Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: The Waldo Moment

 



Season 1, Episode 3: The Waldo Moment
Coming in second to last in my initial ranking of Black Mirror, The Waldo Moment is not an overly beloved episode by, as far as I can see, many television critics or Black Mirror fans. I was dreading the revisit.

My memory of The Waldo Moment wasn't just that it was a mediocre 50 minutes, but worse, that it had aged somewhat painfully in a post-2016 U.S. election world. 


I'll say one thing: this is not the episode to watch during another election year.

The Talent: Show creator Charlie Brooker writes the script, with veteran BBC producer/director Bryn Higgins at the helm. One thing to remember about Black Mirror's first season is how excessively British it was. Most of the cast is probably very recognizable across the pond, but only Tobias Menzies (or Game of Thrones or more excitedly, Rome fame) likely registers a, "oh, that guy" from American audiences.

The Setup: Jamie is a miserable, sad sack comedian who's found minor success in British television playing Waldo, a motion capture cartoon bear with a foul mouth. A successful roasting of a conservative parliament incumbent Liam Monroe (Menzies) leads Jamie's producers to push Waldo to enter the actual election. Also running is up-and-comer Gwendolyn Harris, an ambitious realist who knows this is simply a stepping stone to get experience on the trail.



Jamie and Gwendolyn bump into each other after a few too many drinks and end up in a one-night stand. The recently dumped Jamie becomes uncomfortably obsessed with Gwendolyn, who tries to pause the start of their maybe relationship until the election is over. Because Jamie is an awful baby of a grown man, he uses Waldo to destroy Gwendolyn's reputation (though in fairness, the suddenly not-so-smart Gwendolyn handily gives him all the fuel he needs to start the fire), all the while becoming more and more bitter at Waldo's fame. 

Meanwhile, an American spy agency (or something?) proposes a new deal with Jamie's producers to use the Waldo icon to...spread political unrest across the world? 

The Ending: In a dark, fairly stupid turn, Waldo is taken away from Jamie (is that a loss to anyone?), loses the election, gains a huge 4chan-ish shoe throwing following (presumably of young men who think South Park's Eric Cartman is too intellectually challenging) and...spreads political unrest around the world?



Two watches and I still just don't get it.

The Theme: One of the many problems with The Waldo Moment is that, much like Shut Up and Dance, there's a sense of feeling as though the audience is just supposed to shrug and say, "and?" I guess the driving theme is less Waldo's power and more Jamie's inability to do anything to stop it, in part because of some of the decisions he makes and simply doesn't make. 


The Verdict: I hate this episode. Was that unclear? Apologies to Shut Up and Dance, which is by FAR a better crafted hour of television. I continue to admit that The Waldo Moment *might* have played differently in 2013, and there's still a part of me that should give it credit for anticipating the nature of a political election thrown into turmoil by an outside-the-system ringer. 


That doesn't make it any more enjoyable.

Technology Tip: I suppose most of The Waldo Moment's downturn could have been avoided had Jamie been more cautious in his initial network deal. So while it's not necessarily the sexiest of morals, I'd say the one we get here is a simple "read the fine print (to avoid plunging the world into dystopia)."

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 5/10 (now that we've been through Donald Trump, Waldo seems even more declawed)
Quality Scale: 3/10
Enjoyment Scale: 2/10

Up Next (Month): An educational field trip to the Black Museum! 

Monday, September 14, 2020

You Will Believe


I saw Urban Legend in the theater as a 16-year-old horror fan who was witnessing the rebirth of slashers aimed squarely at my generation. Having been that awkward kid with full video store access, it was a strange place to be. Suddenly, the type of movies I'd beg to watch at slumber parties were actually cool. The only problem: the actual movies were not.

I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, Disturbing Behavior...the list of movies with good talent and promise that don't actually work that well as horror is pretty long. My memory of Urban Legend was that it was more fun than most of its peers, but, well, it's been 22 years. Let's see how it's aged.

Quick Plot: Pendleton University student Michelle Mancini (yes, the name should remind you of a certain hero of mine) stops for gas on a dark, rainy evening, immediately becoming suspicious of the twitchy gas station attendant beckoning her to get out of her car. Considering he's played by Brad Dourf with Charles Lee Ray eyes and Billy Bibbit's speech impediment, you can understand her edginess. 


