Black Mirror: National Anthem & 15 Million Merits

A generally spoiler-free review of the first two episodes of Black Mirror, the three episode drama written by Charlie Brooker for Channel 4.

I’m always late to get on a cultural bandwagon, and Black Mirror has certainly got the twitterverse and blogosphere talking. Just searching ‘Black Mirror’ on wordpress gets 4 pages of blog reviews. And there’s a reason why so many people are talking about these episodes – because Brooker asks those questions that will always get people raging.

Like would you a) have sex with a pig in order to ensure the safety of a popular royal or b) watch the Prime Minister doing said act? It’s the kind of question my mates are always asking me down the pub. And that’s the question posed in the first episode, ‘National Anthem’.

‘National Anthem’ was like a car-crash. You had to rubber-neck and watch the whole of it, just to see where Brooker would go with it. And it wasn’t just a criticism of the public’s fascination with celebrity and media. Or was it?

‘Fifteen Million Merits’ had a different feel, and was not merely a criticism of TV talent shows, but also seemed like a critique of modern-day capitalist, materialist culture. Set in a kind of Orwellian 1984-land where people man exercise bikes to fuel the world, and spend their lives surrounded by screens and apps controlling and dominating their waking lives, it’s the story of Bing, one of these drones, who strikes up a friendship with Abi and urges her to use the merits he has built up to compete on ‘Hot Shots’, a TV talent show that is used to entertain the masses. The three judges include one played by Rupert Everett using a mysterious Australian accent.

Both episodes used lots of familiar British actors including Rory Kinnear, Julia Davis and Lindsay Duncan. I see that the ubiquitous Jodie Whittaker will be in the 3rd. Brooker also used two Downton Abbey alumni – the chauffeur was in ‘National Anthem’ and his lover, Lady Sybil, was Abi in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. These Downton people do get around.

So, yeah, one of the running themes of Brooker’s work here and in programmes like Newswipe is on the relationship between the public and the media. How the public will watch any old crap, and how the media will peddle it. He also talks a lot about the ‘unreality’ of so much that is peddled by the media, which then skewers our views about ‘reality’. That life is not like a tv programme, film or news bulletin.

And yet … Brooker is writing and producing a tv programme. That people are watching and discussing on the internet. They’re spending their times facing screens to converse with his output – something he bitterly criticises in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’. His wife, Kanak Huq, co-writer of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, has had a career based upon such ‘unrealities’ and so has he. And I think Brooker knows this and he tries not to be too much of a hypocrite. I mean as much as we loathe the materialism of today’s society, we’re all participating in it – we’re all loading up on presents this Christmas that are all just part of today’s fad; we all watch tv, films or read books that are removed from reality; we don’t spend enough time appreciating ‘real’ relationships and prefer spending time on virtual communication.

So thank you, Charlie Brooker, demi-god of the TV critic, for raising these questions and getting people to discuss them. It’s not going to start a revolution, by any means, and we’ll all probably have forgotten about Black Mirror in the New Year, but for now, in December 2011 I’ll try and get on the bandwagon and blog about it…

Recommended blogs:

Strange Days:

The One With the Audience:


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2 Responses to Black Mirror: National Anthem & 15 Million Merits

  1. Sam Flowers says:

    I appreciate the non-spoiler review – I watched National Anthem but Fifteen Million Merits is still waiting on my PVR for me!

    I enjoyed National Anthem and how the ending tied up with a certain well known often controversial annual prize (trying to make a spoiler-free comment to your spoiler-free review!). Though perhaps its point regarding the PM and a Pig (can’t believe I am writing that!) stretched credulity it still did remain sadly plausible too.

    And agree that Charlton Brooker’s relationship with the media – whether old or new media – is an ambivalent and troubled one. It is good though that there is someone so smart at the heart of it – even if it might yet eat him alive!

    • Oh yes, Charlie Brooker is very smart. He knows how to make great television and, though it’s dark, you can certainly imagine the events in National Anthem occurring. The only point, as I read elsewhere, is I don’t think *everyone* would be watching the tv for the whole hour (without spoiling anymore!). I’m looking forward to the third one.

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