Black Mirror
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Netflix

Promotional art for “Striking Vipers,” an episode in Season 5 of “Black Mirror,” which was released June 5 on Netflix.

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“Black Mirror” rose from an underground, word-of-mouth show on Channel 4 in the UK to a worldwide phenomenon as one of the flagship programs in the Netflix machine.

With that comes more attention and more criticism. The series’ excellence in storytelling, and its imagining of the degradation of society through technology, has risen it to a level at which it can become a victim of its own success.

A lot of what happens in this era of intellectual property dominating the big and small screen is the expectation of bigger and better. The major success story of that model has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ability to build a decade-long plot (which concluded with “Avengers: Endgame” in May) while building up its world and characters in nearly two dozen films.

Much of the narrative of “Black Mirror” is rooted in its use of technology and the writers’ ability to predict a damning future for society.

The reviews of Season 5 have been mixed, and a large reason for that is its less-than-futuristic approach in three new episodes. While show creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have portrayed a modern-day version of an Orwellian future — with technology as the authoritarian apparatus — the audience’s expectations are not met in the same way they have been in the past.

I disagree with that stance.

“Black Mirror” shines when it uses technology as a device to trigger an interpersonal and human story. “The Entire History Of You” — the third episode in Season 1 — is my favorite, and in my opinion, one of the best episodes of television. The ability to relive every memory we have is a jarring and creative piece of science fiction. Here it is used as a catalyst to explore a man-and-wife relationship between a man and wife that had an underlying rockiness exposed because of that memory-reviewing technology.

All three episodes in Season 5 — which was released June 5 on Netflix — do just that.

Episode one, “Striking Vipers,” is probably the best of these three. It takes virtual-reality gaming to the next level, giving the characters the ability to truly live out and feel human interaction within their virtual world. Again, the tech is advanced beyond modern day, but that isn’t the actual story going on. Anthony Mackie of Marvel fame and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star as estranged friends who reunite through the VR “Striking Vipers” game, but it quickly turns into an exploration of their sexual identity, whether adultery can be committed if it’s only taking place inside of a game and if the virtual or real world is more real.

The season’s second episode, “Smithereens,” went full analog, using a 2018 timestamp as an explicit present-day story. That episode explores our current culture surrounding social media, with a phenomenal performance by Topher Grace, who plays (in my estimation) a proxy for Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. The episode follows a character played by Andrew Scott (best known for playing Moriarty in BBC’s “Sherlock”), who is having quite a year between this and Season 2 of “Fleabag.” Scott’s character is disgruntled with Smithereen, a Twitter-like app, and Grace’s CEO figure is equally upset with the out-of-control nature of the social platform he’s created in a Dr.-Frankenstein-and-his-monster kind of way. The tension and build-up to their eventual interaction is infectious and thrilling.

And finally, the third episode, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” provides a look at the toxicity behind life as a celebrity, with a standout Miley Cyrus playing something close to herself. Like “Smithereens,” it’s another tale of the intersection of a small figure (in this case, Rachel — a massive fangirl of Cyrus’ Ashley O) intersecting with a larger-than-life public figure.

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” takes us into a typical celebrity narrative of Cyrus’ Ashley O being pigeonholed into her trashy and unartistic style that enabled her to reach superstar status, while she is deeply depressed, medicated and in a passionate quest to make the real art she set out to do.

The technology in the episode surpasses that of modern day, but in real life we’ve seen 2Pac recreated as a hologram, and the idea of not needing humans to make music is a real possibility.

The grabby headlines that pop up surrounding “Black Mirror” are typically along the lines of “This ‘Black Mirror’ tech could be seen in the next few years,” and certainly previous seasons and the “Bandersnatch” special have leaned toward more high-concept tech. But at its core, and from the first episode of the series back in 2011 really, the thing that ascends “Black Mirror” are the human stories within the sci-fi world. I’m glad the show went back to that for its 2019 delivery.

Warner Strausbaugh is a Cheyenne Mountain resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at warner.strausbaugh@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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