Black Mirror: The reaction

I felt like I should write a proper review, after listing all my reactions but not really making sense of it. The programme has really affected me. I sat up until 4am last night, wired, and unable to stop running it through my head. I woke up again now, at 6.30am, and it was the first thing I thought of. It’s really, really disturbed me. I suppose I don’t watch enough horror films these days – I’m very easily appalled.

Back in the ‘Screenwipe’ days, I was a big fan of Charlie Brooker. I saw him as a sort of cerebral Harry Hill. I’m surprised by his move into what I consider to be ‘Mark Gatiss territory’. Anyway, the more I saw of him, the more I heard him rant and ramble, the more he reminded me of a nasal, whiny teenage boy. The kind who thinks he knows everything about politics, literature, life…all at the age of 18. You don’t have a discussion with him, he just talks at you, and if you make a point, you are swiftly crushed. The more interviews with him I read, the more I can’t shake that image, and I get faintly irritated by his huge wave of firm beliefs on life and all the disappointments it brings, according to him. I didn’t think a great deal of Dead Set, so I’ve got no idea why I decided to watch Black Mirror.

From the start, you could see the threads he was trying to pull together. Obviously, Britain’s embracing of royalty again, after the Royal Wedding, here reflected in Princess Suzanne, a Kate-a-like. Then obviously there’s the shifting unease with Cameron, any optimistic ideas about the coalition long dead. (Many of the more unfortunate  Tweets have revolved around the following: @NickCleggsfair: David’s just texted. He’s watching something called Black Mirror. Apparently ‘I’m the pig’. Whatever that means.)

So there was that, a squirming feeling for some that they’d been left a bit….*beep*ed over by the Conservatives. Then the incident with Gordon Brown and that woman whose name escapes me – the one who overheard his rude comments, and the public bayed for his blood. The focus was on what happens when the public determine outcomes, but a public who are working together as more of a mob than a democracy. I have to say, Derren Brown managed rather well to convey this to us without any need for porcine ‘love-making’. Then the riots – the way comment spread across Twitter. First the mobs ruled us, and then we became the mob, linking the police with profiles of offenders who were boasting about their new TVs, etc.

Then there’s our inability to empathise with what we see on screen. We’re removed, most of us ‘dual or triple screening’, sitting there and Tweeting what we see, the crueller the comment, the more chance of a retweet. I for one am rude enough about X Factor, but I’ve never watched ‘I’m a Celeb’. I think the concept is vile. It’s not ‘a laugh’, it’s not ‘entertainment’. It’s a bunch of ‘celebrities’ so keen to revive their fame they’ll humiliate themselves on television. Just think of the TV deals! This time around, Freddie Starr went home, I read, with heart problems. This is it, we’re just laughing and laughing, and voting for people we don’t like to eat bugs, or testicles, or…Anyway. Given my inability to watch the above, I’m not sure I should have felt ready for Black Mirror, but I watched it anyway.

People have zeroed in on the story, isolating the pig sex component and have instantly gone ‘how horrible, what a disgusting programme, I’m not watching someone have sex with a pig’. That’s not the point. Brooker hasn’t made an hour long show about how great having sex with animals is. The whole point is that it’s unthinkable. It’s a completely unnatural desire, not just a dark fetish. If it had been softer, the PM’s dilemma at the crux of the show would have fallen apart. What if the demands had said a man? Or a prostitute? Still the humiliation of being seen at your most vulnerable moment on live national TV, but with less of a chance of you vomiting when Countryfile comes on TV. No, the ransom demands had to be so utterly obscene that there was no question that it couldn’t be done. No way. The aides and advisors were calm, the PM merely concerned with handling all of it.

I mention in my minute by minute reactions how my feelings keep shifting. One minute I’m laughing and the idea has become ridiculous, the next minute I’m staring into the broken face of the PM’s wife and seeing how it will destroy her marriage. It’s clever, because 60 minutes of pure outrage and nauseated shock would have been too much for the viewer. It’s played utterly straight, you’re reminded again and again that this isn’t ‘The thick of it’. But as all the chances fall away, we’re driven towards the unthinkable, yet inevitable conclusion.