Enter the first urban legend of Urban Legend: there's someone in the backseat, and Michelle learns too late that some legends can be true...particularly in slashers all about turning urban legends into elaborate murder set pieces.

The Pendleton student body seems fairly ambivalent about one of their own being brutally murdered. Only Paul (Jordan Catalano era Jared Leto), an ambitious school newspaper reporter, and Natalie (Alicia Witt at her most radiant red-headedness), who knows a thing or two about the deadly possibilities of modern folktales and Michelle Mancini, suspect there's a bigger story at play.


Like any Canadian-posing-as-New-England university, Pendleton has its share of haunted, shrouded history. 1998 marks the 25th anniversary of a fabled massacre, and mysterious professor William Wexler (Robert Enguland!) seems to have a bit much invested in covering it up while also convincing his students that urban legends are pure myth.


Cut to 16-year-old me, who had just begun receiving colorful college brochures with autumnal imagery, becoming even more excited to get out of high school and sit in lecture halls where Freddy Krueger showed slides straight out of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark.


Anyway, future dreams aside, Urban Legend is indeed the perfect late '90s slasher. Sure, the brown lipstick fashion trends and resigned sighs of seeing your roommate on dial-up and getting a busy signal on your landline give you a knowing wink 22 years later, but here's the thing: Urban Legend is actually kinda good.


Yes, we wouldn't have had Urban Legend in theaters had it not been for the success of Scream one year earlier, and yes, it follows many of the same beats BUT, guess what: the same can be said for Friday the 13th to Halloween, or The Intruder to Friday the 13th, and so on and so on. 

Urban Legend knows its slasher playbook: pal after pal of our final girl dies in a high concept way by a dark figure whose face is obscured (in this case, with a winter coat that apparently everyone in town owns). Each murder is inspired by a popular urban legend, sometimes with an added twist. It's a perfect horror movie setup from first-time screenwriter Silvio Horta, and first-time director Jamie Blanks manages a surprisingly sharp balance between treating the horror seriously while clearly holding in a giant wink.


There are plenty of small touches throughout Urban Legend that demonstrate a clear affection for the genre, from using Chucky creator Don Mancini's name to casting Halloween 4/5's Danielle Harris as Natalie's ill-fated goth roommate. The reveal of the killer is big and stupid in the best of ways, while the coda lets you reframe the entire movie in whatever guise you choose. 


We're at a very specific moment in time when we can look at the '90s with rose-colored glasses. Horror cinema at this time was defined by the self-aware slasher, and while Urban Legend may have felt trite in 1998, it has aged remarkably well two decades after its debut.

High Points
Most of the actual violence is so over-the-top that it's more silly than scary, but the opening scene is genuinely thrilling, with the reveal played to perfect effect amid a rain-soaked dark highway



Low Points
There are two genuinely unpleasant things in Urban Legend, and I'm not talking about the many dead young people or Joshua Jackson's hair color: yes, a dozen innocent students are brutally murdered, but the force-alcohol-fed dog-in-the-microwave moment feels line crossing. The other is one of those uncomfortable real-life mirrors that's hard to put out of your mind: in 2001, Rebecca Gayheart was convicted of vehicular manslaughter that caused the death of a child. Much like Natalie and Michelle, this wealthy white woman received a small fine and probation. There's a lot to process there and it doesn't necessarily need to be done to enjoy a sharp '90s horror flick, but it feels wrong not to acknowledge it when discussing the movie

Lessons Learned, Late '90s Edition
As witnessed here and in Se7en, there was a high correlation between serial killing and excessive rain


A bad bleach job was all you needed to pass yourself off as a Hanson brother


You'd never get a job in the newspaper industry without a hefty batch of school paper writing samples


Rent/Bury/Buy
Urban Legend is currently streaming on Hulu, and I found it surprisingly enjoyable to revisit. It won't change your life, but it just might make you look fondly back at a period of genre cinema we'd all once written off.

Bonus Content!
Hungry for more discussion on '90s theatrical horror? Allow me to point you back to Canada for Alexandra West's fantastic essay book on the subject, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. It's a smart, scholarly, and fun look at a decade that we long took for granted. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

Babysitters In Glass Houses Most Definitely Throw Stones



Something that has become endemic to me during the pandemic: turning on LMN (the Lifetime Movie Network) in the background only to find myself rearranging my day to make sure I can finish watching a random filmed-in-a-week thriller.

