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'Electric Dreams': Like 'Black Mirror,' but a slower burn

Commentary: Amazon's sci-fi anthology series pushes buttons more gently than the Netflix show, but the after-echoes still linger.

Elizabeth Sisson

It hit me during a week of little sleep and too many CES tech demos: "Black Mirror" is a horror show.

I guess I always knew that. But finishing the end of season 4 one evening during a late-night, ill-advised act of procrastination, I finally finished "Black Museum," the final "Black Mirror" episode, and it became incredibly obvious.

I love "Black Mirror." I envy its fierce teeth, but I've learned to accept that many of my friends don't. "I can't watch more than one episode at a time," they'll say. Or they'll comment about the whole thing being too intense. I understand. It rattles. That's what I love, though. It screams and fumes and disturbs. My wife doesn't watch it with me anymore. I have to catch my episodes on trains, or on trips, furtively, alone.

"Electric Dreams," on the other hand, is a show my wife binge-watched along with me. Available on Amazon Video, it seems like another spin-off of "Black Mirror." But, based on short stories by Philip K. Dick, the visionary author whose tales have been adapted into films such as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report," "Electric Dreams" might be a truer throwback to the classic anthologized sci-fi shows I used to watch. 

If "Black Mirror" is a cocktail mixing "The Twilight Zone" and "Tales from the Crypt," "Electric Dreams" reminds me more of "Ray Bradbury Theater," "The Outer Limits" and even Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," which is about to be rebooted by Apple. Most of it lands just short of that digging-under-the-nails "Black Mirror" feeling I'm obsessed with, but not everyone is.

EPISODE 104

In "Real Life," everything feels like a reflection of itself.

Elizabeth Sisson

Again, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the series as a whole. Many episodes hit me strangely, right from the start. The tone, the storytelling, feel unevenly executed. Some feel like "Black Mirror" plotlines: The first one, "Real Life," is like Alice in "Through the Looking Glass" wondering if she was in the Red King's dream, or vice versa. It's a virtual-reality story that ends up elliptical, low-grade paranoid. It feels less like a knife edge and more like a slow IV drip.

The odd tones of many of "Electric Dreams" episodes, along with an uneven feeling of story pacing and sometimes oddly flat acting, made me start to hate the series. 

But I also have a few I absolutely love. 

"Safe and Sound," a tale of a terrorism-panicked future society valuing surveillance over all else, has a fantastic build-up and increasingly paranoid tones. "The Commuter," a story of lost wishes and a place that doesn't quite exist, is slow, sad and wonderfully haunting. "Kill All Others" might be my favorite of all. It meshes augmented reality, wearable tech, automated factories, surveillance states and a future American empire that's melted into a fascist state.

The Commuter

"The Commuter" feels like a classic Twilight Zone episode, in a good way.

Christopher Raphael

Yet my wife watches these episodes with me. Now, at least, we can watch together: We're both science fiction fans. And "Black Mirror," somehow, was a step too far. The storytelling tone of "Electric Dreams" is less violent, more depressed. And, I find, it usually looks at worlds that feel far off in either another reality or another distant time. "Electric Dreams" isn't 5 minutes in the future: It's hundreds of years away in a possibly parallel universe.

That longer-view style, the more allegorical tones, make "Electric Dreams" feel more classic -- or maybe more retro. Maybe it'll be easier for you to watch. I don't think it's as good as "Black Mirror," but it may be an even better time to mine Philip K. Dick now than it was a year ago. Everything is strange, all is paranoid.

Lessons of the past can help. I consider "The Twilight Zone" oddly therapeutic. I've been sipping episodes over the past couple of years, realizing that the world had plenty of nightmares decades ago that seemed equally hopeless. Maybe the world, despite changing, can offer comfort. Old Twilight Zone episodes remind me, sometimes, of the persistence of humanity (or the persistence of monstrous behaviors). Either way, I feel less shocked by the present.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Janelle Monae in "Autofac."

Elizabeth Sisson

At its best, "Electric Dreams" has a similar effect. And with some distance from episodes I've watched over the last few weeks, I realize even the broken episodes have great things inside them. "Crazy Diamond" stars Steve Buscemi involving artificially accelerated produce rot, factory-grown replicant people, coastal erosion and human-animal hybrids. "Autofac" stars Janelle Monae in a near-perfect story about automated factories and human desire. "Impossible Planet" is about space tourism, the limits of human aging and the lies we tell. "Human Is" has Bryan Cranston in a story about sex, happiness, identity and aliens.

I want to go back and read these stories, and I've absorbed the bits of ideas "Electric Dreams" scatters across its long episodes. And best of all, I have someone else who wants to watch them with me.

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