The three unspoken rules of dinner party etiquette have always been Don’t Talk Politics, Don’t Mention Religion, and Don’t Laugh at the Vegans Eating Parsnips. It’s time to add a fourth - Don’t Talk TV. In this era of streaming and binge watching, everyone’s always asking, “What are you watching?” Responses can dictate future friendships or fallings out - your love of Two Broke Girls means you’d hate me for never missing a moment of Master Chef Toddler. I also now know it’s never a good idea to discuss Black Mirror with dinner guests.
If you’re familiar with this British TV import, you understand. Created by Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is mesmerizing, each episode a self-contained film, with accomplished actors, taut writing and riveting storylines. The plots occur in the near future, the common thread a complicated view of technology set against the backdrop of human nature’s best and worst instincts. The series is a modern-day version of The Twilight Zone, but instead of pig noses, broken eye glasses and aliens hoping to serve humans, Black Mirror shows us how technology has so permeated our lives that we’re only steps away from a rapid disintegration into losing our freedoms, our memories and our dignity because of what our technical advances have wrought.
What’s most chilling are the plots’ plausibility. An implant that lets you record your entire life and rewind at your own peril; mechanical drone bees to help save the real ones from extinction; artificial intelligence so advanced you’d buy it a beer and a sandwich. Watch this season’s premier, a world where social media rating means everything. In “Nosedive,” the main character, Bryce Dallas Howard, tries improving her social standing to experience the finer things in life until things go awry. Every interaction earns her a rating - friends, co-workers and strangers swipe away on their phones after exchanging greetings in the coffee shop, the elevator or the airline ticket counter. Fast forward to real life in China, 2016. The Chinese government recently announced plans to assign ratings to its citizens that will impact their ability to apply for loans and jobs and to gain access to higher-end hotels and faster government service. The plan, already in place in a few cities, uses credit histories, tax records and criminal records and will expand nationwide in 2020, incorporating social media and online shopping patterns into what is known as a “social credit system.” In a few years, Howard’s nosedive may seem quaint by comparison in downtown Shenzhen.
Or consider the “The Waldo Moment” - the scariest forty three minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time. Waldo’s a snarky cartoon bear, a regular guest on a late night TV talk show, voiced by a young man who’s desperately trying to find happiness and companionship in his life. Things change quickly for Waldo as he becomes a national political phenomenon. Viewing this episode is like watching the recent campaign with Trump playing the role of Waldo, substituting his papery orange skin for Waldo’s blue cartoon flesh. Waldo’s disdain for the normal order of things, his impatience, his desire to foment fisticuffs and his ability to give a voice to those who’ve been unheard for too long are very familiar. Waldo is our future – and our present.
And then there’s Black Mirror’s first-ever episode, “The National Anthem.” This taught me the Don’t Talk TV rule while enjoying a lovely meal with friends. After fun chats about holiday plans and gardening tips, I felt the sudden urge to ask the question, “So what are you guys watching?” I listened and then began to recount the story of my experience with Black Mirror. I explained how I’d never heard of the show until my boss mentioned it to me months ago. “I won’t even describe it – just see the first episode and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” he said to me. So I watched and was so enthralled I begged my wife to catch it with me.
We’re always exhausting shows we can watch together – Big Love, Six Feet Under, Last Man on Earth – the list we’ve enjoyed together is small. For every Real Housewives of Mordor for her, there’s a Better Call Saul I can’t miss, and rarely do we agree on the same show. When she let me make her breakfast on Mother’s Day and watch “The National Anthem,” together, I was giddy, forgetting, apparently, what the next sixty minutes held for her viewing pleasure.
We sat on the couch as “The National Anthem” began. A few moments into it, between mouthfuls of eggs and sips of coffee, I spied my wife engrossed, and I figured I’d nailed it – good food, better TV and quality time together. But as the plot revealed itself, she recoiled in horror. “You watched this already? Are you sick? Your boss told you to watch this? What kind of freak is he? My God, this is terrible!” She watched for another twenty minutes, and as her coffee went cold, so did her interest in my Black Mirrorexperiment. As she stood to leave, she said, “You’re sick. Who would make a show like this? Nice Mother’s Day,” leaving her unfinished breakfast on the table.
When she and I recounted the story of the Mother’s Day Miscue to the table of dinner guests, there were initial chuckles, but when I described episode’s plot, in some detail, one guest, a local physician, dropped his jaw down below his knees. Another stood up, thanked the host and walked out, breaking into a slight jog as she reached the door, appalled I lacked the good sense to resist telling my story. The words of William Shatner came to mind as she sped away – “It’s just a TV show!” But I swallowed my words with my final bites of dessert. Lesson learned.
As for the actual plot of “The National Anthem,” it involves the British Prime Minister, a kidnapped member of the royal family and themes of immoral newscasters, swelled political egos and an obsession with public humiliation. And a rather large pig. Come to think of it, we were eating pork tenderloin at the dinner party – maybe that’s what did it. Either way, I encourage you to watch Black Mirror and judge on your own. Just keep it to yourself.
(Black Mirror is available on Netflix in all its twisted, prescient glory.)