Sunday, 27 November 2016

Black Mirror - Season by Season (Collaboration Review)


If you haven't been following the collaborative series between myself and Ryan (MorrisMovie) Black Mirror, where have you been? Similarly, you must have been living under a rock if you haven't caught at least an episode of two of the show, which recently debuted its extended third season via Netflix. Following our episode-by-episode review over on Ryan's blog (you can find season one and two's discussion here and our analysis of season three's episodes here), we decided to have an overarching look at the seasons as a whole, deciding which season, if any, reaches the pinnacle of what the show has to offer, with a few shout outs to must see episodes and those that left the season down. Check out below and be sure to let us know your opinion of the three seasons.

Season One:

Nathan: The best way to describe Black Mirror's first season is sporadic. It sporadically bursts with the excitement that we come to expect in later seasons. It sporadically hints at the even greater things to come - the darkness in The National Anthem, the emphasis on technology in Fifteen Million Merits and the emotional in The Entire History of You. It sporadically drags it heels and makes the urge to surge through the episodes a little taxing, but on the whole it is a solid introduction to the show, with the best still to come. What really works is how different the episodes are, sampling the range the show offers in the way of tone and themes, as well as serving rather engaging television with no other comparable on television, with some terrific ideas and performances. That said, it never feels like it tries hard enough to be anything other than 'good', perhaps opening episode aside, which really opens with a kick and a punch. This first season is very possibly the most consistent to date, with each episode floating around a 'B' grade, with different suffixes (which you can see by popping over to Ryan's blog, as linked above).  In essence, it's strong enough to make you want to continue on with the series by hinting at some of the greatness to come, but never enough to truly illuminate why exactly you should continue into the worlds.
Grade: B

Ryan: When it first launched, Black Mirror was unlike any other show on air. It was deeply committed to its dark nature and its political subtext, tackling dangerous subject matter with the kind of conviction and determination British TV hadn't seen in a long time. Episodically, though, it was uneven. We begin with The National Anthem, an episode that kicks things off in all the right ways. Primarily, though, The National Anthem stands out due to the way it tells a story bound by social aspects and ties it to a story focused on politicians. It tackles both political and social issues simultaneously but in ways that blend into each other. Fifteen Million Merits continues this to some extent, but the first season loses its way substantially in its third and final episode. The first two episodes feel focused on their characters and their lives, but The Entire History of You just doesn't. Somehow the episode with the smallest cast and the smallest scale feels the most unfocused, arguably down to the fact that it's too amazed by its own ideas to fully commit to them. Black Mirror's first season would benefit more if it stuck to a consistent theme across the three episode run, allowing for a finale that ties in nicely with its predecessors even if its story is something completely new. 
Grade: B

Season Two:

Nathan: Black Mirror's excellence lies in its ability to shock and surprise, with season two producing three very different episodes. Be Right Back surprises by opening the season on a disconcertingly quiet footing, pouring a tremendous amount of emotion into the two-parter than handles themes and tones stunningly. White Bear shocks in its ability to unforgivably pierce its nails into you and refuse to let go, only before ripping it out with a mid-point twist that leaves jaws firmly dropped. The Waldo Moment surprises in its inability to do all the things Black Mirror usually succeeds with, usually without thought, and the fact that it can stand and wither right next to two of Black Mirror's strongest episodes. Despite the anthology nature and set up of the series, season two  seems to be more obviously unified with an on-running themes - setting the worlds within the realm of possibility, to varying degrees. Season two, on the whole, feels like a considerable improvement over the first set of episodes, with Christmas special White Christmas placing the cherry on the top of a more well-rounded and consistent cake and ending Channel 4's run with the show on a high note.
Grade: B+

Ryan: With viewers now accustomed to its unique approach to storytelling, Black Mirror now had the chance to do pretty much whatever the hell it liked. Surprisingly, its first decision in season two was to dive head first into the show's most emotional episode thus far, Be Right Back is a powerful story with superb performances, and it felt tonally like a version The Entire History of You that was handled correctly. The thing is, three episodes seasons are tricky. It's too short a time to analyse an overarching theme and having three tonally different episodes feels jarring. So when the show leaps immediately into White Bear, its bizarre. White Bear in itself doesn't work as an episode due mostly to the direction it takes in its final few minutes, which are handled poorly enough to dislodge all that came before it, resulting in something incredibly uneven. And, well, the less said about the disaster of The Waldo Moment, the better. Black Mirror's second season is undeniably ambitious, and what it sets its sights on is golden, but the short season proved again to be its undoing. Rather than feel versatile, the show feels uneven - as if it cant make up its mind on what it wants to be. 
Grade: B-

Season Three:

Nathan: As Ryan says, Black Mirror's third season often touches the very heights of what the show has to offer and, while struggling with consistency once again, is the show's best yet. Netflix's confidence in the show is clear and each episode in the anthology crafts the individual universes with more clarity (and a bigger budget) than before; this is no clearer than in season opener, Nosedive, in which the picture-perfect utopia-come-dystopia is vividly captured through nuanced performances, an excellent script and a terrific central concept. Shut Up and Dance, Black Mirror's pinnacle, puts the human story above the technological core, resulting in a dark and twisted episode that is even more disturbing because of how closely it wanders to real life; the next episode, San Junipero, takes the exact same notion (human story at the heart) with markedly different results - an uplifting, inspiring slice of television, excellently demonstrating the season's scale and range, continuing to push the show's now non-existent boundaries. However, two episodes - Playtest, Hated in the Nation and particularly Man Against Fire - let it down, failing to engage and excite as Black Mirror can and ultimately should, becoming season's three achilles' heel. Now let's imagine for a second, the same episodes were produced in the same three episode run the show experienced on Channel 4: the show would achieve total greatness with a season of Nosedive, Shut Up and Dance and San Junipero but would quiver and - in all honesty - lose my backing with the likes of Playtest, Man Against Fire and arguably Hated in the Nation populating a three episode run. In other words, we have so much to be thankful for with Netflix picking up this series and giving it a larger playing field, scale and focus. Here's to a terrific season four.
Grade: A-

Ryan: Quite simply, Black Mirror hit its stride in its third season. The increased budget helped initially, but there's a storytelling focus here that was lacking in the first two seasons. Shut Up and Dance is unlike any other episode to date in the ways it looks at contemporary society, Nosedive takes something we all know and appreciate and turns it drastically against us, Hated in the Nation tells a story fit for the big screen in a surprisingly intimate manner, never losing sight of its characters amid the scale. The season - and the show, for that matter - hit its true peal with San Junipero, a stunningly emotional episode that turned expectations on their heads with its uplifting and deeply moving conclusion. Sure there are misfires - Playtest doesn't work as well as it should due to a sloppy conslusion, and Men Against Fire is pretty messy throughout - but the elongated season length gives the show more flexibility. The misfires are easier to overlook, but the peaks are so high that they still stand out within the longer episode run. Like all anthology seasons it's uneven, but for the first time Black Mirror felt like it was firing on all cylinders with something truly special in its grasp. 
Grade: B+


Myself and Ryan would love to hear your own opinions of the show - what episodes are your favourite? Which season is the strongest? Was the Netflix move the right one to make? Come and chat with us all things Black Mirror!

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