Monday, June 14, 2021

Black Mirror Revisit: 15 Million Merits

Last year, I compiled a non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes. Once a month, I revisit an episode, starting from the bottom. Herein lies lucky #13!

The Talent: Showrunner Charlie Brooker wrote this one with his wife, actress Konnie Huq. The direction is in the hands of television veteran Euros Lyn. More excitingly, this is apparently the gig that got lead Daniel Kaluuya his Oscar nominated role in Get Out. So let's face it: no matter where the episode ranks, it's certainly got that going for it.

The Setup: Welcome to some form of dystopian future England, where most civilians are forced to ride exercise bikes for most of their days, spending the evenings in solitary cells that constantly broadcast mediocre-to-unbearable entertainment.

Bing is one such biker, wasting his days being unfulfilled by the artificial nature of his surroundings. Things take a pleasant turn with the arrival of Abi, a pretty young woman with a natural singing voice that awakens a new form of joy in Bing. He convinces her to enter his universe's version of The X-Factor, funding the audition himself with his titular 15 million merits only to see her drugged and sentenced to a lifetime of unsatisfying porn.

The Ending: Through frugal saving and cycling that would make a fine Pelaton commercial series, Bing manages to earn enough merits to infiltrate the show, using his 15 merits/minutes of fame to tell the millions watching what a crock their world is, all while holding a piece of glass over his own throat. The judges love it and sense a ratings winner. We close seeing Bing still behind glass but seemingly roomier glass, filled with a camera to keep his broadcast going and a better budgeted, but still virtual mirage as his only real comfort.

The Theme: Brooker, who also created the Big Brother-inspired Dead Set, clearly has a lot to say (little positive) about reality television and capitalism. Most of us slave away to buy what those enslaving us tell us to buy, and the only way to beat the system is to win the system and then become part of the system and tada! What a wonderful world.

The Verdict: As the second episode ever to air of Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits is certainly noteworthy in its ambitions. Lyn and his production team manage to make the environment feel as high concept as any Logan's Run-ish sci-fi blockbuster, but as soon as you look closer, it's obvious that the budget here was a far cry from Bandersnatch. Still, it smartly makes some subtle allusions to works like 1984 (the book, film, AND Superbowl Apple commercial) and manages to feel like something weird and grand.

Still, this is one of the episodes that fares a little less kindly on second watch. Kaluuya still drips with charisma that's impossible to not root for, but the overall message feels a bit simple and bitter.

Technology Tip: Since nothing good seems to come out of anything digital in the 15 Million Merits world, it seems like the most useful tip I can glean is...well, a high-tech futuristic vending machine can still be beaten by some smart mechanical lever manipulation. 

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale:
6/10: nobody gets a happy ending, but since we never really get a glimpse as to what's outside this universe, it's hard to know what a happy ending could possibly be like

Quality Scale:
6/10: Great performances, decent look poppy graphics, but there's a bit more scrappiness that would be cleaned up in future seasons
Enjoyment Scale:
5/10: I appreciate any attempt at a full-out dystopia in 58 minutes, but the effects wear off on repeat viewings.

Up Next (Month): We could have been anything that we wanted to be, so why not head up north for one of Black Mirror's bleakest hours with Crocodile!

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