Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
Last year, before we were all so exhausted by the degradations of the U.S. presidential race that we no longer had the capacity to feel outrage, a small vortex of scandal swirled around the announcement of a new app called Peeple. Billed as “Yelp for people,” Peeple gave users the capacity to rank any person around them on a star system. “Where once you may have viewed a date or a teacher conference as a private encounter, Peeple transforms it into a radically public performance,” The Washington Post wrote. “Everything you do can be judged, publicized, recorded.”
The judgment from people on Peeple was swift and excoriating, with many commentators being quick to see the dystopian possibilities of an app that grades you as a person without your consent. Peeple’s ambitions were pared back, and it eventually launched without much fanfare earlier this year. But its founding spirit lives on, in most disturbing fashion, in “Nosedive,” the first episode of the new series of Black Mirror. This is apt, of course. In the two years since new episodes of the British anthology show were released, many of the scenarios it imagined have since come to pass, including an obnoxious, priapic TV character who runs for political office on the platform of shaking up a corrupt system; a chatbot that mimics deceased relatives; and (most absurdly) a sex scandal involving the British prime minister and a pig.
Black Mirror, a British speculative anthology series created by Charlie Brooker in 2011, considers the murky relationship between humans and technology, the latter of which often threatens to progress so quickly that our ethical frameworks don’t have the chance to catch up. Brooker has said that the show’s name refers to “the cold, shiny screens” of the devices we’re so attached to, but it also seems to offer a message that technology reflects the darkest elements of humanity right back at us. Some episodes are set in vividly imaginative future worlds; the most disturbing ones, though, are set in the present, and shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the ways in which we’re already living.
In that sense, “Nosedive” is both dystopian fiction and acute social satire. Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in a version of America where every tiny interaction is ranked by the people involved on an app that syncs with augmented-reality contact lenses (or retinal implants, it’s unclear). The minute you see someone you can also see their ranking, meaning that reality has morphed into a pastel-colored nightmare of aggressive cheeriness, as citizens attempt to out-nice each other and bump up their ratings.
The episode, written by Brooker with Michael Schur (the writer/producer behind Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and the actress Rashida Jones, aims squarely at the anxiety stoked by a modern obsession with quantification. For anyone who’s ever made conversation with an Uber driver specifically to upgrade a passenger rating, or wondered why a tweet isn’t getting more likes, or even checked a credit score, “Nosedive” surely radiates shivers of anxiety. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), it’s set in a Truman Show-style universe that seems designed explicitly for Instagram. Men and women wear perfectly mismatched shades of salmon and teal, flowering plants creep over every surface, and even the cookies have smiley faces on them.
Lacie, whose average rating is a solid but not spectacular 4.2/4.3, spends almost all of her time practicing happy faces in the mirror, composing adorable photos for her timeline, and brandishing goodwill at people in the service industry, rating them five stars and then visibly crumpling in relief when they rate her back. When she goes to check out her fiendishly expensive dream home, a realtor informs her that there’s a program that takes 20 percent off the rent if she can get her rating above a 4.5. Then, out of nowhere, an old friend from middle school who’s become a social-media star (Alice Eve) asks Lacie to be the maid of honor at her upcoming wedding, teasing the fact that there will be dozens of “prime influencers” there who can rate her speech and boost her ranking.
The title of the episode is a conclusive giveaway that all doesn’t go according to plan. Lacie’s brother (James Norton), a snarky kid who hates how fake she’s become, gives her 1 star after an argument, as does a cab driver whom she keeps waiting. When her rating drops below 4.2, and her flight to the wedding is canceled, an airline representative can no longer book her on another flight because her number is too low. It’s at this point that “Nosedive” truly descends into nightmarish territory, but it does so without scares, or psychological horror. Rather, it’s the recognizable parts of Lacie’s story that sting: feeling excluded, feeling disliked, feeling downgraded and categorized as a second-class citizen.
The lush, calming visuals of “Nosedive” clash nicely with the mounting anxiety, and Howard’s performance is terrific—she conveys Lacie’s inner frustration while grinning cheerfully through it. But the episode loses some of its power once Lacie’s slide begins. For one thing, it’s about 15 minutes too long, which sets an ominous precedent for the rest of the season. When it first aired on U.K. television Black Mirror’s episodes were around 42 minutes, but in season three they tend to run around an hour. David, you’ve written about Netflix’s pacing problems, and “Nosedive” seemed like a distinct case of something that could have used an editor to sharpen it up. Once the world building is established in the first half of the episode, the pace becomes ponderous; in the second half, in which Lacie suffers humiliation after humiliation, it’s almost torturous to watch.
The idea that a society where everyone is forced to be pleasant and agreeable all the time becomes a nightmare underpins Lois Lowry’s The Giver, where “sameness” gets rid of emotional and physical pain but also eradicates individualism and free will. So the parts of “Nosedive” where Lacie learns to embrace being honest (thanks to the assistance of a grizzled truck driver ex machina played by Cherry Jones) felt far more predictable than the scenes that imagine how future societies could punish people simply for being unpleasant. Lacie’s coworker, blacklisted by colleagues after a breakup, can’t physically enter his office after his rating drops below 3.5. After screaming at an airline employee and using profanity, Lacie gets a whole point docked from her score and is put on “double damage,” where any negative ratings she gets are magnified. As with so many Black Mirror episodes, the horror lies in imagining all too clearly how such a situation might feel.
The ending, which sees Lacie robbed of her phone and arrested, trading insults happily with a fellow prisoner across the hall, felt too cute to me, although it was more of an optimistic conclusion than Black Mirror usually delivers. But I loved the visuals of “Nosedive,” and the jarring sense of hyperreality, and Howard’s performance. David, how did it rate compared to “Playtest”? More importantly, how many stars would you give it?
Read David Sims’s review of the next episode, “Playtest.”