See, the Lifetime movie has evolved over the last few years in rather fascinating ways. This is a network that employs more women behind the camera than any other, and while many a story feels like a simple boildown of madonna vs. whore, the truth is, a lot of these stories are secretly celebrating female agency. 

Thus, when a title like "The Babysitter's Revenge" rolls in front of my eyeballs, I now know that I'm either getting campy trash or surprising smart commentary. Either way, the kitchens will be immaculate.


Quick Plot: Carrie is a frustrated 17-year-old with some real concerns. Her single mother was ousted from her city council office following a scandal that suggested she had sexually harassed an employee. To help make ends meet, Carrie works hard as the go-to neighborhood babysitter, staying busy after the kids go to sleep by snooping around their wealthy parents' things. 


Such a hobby proves handy: when Carrie catches one of the town moms sorting coke, she's able to raise her rates without protest. If only she could find similar dirt on her sworn enemy: Madeline Cooper.



Played by Bree Turner, Madeline is a queen bee who grew up to be a participation trophy wife. She's perfectly fit and beautifully dressed, but it seems like aside from a fairly whiny toddler named Daniel and handsome-enough husband, she hasn't quite reached the heights she aimed for. 



Naturally, she's decided to take that out on her neighbors. After Carrie's mom refused to take Madeline's request to gate the neighborhood seriously, Madeline cleverly framed her to strip the city council position away. The war continued in more passive aggressive ways, from Madeline having Carrie's friend's car towed to Carrie staging a temporary kidnapping of Daniel to make sure Madeline's only responsible babysitter is the very teenager trying to take her down.



The Babysitter's Revenge, also known (perhaps more fittingly) as Glass Houses, is the perfect example of how a simple LMN quickie, when made with a tad more thought, can actually be something interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if this was greenlit in an old fashioned Roger Corman manner of some content manager throwing out "The Babysitter's Revenge" as a movie title and screenwriter Barbara Kymlicka (Lifetime veteran responsible for EIGHT titles in 2019, and SIX and counting in 2020) decided to do something a little more interesting.


Directed by newcomer Sarah Pellerin, The Babysitter's Revenge is purely about women: Carrie's frustrations with the unfairness of her and her mother's life, and Madeline's attempts to mask her unhappiness by presenting herself as the perfect suburbanite mom. The few men that pass through are mere accessories to the story, which is, at its heart, a power play between a sharp teenager and a bitter, type-A adult. There's far more going on than expected (or often needed) in a movie like this. 



High Points
The fact that this movie opens on five minutes of dialogue about events that have already happened with characters we've yet to meet is a weird vote of confidence in its audience, trusting that we're willing to listen and learn about the two women whose story we're going to be following

Low Points
Bree Turner is glorious as Madeline and gets a wonderfully rich finale freakout, but it's incredibly unsatisfying that we don't get anything of her future in the coda. This woman can still take on the world! Give us a hint at where she's setting her sights!




Lessons Learned
Cell phone volume has come a long way, so much so that you can blast music one house away and get a noise complaint

Always assume that your babysitter is snooping



It's very easy to get away with murder (in an LMN world), providing it's of your real target's more promiscuous best friend*




*FUN FACT: Promiscuous best friends die so often in movies that I write about that when I don't properly discard previously used blog images, I get messages like this when saving:



Rent/Bury/Buy
Like most LMN originals, The Babysitter's Revenge isn't necessarily worth investing energy into finding, but if it floats on your screen when you've got time to spare, it's a fun, surprisingly clever way to pass the time. 

Plus, kitchen porn. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Shut Up & Dance


Season 3, Episode 3: Shut Up & Dance
When I put together my incredibly non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes, Shut Up and Dance came up dead last. I clearly had STRONG feeling on season 3's meanest entry, but I was curious to see if time would be kinder to it. 

The Talent: Shut Up and Dance is written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and Will Bridges, the same team who would pen Season 6's celebrated USS Callister. Director James Watkins comes with some good modern horror pedigree, having made the strong (if, whaddya know, mean) Eden Lake and the much kinder, effectively spooky The Woman In Black. 



The Setup: Kenny seems like your average British teenager, working in a fast food joint and constantly battling her bratty sister for his laptop so he can lock his door and masturbate in peace. After cleaning his computer with the first antivirus software that comes up in the search results, Kenny discovers he's provided full camera access to a mysterious all-knowing entity that is now threatening to release the video to his entire contacts list.



