'Black Mirror' season 4 rated by my depth of despair

The bleak, tech-obsessed anthology series returns to Netflix on 29 December -- just in case your 2017 hasn't been grim enough.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Here's the thing with talking about "Black Mirror": We can't talk about it. 

Each of the show's disturbing technology tales is built on heart-stopping suspense, chilling mystery and cup-of-tea-dropping twists, and I wouldn't want to ruin the whole dreadful experience for you.

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Andrea Riseborough in "Black Mirror". She gets it.


Yes, it's dark. So very dark. Each episode opens a window on a different bleak future, like an advent calendar where the chocolate is made of artificial flavours and creeping dread. At the end of each blackly cynical tale, the viewer is left feeling a lot of things about humanity and our relationship with technology -- and none of them particularly cheerful.

So instead of going into detail about what happens in each chapter, I'm going to review season 4 based on how much it made me want to chuck my smartphone in a microwave and curl up into a little ball in the corner of my closet. 

I can't reveal much about episodes like "Hang the DJ", a stark interrogation of modern app-aided dating that plays out like "First Dates" meets "Logan's Run". I can't tell you much about the snowbound suspense of "Fargo"-esque "Crocodile", except to say how much I enjoyed the array of British regional accents. And I can't go into detail about "USS Callister" except to praise the loving re-creation of vintage "Star Trek", right down to grainy film stock, neon uniforms and toxic fandom.

Season 3 took home a sackful of awards, winning Emmies and Baftas galore for "San Junipero", the most hopeful and upbeat outing of the show's entire run. So does season 4 go the way of "San Junipero" and ease up on the whole soul-sucking dread thing?

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Not really. There isn't a complete lack of hope or optimism among the six chapters, but this being "Black Mirror", I found myself wondering whether any brief respite from the general tone of despair actually was a happy ending -- or whether such a thing exists.

Endings are a thing with short stories. "Black Mirror" creator Charlie Brooker obviously understands this: In one new episode, the characters actually discuss how things might turn out. But it's also a curse of the short-story form that the story has to grip you throughout or you find yourself waiting for the big twist. "USS Callister" does this brilliantly, keeping you hooked with its darkly desperate story before the twist hoves into view.

"Hang the DJ" is less successful in this regard. The setup is interesting, but also simple and quickly grasped. The rest of the story unspools slowly, drawing you into its Uniqlo future populated by sinister Kooples. It's a slow burn intended to make the ending flare brighter, but I found myself wanting to just fast-forward to the explanation. 


"Black Mirror" in black and white.

Jonathan Prime/Netflix

Surprisingly, more than one episode of the series turns out to have the same basic twist, which seems a bit careless. Other stories are more willfully deconstructed: At least one segment offers no explanation of the stark setup or closure to the white-knuckle tension. Still others cap their gruelling interlude with a blackly comic joke, like the gun pointing at your head turning out to be a water pistol.

Do I want to retreat from humanity after binging season 4? There are certainly dark moments I can't shake. "Metalhead" for example, struck me while watching as being rather slight, a throwaway palate cleanser to more thought-provoking narratives, filmed in black and white to disguise its essential emptiness. Yet images from that episode keep coming back to me, along with a dull, flat hopelessness.

Fortunately, even when "Black Mirror" does send you spiralling into a pit of despair and dread, you can always look at your phone -- where you'll probably find something even worse is happening. How's that for a twist ending. 

"Black Mirror" season 4 is on Netflix from 29 December, in case your 2017 hasn't been bleak enough. To cheer you up, see if you agree with this ranking of every previous episode in the series.

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