Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Television Review - Black Mirror Episode One: The National Anthem

The Emperor Has No Clothes

There it is. I said it. I feel better. I bet you do too.

I thought I was going to like Black Mirror, penned by Charlie Brooker for Channel Four. The advertising boiler plate told me it was a dark, contemporary, social satire about technology and ideas - all things I like.

Part one - The National Anthem - involves a fictionalised Kate Middleton figure being kidnapped and threatened with execution, lest a proto-Cameron Prime Minister has sex with a pig, live on television. A shocking set up. But there is a twist. Of course there is a twist - Brooker's stated intention is to make something akin to Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone (twisted stories that invariably end badly). Cameron (I mean, Prime Minister... Michael Callow), cedes to the kidnapper's demands, to the constenation of his wife and the pity of the nation. Meanwhile, Kate (I mean, Princess... Susannah), it is revealed later, is released into a deserted central London. As it turns out, she was not being held by a sadistic murderer but by a conceptual artist, making a point about society's addiction to sensation and screens.

Shocked? Appalled?

The show was sold as a 'techno-parable for the Twitter age' but apart from a few tasteless YouTube comments and a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue - 'it's trending on Twitter' - all of the focus is on civil servants in their parliamentary offices and journalists in their newsrooms. I assume we are supposed to see these old media types as 'cast adrift', unable to direct public attention or debate. Except, everybody outside of the corridors or power is depicted as an old-media gawper. In an age of media fragmentation, The National Anthem is oddly quaint in its depiction of an event that unites a nation around the television.

To hint at the new media response and then ignore it is an odd choice. More so because, when the twist comes, the programme insinuates that the bovine hoards whom we have seen impassively and dutifully watching their screens are somehow guilty or responsible. Their desire to watch makes them complicit in the heinous act. Those who were in their homes watching the Prime Minister when the Princess was released could have prevented the incident had they had the foresight to go for a walk instead. But, as depicted, none of the the goggle-eyed Idiot Box obsessives has a mind of their own with which to reason. This left me with precious little to which I could relate.

Also, the answer to the central question the film raises - 'Would you watch?' - is a resounding, 'No'. No, I would not watch. Simple as that. So, when it comes to the depiction of the act itself (mercifully off screen) and the dawning horror of the public, I did not feel like the film had earned the right to the burden of guilt it seemed to want to impose on me, the viewer.

Some might argue that the entire point of the show is to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, to make them question their assumptions about 24-hour news media and modern communications technology. Except, it didn't do that either. I have plenty of anxiety about networked culture. But far less anxiety about the ritual humiliation of the British Prime Minister on national television... (There's a joke in there somewhere). What am I missing?

Parables typically revolve around very simple stories. That is what gives them much of their power. This one is confused and, possibly, trying a bit too hard to shock. Still, makes you think, doesn't it? - Television Review Black Mirror Episode One - Keyword description


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