Most teenage boys would be scared, but Kenny is absolutely terrified and immediately agrees to to carry out his blackmailers' demands. The tasks seem easy enough at first: pick up a cake, work with a fellow blackmailee (Game of Thrones' Jerome Flynn) to rob a bank and, well, things escalate. 



The Ending: After being forced to fight another man to the death, Kenny assumes he's free as initially promised. Broken and carrying a bag of stolen cash, he begins stumbling home only for his mother to call in tears. A montage shows our other shamed men and women discovering the secrets they fought so hard to hide have been released upon the world. 

Kenny, you see, wasn't just jerking off to common porn. While we (thankfully) don't get the details, his mother's cries of "kids!" is enough, especially when we think back to the small moment he shared with a little girl earlier in the episode. What seemed like a quick shot to lend our protagonist charm is reframed as something menacing and awful.



The Theme: But see, here's why I hated Shut Up and Dance so much upon my first viewing: what's the point? People have done terrible things ranging in their measure of sin. Jerome Flynn sought out a prostitute, something hardly worth true damnation (though I like to think it was the detail that he was trying to haggle on the pricing that put him on the list). Nobody should be sad that a CEO's racist emails are leaked, and Kenny's proclivities would probably have led to the abuse of a minor, but seeing these characters put through a marathon of high anxiety tasks is just, well, unpleasant.



I suppose Brooker and Bridges' moral is that what's done is done. No amount of bicycling or sponge cake can erase your sins, and if you put any of your worst instincts out into the digital world, they will indeed come back to haunt you. 

The Verdict: Shut Up and Dance is not a bad episode of television. It's incredibly well-acted, and busting with tension that director Watkins somehow amplifies when he brings in comedy. On second viewing, I can be a little less mad at the rug pull reveal. Yes, it still feels like a cruel trick to pull on its audience, but I can admire how well it plays its hand. 




Technology Tip
Don't ever use the internet in any way shape or form to do anything that you wouldn't feel comfortable being shown to everyone you know. Easy, right?

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 10/10
Quality Scale: 7/10
Enjoyment Scale: 3/10

Monday, August 24, 2020

A Walk In the Woods


I've ranted and raged at the gross misogyny and worse, plain boredom that seems to run deep through the V/H/S series, anthologies that have come to epitomize everything awful about straight white dude bro horror in the 21st century. The fact that three movies that featured fifteen segments couldn't give a single slot to a female filmmaker says quite a bit, especially when you realize Roxanne Benjamin was sitting there the entire time as a producer.

Now obviously, I know very little about the production background of V/H/S, and Benjamin's personal trajectory from producing to directing. But from where I sit, I see three (fairly crappy) movies that hired a total of fifteen male directors. Benjamin would go on to make her directorial debut in Southbound and follow it up with XX, an anthology founded on the idea of female directors because, you know, we had FIFTEEN stupid V/H/S segments that couldn't bother to include one.


Anyhoo, my point is pretty simple: I'm tired of bro horror, and fully ready to celebrate the women who are building their own dynasty. Thusly do we dive into Benjamin's first full-length movie.

Quick Plot: Wendy is a less-than-stellar part-time park ranger at Brighton Rock who valiantly offers to take her more experienced pal's shift to prove herself (and allow her friend to flirt with a hot guy). Most of the day's tasks involve hiking around and hanging up safety posters, but when she loses her map, Wendy's afternoon becomes considerably more complicated.


It would be bad enough to be lost and losing daylight, but the discovery of a dead body, creepy stranger, and some mysteriously deep claw marks put poor Wendy on edge. 


Wendy is played by Karina Fontes, a newcomer who had a small role in Benjamin's Southbound segment. The casting is crucial, since Wendy is the only character onscreen for a good chunk of the movie. So much of the movie's energy depends on Fontes, who brings such a fun likability and believable dumb innocence to the part.


Make no mistake: Wendy is no Ellen Ripley. She's a little flaky and far from a survivalist, someone who gets completely lost after trying to make such a point out of her abilities to read a map. But you know what? That's kind of refreshing. Yes, it's incredibly empowering to watch Sharni Vinson school ill-prepared killers in You're Next, but let's face it: many of us aren't actually equipped to survive a horror movie. Wendy is a perfectly average young woman, and seeing her dig deep inside herself to make it through 90 minutes of horror is in itself something to be proud of.


