New Black Mirror movies could be the perfect approach for a stale series

Everything’s been quiet for Charlie Brooker’s landmark tech-horror series Black Mirror since its truncated, three-episode fifth season hit Netflix in 2019. The series’ interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch briefly caused a sensation in 2018, but it’s been a long time since the show has had the impact or cachet it had back in the glory days of its beloved 2016 episodes “San Junipero” and “Nosedive,” much less the shock value it had when the series first premiered with the searing political satire “The National Anthem” in 2011.

Variety now reports that a sixth season of the show is underway at Netflix, which has been Black Mirror’s home since 2016. It also offers some insight on why season 6 was delayed — Brooker and creative partner Annabel Jones left their old production company, and it took some time for them to regain the rights that would let them pursue Black Mirror. The trade publication didn’t cite specific sources, but says a season 6 is currently in casting, that it will have more episodes than season 5, and that they’ll be longer, with each installment “treated as an individual film.”

That wording leaves plenty of room for hedging. Black Mirror episodes have always been “treated like” individual movies, with each one setting up a different world. Usually, episodes take place in a future featuring some new technology that’s an iteration on familiar tech from our time, like “Nosedive”’s society-wide ratings systems, or “Metalhead”’s killer hunter-robot, based on Boston Dynamic’s dog-bots. But if that quote represents a more literal approach, with longer episodes, it might be exactly what Black Mirror needs to stay relevant.

When the series first launched in 2011, it was considered wildly ambitious, given how extreme and well-crafted some of its grim future visions were. But no matter how unique and well-observed the individual episodes were, the show started to suffer from a sense of repetition, with each new installment finding the scare elements in some basic piece of technology. Writer Daniel Mallory Ortberg encapsulated criticism of the series into one devastating tweet: “What if phones, but too much?” (The account associated with that tweet is now gone, but he incorporated the thought into an equally dismissive piece for The Toast.)

With so many horror films copycatting Black Mirror’s specific tone and “Everything new will kill you somehow” approach to technology, individual Black Mirror episodes started to feel a little too stale and familiar to be frightening and jarring the way the best ones were. Brooker has since moved in a more positive direction — his most recent Netflix projects were the comedy special Death to 2020 and the goofy interactive trivia cartoon Cat Burglar. But if he is going back to Black Mirror, movie-length episodes might give him the time to get more mileage out of the world-building that’s always been the series’ strongest suit, and spend more time on the character-building, which is often its weakest.

The biggest issue with a lot of Black Mirror episodes is that they often take a Twilight Zone approach, relying on oppressive atmosphere and third-act twists. But a more character-focused approach, built around how actual people navigate Black Mirror problems, instead of putting all the focus on the problems themselves, could give the series new strength and life. Bandersnatch is innovative in the ways it used its choose-your-own-adventure options, but it also tells a more complete story (or series of stories, depending on how you “play” it) than most Black Mirror episodes, and it’s a possible model for the depth a Black Mirror story could take on.

Granted, that still leaves Brooker and his writers competing with the kinds of Black Mirror copycat movies that have proliferated since the series launched — Unfriended and its sequel, Spree, Hatching, and so forth. But there’s always still room to do the genre right, and a more expansive palette might help.

No launch date has yet been announced for Black Mirror season 6.

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