'Black Mirror' returns solid, with some cracks

Rating "Black Mirror" against its own creative resume, the latest batch of a half-dozen installments -- which Netflix...

Posted: Dec. 27, 2017 11:16 PM
Updated: Dec. 27, 2017 11:16 PM

Rating "Black Mirror" against its own creative resume, the latest batch of a half-dozen installments -- which Netflix will drop right before New Year's -- offers more of a mixed bag than usual, with two or three standouts and the rest conceptually interesting but rather ho-hum affairs.

Like any anthology series, "Black Mirror" is only as good as the episode you're watching, although the batting average for writer-producer Charlie Brooker's "Twilight Zone"-like series -- which focuses on the impact of technology and always seems to be about 15 minutes in the future -- has been admirably high.

"Black Museum," an extra-long edition, is the best of the newcomers, feeling like quintessential "Black Mirror," as well as an homage to "Tales From the Crypt." In it, a woman stumbles upon a crime museum whose creepy curator offers a trio of cautionary tales about technology gone wrong. That includes a comatose woman having her consciousness implanted within her husband, ostensibly a way for them to be together that, not surprisingly, yields unintended consequences.

The other standout, "Hang the DJ," is a love story filtered through a twisted prism of online dating, as two people go through the process of being paired up by computer modules. It's the logical extension of where a world of Tinder and digitally mediated courtship might eventually lead.

The two showiest episodes, meanwhile, both founder a bit in the execution: "Arkangel," directed by Jodie Foster and starring Rosemarie DeWitt, features a woman using a surveillance device to keep tabs on her young daughter, which, again, takes unexpected turns as the child grows up; and "USS Callister," an unabashed "Star Trek" spoof, only here, with a virtual-reality designer ("Breaking Bad's" Jesse Plemons) who escapes into a fantasy world of his own creation with a very colorful "Trek"-esque vibe.

The remaining chapters, "Metalhead," a tense, near-silent action piece, shot in black and white; and "Crocodile," where events are set in motion by a hit-and-run driving incident, are each provocative, but feel like lesser lights -- more "One Step Beyond" than the show's more famous Rod Serling-created inspiration.

All told, it's plenty binge-able, although there's nothing here that reaches the heights of the best "Black Mirror" has to offer, including the recent Emmy winner "San Junipero" or the signature "The National Anthem," which involved a kidnapper making a sordid blackmail demand of the British Prime Minister.

Those two episodes demonstrate the shows range from light to darkness, from hopefulness to bleakness. On that scale, these latest additions tilt toward the latter, which, inadvertently or not, feels like a sign of the times.

To his credit, Brooker (who again wrote all the episodes, one with a collaborator) continues to experiment with the format, capitalizing on the latitude that the show's success has afforded him.

In crass commercial terms, Netflix was extremely smart to acquire the program, a franchise with the sort of devoted following that every subscription service needs.

In that regard, "Black Mirror" is an apt symbol of TV's present, as well as a thoughtful rumination on society through the unsettling lens of what's yet to come.

"Black Mirror" premieres Dec. 29 on Netflix.

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