Benjamin wrote and directed Body At Brighton Rock, and it makes me thrilled for her next project: a remake of the beloved Night of the Comet. There's a very similar tone in this film, one that's not afraid to be simultaneously silly and filled with danger. It's a tricky balance, but one that ultimately makes for a darn enjoyable watch.

High Points
The tone is key, but it depends so much on Fontes's performance that I'd be remiss to not put her in this slot


Low Points
I could have used one or two less "it's just a dream!" reveals, but at the same time, this is a movie about a woman being lost on an isolated mountain. I think I'd have a few nightmares too?

Lessons Learned
Maybe turn off the noise cancellation feature on your earbuds when hiking alone?

Nothing starts a fire better than anti-fire propaganda!

Why do we need female filmmakers, you might ask? Because often they're the only ones who understand the value of a hairtie on a hot day



Rent/Bury/Buy
Body At Brighton Rock isn't terrifying or ever hilarious, but it's just a genuinely good time all around. You'll chuckle a little, maybe jump a tad, and ultimately, walk away with a very satisfying and fresh-feeling flick. Streaming on Hulu and worth your eyeballs. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Emily's Non-Definitive Ranking of Black Mirror




A couple of years ago, I went through the full (then) 5 season run of Black Mirror, mixing the order up as randomly as I could save for the then-finale, Black Museum. I roughly drafted this preference order a few months back, always intending to post it and move on.

Instead, I kept forgetting it was in my email box.

Now that the world has gotten even WEIRDER, it seems like the perfect time to revisit Charlie Brooker's universe. First, I give you my list, ranking the episodes below from my least to most favorite based on a one-time watch sometime in 2018. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to slowly revisit the series to see how everything lands with time and distance.

In the meantime, let's start at the bottom and move on. Mild spoilers might follow:

23. Shut Up & Dance
Easily the most mean-spirited in the current Black Mirror canon, this episode follows a frazzled teenager trying to appease mysterious hacking blackmailers by completing odd tasks with the help of fellow blackmailee, Jerome Flynn (or Bronn, if you're Westerosi). Maybe I'd like it more if I didn't think two film versions of 13 Sins did it better. Or maybe I'd like it better if I enjoyed pure misery with no redeeming value or catharsis.





22. The Waldo Moment
Sometimes timing is everything. Airing a full three years before a certain horrendous cartoon character launched the ugliest political campaign in modern times but watched by me two full ones later, The Waldo Moment doesn't seem to have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Politicians lie and don't really care about the people they serve, yet the very concept of democracy might just be the key to...holding civilization together? I don't know, an animated foul-mouthed bear makes crass, usually not very funny jokes, things get out of hand, and the world becomes a dystopia. Or something. Pre or post-Trump, The Waldo Moment just doesn't click.





21. Black Museum
More entertaining for its easter eggs than story, Black Museum presents three downbeat mini-stories about the dangers of technology. It's another downer, redeemed by the cute nods to other episodes and Black Panther's Letitia Wright's  presence. That aside, Monkey doesn't love this one.




20. Bandersnatch
What's the value of a great idea, and how much does it count when the execution is so boring? I spent about 90 minutes choosing my own adventure in the ambitious Bandersnatch, an interactive experience that lets you direct the main character's actions. Fine in theory, but aside from Will Poulter's supporting role as a charismatic game developer, the action is simply dull. Maybe it will play differently when I, you know, play differently, but at first run, it left me wanting more.





19. Hated In the Nation
One of the things I love about Black Mirror is knowing that I'm going to get a complete story in a 45 to 90 minute block of time. Why then would the show use its longest episode to tell a story without an ending? Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay (best known as Game of Thrones' Arya-hating Waif) make a great detective pair, and the idea of exploring the stakes in anonymous internet hatred of real people is certainly fitting for the Black Mirror treatment, but the feature length runtime makes no sense, especially when you walk away on a frustrating cliffhanger.





18. Smithereens
"Don't check Facebook while driving" is a message better conveyed by an episode much higher on my list, so I just don't have too much to say about the most recent (and final?) season's tale. It's well acted and sad, but ultimately, unremarkable.





