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.