Netflix presented a challenged to seasoned binge-watchers with its release of “Black Mirror” on Friday. With just six episodes, at about an hour a pop (plus one 90-minute installment), could fans finish the whole cache by the time Saturday morning rolled around?
With Netflix and Amazon dumping whole seasons all at once, we’re getting used to instant gratification. But what if a show isn’t meant to be binged? That seems to be the case with “Black Mirror,” a British series that debuted in 2011 and follows the “Twilight Zone” template of presenting a new, mind-bending story with each episode. Here are a few reasons why the show is best appreciated in individual doses.
It’s so dark
For starters, the show can be deeply depressing. Most of the series takes place in a twisted version of our present day, in which technology has shackled us in various ways. The first episode to ever air followed a British prime minister at a crossroads. After the abduction of a beloved princess, the kidnappers explain the only way to free the woman is for the country’s elected leader to have sex with a pig on national television. The episode is fascinating, as the prime minister tries to figure out a way out of the, um, pickle, but it’s also deeply sickening. “Black Mirror” has a way of making a viewer feel disgusted in a visceral way.
This season, the most troubling episode is entitled “Shut Up and Dance.” The main character, Kenny, seems like a good kid, so it’s almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch as he’s targeted by an anonymous adversary who blackmails him into doing increasingly awful and illegal things. And if the lead-up is nauseating, the finale is a punch to the gut.
You know what’s not a good remedy for such a grotesque feeling? More of the same. An episode of “Master of None” or a similar comedy would be a much better palate cleanser.
It takes time to appreciate
The more you think about episodes of “Black Mirror,” the more profound they become. On the surface, an episode like “Nosedive” is a critique of our Instagrammed lives, where we’re always putting only our happiest face forward. The story is about a world where each person’s every move can be rated on a five-point scale, and everyone’s self-worth is entirely tied to his or her overall score. So an airport meltdown, for example, isn’t going to do anyone any good.
The episode gave viewers a lot to unpack. This society was terrifying in a way, but also sort of intriguing. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone acted a little kinder to each other — even if it was just a bid to get more points? But the episode was also a commentary on the way social media turns people into addicts, desperate for likes. It even delved into censorship. Because these citizens were terrified of offending one another, they were never truly free to speak their minds. The more you think about “Nosedive,” the more brilliant it becomes, but you have to give yourself the time and space to fully appreciate the intricacies.
There’s no reason to.
Since every episode is a self-contained story, there’s never a cliffhanger — at least not one that will be rectified by another episode. In some ways, the Netflix and Amazon model for series releases has turned show-watching into something like an extreme sport: How fast can a viewer plow through a season? But there’s no reason to rush with “Black Mirror.”
It’s not about the destination
We keep coming back to “Game of Thrones” because we want to know who’ll end up on the Iron Throne. We return to “The Americans” because we have to figure whether Elizabeth and Phillip will survive the Cold War without being outed. Most shows present us with one big mystery (plus a lot of smaller ones) to keep us invested. We’re always pointed toward some destination we’re getting closer to reaching.
But every episode of “Black Mirror” presents us with a fresh twist on our reality, a new troubling conundrum that will be solved by the time the credits roll. There’s no show that better proves why we should remain in the moment — and not just because the outcomes are often so distressing. The journey into all of these weird worlds is what’s most interesting; that’s why each episode gives us a new one.