17. Arkangel
I imagine Arkangel plays very differently to an audience of parents than, say, me. I'm the last person to judge a person's style in raising a child, making the moral issues at play fall somewhat flat. Rosemarie DeWitt is great and it's always pleasant to have Jodie Foster in the director's chair. And hey, there is plenty of area to explore within the freedom we give or deny youth in an age of increasingly aggressive technology. It's not a bad hour, just not anything I need to revisit.





16. Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too
AKA the Hannah Montanan one, Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too is one of the show's lighter offerings, playing with a lightly fictionalized Miley Cyrus's childhood stardom. It's a clever concept and nice to see Cyrus go meta with some restraint, but the episode itself is weirdly paced, never knowing which of its characters to focus on. In a sea of misery, it stands out for ultimately being so chipper, but in terms of quality television, it's more cute than good.



15. Striking Vipers
There are some interesting ideas at play in Striking Vipers, my best ranked episode of the maybe past-its-prime most recent season. What starts as a video game come to life turns into a much, well, sweeter exploration of attraction between two heterosexual cisgender black American men who find themselves unable to resist one another when playing completely different beings in an advanced video game. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anthony Mackie give incredibly nuanced performances as men questioning their sexuality. It's just that, well, by 2019, an annual open relationship cheat day doesn't seem nearly as daring as the episode thinks. It dances with something innovative, but pulls back too soon.



14. Playtest
I humbly beseech someone in a position of power to boil this episode down to a 2-minute educational video that gets shown before very theatrical film release in order to warn audiences about the dangers of cell phone use. That heavyhanded request aside, Playtest is a fun twist on the haunted house trope by way of video game revolutions. Wyatt Russell makes a likable protagonist, thus making his tragic fate that much sadder.



13. 15 Million Merits

Ambitious in its world-building (especially considering this is only the show's second episode), 15 Million Merits gives us a bleak future, one where American Idol (or more appropriately, The X-Factor) becomes one's only means of social climbing of an exercise bike. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is incredibly magnetic as the cynical proletarian who finds and loses a small chance at happiness, though the rather hopeless nature of the story keeps it from feeling truly satisfying.




12. Crocodile
How far would you go to protect the life you've created? That's the central question in Crocodile, one of Black Mirror's bleaker entries helmed by, not surprisingly, The Road's John Hillcoat. The episode is cruel and bleak, with its protagonist such a chilly presence that it's hard to know where we're supposed to fall. Still, the satisfying O'Henry-esque ending, eerie Icelandic setting, and inclusion of a side plot involving an elementary school production of Bugsy Malone keep it weirdly watchable.


11. White Christmas
I'm dreaming of Jon Hamm playing a smarmy jerk, which, let's face it, is a thing of true beauty. Telling three stories, White Christmas has some cruelty up its sleeve, producing some pretty mixed results. A dating coach-gone-wrong is fairly predictable, but Oona Chaplin Alexa-ing herself has some interestingly dark undertones. The final story, following Rafe Spall's misguided attempts to take care of his mother-less daughter, is as dark as Black Mirror gets. Merry Christmas!



10. Men Against Fire
This one seems to land low on most ranking lists, but to my mind, it's the closest the show comes to being the perfect modern example of The Twilight Zone. Sure, it's a little heavy-handed and maybe obvious in its message about war and how the government uses and discards its young soldiers, but couldn't you just smell the secondhand smoke of Rod Serling's cigarette slightly off camera?




9. The National Anthem
As the series premiere, The National Anthem is fascinating for how it opens the door to the Black Mirror Universe. Perhaps the most modest of all episodes in terms of its technology propositions, this episode plays more like dark humored satire than science fiction, and not in a bad way. The Prime Minister has a choice to make, one that may save a princess's life while damning his pride, his humanity, and in an even more fascinating way, his country's moral center. Perhaps it's smart to have aired The National Anthem so early, since later Black Mirror audiences might have been unsatisfied by the lack of a kooky techno twist. There's something even more disturbing about how it grinds its theme down. Yes, the nature of a society that can all watch their government official have sex with a pig at the same time is born of the Black Mirror world, but without the frills so common in later seasons, it's able to stand out even more.