I read forums and reviews and Twitter last night, trying to gauge public reaction. People thought it was ‘rubbish’, ‘disturbing’, ‘sick’. People can’t seem to unpick the storyline from the point Brooker is trying to make. We’re not supposed to be ok with this. We’re supposed to feel alarmed, and yet, we keep watching. People named a plothole: that the government would have simply said, ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’. Agreed, but I think they show this as a dilemma completely off the book. It’s the beloved ‘Facebook Princess’ at stake, and the stages the PM and his team go through are fairly well realised.

Another plot hole: the severed finger would clearly not have been the finger of a size 6 Princess. Yes, I also agree, but I think it was only the studio crew who got a hold of it, i.e. people more likely to recoil and put the links together, not to forensically test it. So, after 45 minutes of grappling with the concept, we were finally faced with it. I found it very tough to watch, because like the general public, I swiftly moved on from the Private Eye style haw-hawing at the sight of the PM with his trousers down, and looked at the human aspect of it. That is, a man having to do an unthinkable, unspeakable thing, in front of the eyes of the nation.

Try as we might, we still have our visions of England. We trust in England and long held traditions, beliefs and a shred of national pride. An act like this would mean everything was broken. I don’t know, I felt Brooker was actually saying something positive about the Great British Public. They laughed, jeered and tweeted at first, but that stopped. They quietened. They looked upset. Some cried. See! Not entirely without redeeming features!

Actually, those shots of the faces was something itself. Not only are we a culture who love to watch, we also love to watch people watching. Youtube had tonnes of those ‘Reaction to 2 girls 1 cup’ type videos, and probably for things like The Human Centipede too. Voyeurism has become a way of life.

The ending is where my real issue is. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT.

So as the programme ends, visions of Rory Kinnear vomiting and ignoring the phone calls of his wife still dancing like sugarplums in our heads, we think it’s over. The credits roll. Then…what’s this? Oh! It was a TURNER PRIZE WINNING ARTIST WHODUNNIT. As I said in my play by play review, I kind of saw this coming. Not because I’m any sort of genius/Derren Brown type, but because of my drama degree. The rule is always that you include no ‘flab’ in any good performance. That meant that the news segment on the art exhibition at the beginning was bound to bear some importance. And the slightly creepy looking guy who’s pottering about in his workshop too, he wouldn’t be given screen time for no reason.

But it wasn’t just that I saw it coming. It was the silliness of it. Sorry, but do we really think of art like that now? I feel like at the moment, we’ve moved on from being shocked by Tracey Emin or the Chapman brothers. I just think the ‘what is art?’ debate is hackneyed and not something I’ve heard Brooker express an interest in. Although that said, I read about an artist who is LIVING with pigs for four days, behind glass, naked. No bestiality there, though, chaps. She was waaay too thin, pigs hate that, they like a bit of meat. BADOOM TISH. Etc. Then there was the man who starved his dog, I believe? But really, unless you’re a) a listener of Front Row, or b) a Daily Mail reader who gets outraged by the articles they publish on the louche lives of artists, I don’t think this debate is probably central to your life.

Is that what he’s saying, though? That we overlook art. We don’t understand it, until it’s pushed in our faces? I don’t know, I’d just spent 10 minutes watching Rory Kinnear have sex with a pig, I couldn’t make sense of a ‘state of modern art’ debate that had sprung in out of nowhere.

Couldn’t we just have kept it at being rude about social media? To me, this felt like that total cop out ending that you wrote when you were 8, when you didn’t know how to finish a story: ‘and it was aaall a dream’. So, English teachers. You may well be due a spate of stories which end ‘and it was aaall a Turner prize-winning work by an avant-garde artist’. As for the ‘opinion polls are 3 points higher’…oh, come on. Again, a naff ending. The only bit of merit was seeing that behind the sheen of the politician, the PM had a totally destroyed marriage.

And that folks, is that.

And then I woke up, and it was all a Turner-prize winning work by an avant-garde artist.

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