Friday. A day the bleak twists and blackly absurd turns of current events became entangled with dark, fictional satire on TV.
On TV, Boston is in lockdown. Events unfold like some chilling episode of 24 with the added strangeness of constant all-news chatter and the Internet being on fire with speculation, condemnation and idiocy. Every trending topic on Twitter is connected to Boston and the bombing suspects. Social media are searched frantically for clues about the suspects. Info emerges, spreads like wildfire and then the sources are quickly castigated as unreliable. Oddly, but entirely predictably these days, mischief abounds.
Simultaneously, I’m screening the opening episode of Black Mirror (SuperChannel, 8 p.m.), a brilliant new British series that has, at its core, a savage view of social media, politics and the awfulness of humanity.
The show is an anthology series and is the work of Charlie Brooker, once the sort-of TV columnist for The Guardian and now a screenwriter, producer and broadcaster. I say “sort-of” because Brooker became immensely popular for a mostly satiric take on TV and its formulas and clichés, something more easily done in the limited TV universe of Britain than anywhere else. He’s described Black Mirror with this statement: “Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy. And if there’s one thing we know about mankind, it’s this: We’re usually clumsy.”
Righto. The first episode, called The National Anthem, opens with the British Prime Minister, one Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear), being awakened by a phone call to alert him that a member of the Royal Family, a Kate Middleton-like figure, Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), has been kidnapped and there’s a ransom video on YouTube. When he watches it with his officials he discovers that the ransom for her safe return is a demand that the PM have sex with a pig, live on national television.
Once it’s established that the kidnapping has happened, things move fast. After all, a grave act of terrorism has occurred. The government has used a gag order to prevent the media from covering the YouTube video, but it’s already too late. The U.S. all-news channels are all over the story, so the government concedes defeat and, with an unnerving plausibility, begins to speculate on how to use the matter to massage the PM’s popularity.
We see the public gaze in fascination at the YouTube video, the Twitter comments mount and then the Home Secretary (played with marvelous gusto by Lindsay Duncan) begin her campaign to get the PM to do as the kidnappers want. He’s horrified, panicky and stunned. The public is debating the merits of the demand. Instant polls suggest that the great British public want him to have sex with a pig on TV in order to save the Princess. He can hardly believe it. Someone in his cabinet says to him, “This is virgin territory, Prime Minister. There is no playbook.”
Throughout, the drama manages to subtly mock politicians, the gullible public and the hungry media, with chilling accuracy. Satirical shots are fired at the BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. There is one scene in which a SWAT team member aims and fires bullets at a reporter’s cellphone, with considerable satisfaction.
There is, of course, a twist in the tale. But this isn’t a fantasy drama. Or a joke. It has a forbidding plausibility. It takes aim at a society bizarrely entranced and manipulated by social media and asks us to gaze on the wreckage.
While I watched it, I was obliged to pause the screening disc at regular intervals to catch up on the news out of Boston. Anderson Cooper talking to reporters who explain what they’ve heard but cannot verify. Some reporters explaining what was being said on Twitter. Others talking about talking to people who talked to someone who met the suspect the other day. Someone said one suspect was “a nice guy.” Someone else says he wasn’t nice at all.
Increasingly, the horror of the bombings fades as the torque of the coverage shifts from actual reporting to the most idle of speculation. Increasingly, and sadly, the coverage plays out like a satire of coverage.
And Black Mirror, for all its blistering satire, looks increasingly sane, not outlandish at all. It’s so accurate, it hurts.
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