8. Metalhead
There's no real deep meaning or statement to be found in Black Mirror's shortest episode. It's a cat and mouse hunt in a bleak future where the cat is a solar powered robot dog loaded with bullets and the mouse is one of the few human scavengers left in the world. Directed by the underrated David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, and the only passable Twilight film) Metalhead doesn't have any grand statements to make about the horrors of mankind or what it creates. All of that may have been explored in prologues. But here, it's just a chase, and a thrilling one at that.



7. Nosedive
Yes, social media has changed the way we live, and yes, Nosedive takes that to extremes in a somewhat predictable way. But what keeps this high concept episode so high on my list is less about its premise and more about its content. Bryce Dallas Howard is sheer perfection as that woman we all have in our lives who tries just a tad too hard, who you never really know because she's too busy perfecting a look to show you the person underneath. Joe Wright has long been one of my favorite modern directors, and the pastel hues and nightmare smartphone effects show the potential of a standalone high budget show with no real restrictions like Black Mirror can do.




6. San Junipero
One of the most beloved episodes (and winner of its very own Emmy), San Junipero is from that minority batch of uplifting stories...that might also be much darker depending on how far you want to dig. So let's stay on the surface to enjoy the sweet romance between two very different women in a retro computer-programmed pop culture afterlife. Like Be Right Back, San Junipero understands that love can't be manufactured, but it also surmises that cheating the system to find happiness might not be such a bad thing after all.



5. Hang the DJ
One of Black Mirror's lighter entries, Hang the DJ calls to mind the wonderfully underrated film tiMER, which also explored what romance might look like if dictated by technological algorithms. Like tiMER, it works not just because of its concept, but because it uses it to tell the story of two likable people with great chemistry. There are plenty of times when Black Mirror makes the future look terrible (and in doing so, the modern world as well), but every now and then, it stops to tell a charming love story well-earned in its triumph.



4. White Bear
I love The Purge series. I love Michael Smiley. I love a horrifying future where anarchy reigns and no one is safe. Hence, how could I not love White Bear? Yes, it's as mean in spirit as Shut Up and Dance, but where that episode leaves its audience feeling like crap with no real opportunities for reflection, White Bear gives us a thrilling horror movie and ends on a note that asks serious questions about society's thirst for punishing criminals. More importantly, it's a thrill of a watch.



3. The Entire History of You
Imagine never being able to just let something go, and you'll have a pretty good idea of just how horrific The Entire History of You truly is. Some time in the future, typical Black Mirror-esque technology allows people to record every moment of their lives in order to replay when they choose. Reliving warm memories or pulling up your best sex to improve your current experience seem like pleasant tools, but when this also means you can reevaluate every single interaction you've had on a personal or professional context, you can see the dangerous path the episode goes down. While we're (hopefully) not due for this kind of technological upgrade anytime soon, The Entire History of You remains powerful because like the best science fiction, it uses a high concept to explore specific tics of modern humanity.



2. USS Callister

Yes, it's probably the best known, most award-winning slice of Black Mirror, and it's for good reason. Jesse Plemons (not Matt Damon, as I'll one day understand) is greasily fantastic as a lonely, bitter programming genius who creates his own little world where he can be king (or rather, Captain). Its Star Trek homages are fabulous and fun, but in the age of Gamer Gate, its insecure, embittered, and cruel sad white boy antagonist is truly a monster. Unlike Jill in marketing, who just plays one in his code.



1. Be Right Back
First of all, Haley Atwell is an international treasure and Agent Carter should have run for 12 seasons.







In other news, Season 3's Be Right Back is the best made, most effective, and most moving episode of Black Mirror to date. It's a small, incredibly focused story that explores the very nature of what it means to be in love. Even the best relationship is fraught with conflict, sometimes in the littlest of ways. Those imperfections are often what make them great.


When Atwell's husband dies suddenly in a phone-induced car wreck, she has a hard time letting go...especially when the slightly ahead of us Black Mirror universe gives her a very simple, albeit expensive way to make sure she doesn't have to. For a price, you can speak to your dead lover, his internet presence being assembled and programmed based on his previous social media activity. For a few dollars more, he'll call you, and for a good chunk of your future daughter's college tuition, you can have your very own life-size, anatomically correct (though possibly mole-less) recreation. Anyone who has lost a loved one would see the incredible lure of such a possibility, but Be Right Back shows, without having to say it in such specific terms, that the very nature of humanity is tied to something that can't be programmed. It's deeply moving, and Atwell is crushingly effective.



Peggy Carter for life.