and then my own vampiric plot…and, about eighteen months later, I had written a 400-page novel. It wasn’t very good–even then, I think I knew that–but it was the first serious writing I’d ever done, and after that I only wanted to do more. So I owe that to Anne Rice, I think, and am grateful every day that my mom had those books just lying around, waiting to be discovered by a kid in need.
Tomorrow – #4: They’re called PIG Newtons, you don‘t KNOW!