Monday, January 11, 2021

Black Mirror Rewatch: Smithereens

Welcome to another Black Mirror episode I wasn't looking forward to revisiting, not because it was terrible, but because my memory told me it was boring.

Let's see.

The Talent: Like Hated In the Nation, Smithereens is written by showrunner Charlie Brooker and directed by James Hawe, with Fleabag's Andrew Scott in the lead role and a barely recognizable Topher Grace in the Mark Zuckerberg-by-way-of-self-help-and-a-better-gym part.

The Setup: Chris, an unassuming but deeply depressed ride share driver, parks himself outside of the Smithereen company headquarters every day in the hopes of snaring a passenger high up on the corporate ladder of the social media enterprise. He needs to get the ear of founder and CEO Billy Bauer, and taking a hostage seems like the easiest method.

Unfortunately, Chris acts a little quickly, judging the young 20something in a suit to be of note when in fact, poor Jaden is simply an intern trying to make a good impression. The negotiation process ends up taking much longer, which raises the suspicions of small-town cops who spot Chris's play from afar. Chris now feels even more pressure to get what he needs from Billy while outlasting the possible sniper target aimed at his head.

The Ending: It wouldn't be Black Mirror without some kind of twist or reveal, and in this case, it's by Chris's own confession: yes, he's sad about his fiancee's untimely death in a car accident, but it turns out, it was his fault all along. Much like the lead of my favorite episode (Be Right Back), Chris was busy scrolling through Smithereen's feed while driving. The fatal accident that took her wasn't due to a drunk driver's compromised position, but by a bored, social media obsessed Chris.

Chris finally gets Billy's ear, and the result is...underwhelming. Billy gets it: he's addicted too! That's what the software was designed to do, just like the Vincent Kartheiser triplets showed us in The Social Dilemma. But, well... what of it? Chris uses his last phone call to help a friend who has also lost one and is looking for answers through social media, and we exit on an ambiguous scene that suggests (but does not confirm) that Chris is killed by the sniper and the rest of those involved go back to scrolling their feeds.

The Theme: If Nosedive didn't already tell us this, social media is addictive and dangerous

The Verdict: My feelings on Smithereen didn't change one bit: it's a well-made slice of television that feels completely unnecessary and a good 20 minutes too long. I was far more interested in Amanda Drew's grieving mother than Chris's bottled guilt. Worse, the mistaken identity of Jaden is a subplot that takes up running time while giving us the same result we would have had if Chris abducted Billy himself (only without the scenic desert backdrop).

Black Mirror's fifth season isn't highly celebrated, and an episode like this certainly makes it clear to me why audiences have fallen out of love. There's nothing new to be said about social media and our dangerous reliance on its validation, especially when the show tackled the very issue one season earlier. What's left are some good performances that just don't go anywhere.

Technology Tip: Hey, did you know you shouldn't be distracted by your smartphone when driving? Don't worry if you forget: we'll repeat the lesson in a few months.

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 4/10; there's some genuine felt weight regarding grief, especially with Drew's monologue. But ultimately, it's hard to care about Chris when it's so clear that he cares very little for himself.

Quality Scale: 6/10. Well acted, fine dialogue, pretty shots straight out of a Runner's World magazine, but sluggish and so oddly paced that something just feels off

Enjoyment Scale: 4/10. I'll almost certainly never go back to Smithereens, not because it's bad, but because it's just boring. Any of its meaning is better gleaned by better episodes, so what we're left with is a mopey story that doesn't even have a satisfying conclusion. I'll pass.

Up Next: It's a Shortening miracle! Next in the ranking was Season 5's Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too, which just so happens to include a doll! See you in February!

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