Who is America? Who cares?

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The most damning flaw of Who is America?, of course, is that it ultimately says very little; for a satire advertised as “the most dangerous show in history”, it lands few punches, and enjoys no meaningful success in its efforts to reveal some broader truth about the increasingly divided cultural identity of the United States.

Very few of the sketches are as trenchant or as incisive as Baron Cohen presumably thinks; most illustrate little more than people’s surprising willingness to remain polite in the face of exaggerated caricatures. These segments are awkward at best – the most obvious example being the dinner party in the first episode, where two Republican election agents and Trump supporters hosted Baron Cohen’s liberal caricature Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello as he told them about his wife’s affair with a dolphin – but at worst feel like genuine missed opportunities. When Baron Cohen interviewed former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders under the guise of Billy Wayne Ruddick, a right-wing commentator in the vein of an Infowars style conspiracy theorist, it amounted to little more than farce: ‘Ruddick’ asks Sanders why, if he “believes in equality“, he doesn’t “move the 99% into the 1%“, leaving the senator clearly baffled, but still making an attempt to humour Ruddick.

It’s difficult to work out what, exactly, this is supposed to say about the state of America – it’s not clear what questions are even being posed. Sanders is far from beyond reproach as a politician and a potential presidential hopeful for 2020, and it’s not hard to think of ways to criticise or question him through a character like Ruddick; Baron Cohen’s ‘Truthbrary’ correspondent could’ve supported Sanders’ record on gun control, perhaps, or thanked Sanders for the part he arguably played in getting Trump elected. Either would have offered potential for a more vigorous examination of Sanders’ place in the American zeitgeist; indeed, anything would’ve been an improvement over what actually took place.

There’s something more discomforting, though, about Baron Cohen’s non-political sketches – something that highlights not just a weakness to his satire, but a genuine moral failing. Consider his efforts, as fashion photographer Gio Monaldo, to convince reality TV star Corinne Olympios to claim she went to Sierra Leone to fight Ebola and stop a massacre; what was presumably intended to be cutting commentary on celebrity culture, portraying Olympios as vapid and vacuous, is ultimately much more damning of Baron Cohen himself. Setting aside the fact that Olympios’ later account of what happened makes it clear the sketch was essentially tantamount to entrapment, and ignoring the fact that the reality TV star Baron Cohen felt was so deserving of criticism is also the one perhaps most famous for being sexually assaulted on The Bachelor, the implication that Baron Cohen thinks Olympios is in any way morally equivalent to the likes of Jason Spencer says far more about him that it does her.

But then, of course, that was always the problem with Who is America? – it’s a programme without any perspective, reduced to making broad, sprawling criticisms that are little more than fumbling swipes because it isn’t working from a meaningfully defined moral position of its own. Of course it doesn’t say anything, of course this supposedly dangerous piece of satire doesn’t land any punches: it never could.

Even the most successful sketches have a certain nagging air of pointlessness to them. Yes, right wing politicians – and, indeed, right wing people – are willing to say some pretty shocking things with relatively little prompting. And? This is hardly revelatory, or even news exactly – or rather, it’s hardly revelatory because it is the news, day in, day out, and has been since Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. Undeniably, there’s something quite striking about a lot of Baron Cohen’s sketches, particularly those in character as Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror activist; even then, though, if you set aside the shock value, there’s something decidedly insubstantial about them.

Perhaps the most memorable sketch across the course of the series was the one that featured Jason Spencer, a Republican congressman from Georgia; ostensibly teaching Spencer how to protect himself from terrorists, Baron Cohen convinces the right-wing lawmaker to take upskirt photos, run around with his trousers down, and yell the N word. One of the more shocking moments of the series – Spencer took very, very little prompting – it’s also arguably the only sketch that had any real impact: shortly after the episode aired, Spencer resigned from congress.

It seems an impressive testament to the wider impact of Who is America? until you realise that Spencer was already a lame duck congressman, having been beaten in a primary some months earlier; his time left in office was already limited, and the significance of his resignation is ultimately very little. It’s not that Who is America? would’ve needed to prompt waves of resignations to have any meaning, but rather the fact is that, if shock value is all the show offers in a time when shocks amount to nothing, of course it’s going to be insubstantial.

What, though, is Who is America? actually trying to say? If its premise is that America is suffering from some moral rot on a wider cultural level, then what does the show highlight as the cause?

It’s worth looking at the programme’s title sequence, which is arguably the most telling aspect of the entire show when trying to divine what Who is America? is actually trying to say. A sweeping shot of sunlit uplands and a montage of iconic quotes from former presidents gives way to a dizzying series of intercut images: Trump mocking a disabled reporter, Charlottesville Nazis and Women’s march protestors, Hillary Clinton with Harvey Weinstein, and a great big question mark hanging over them all.

Here, in the contrast between the image of the America of old and “America today”, it becomes clear what Who is America? is trying to say, and why it ultimately says nothing at all. Of course Bernie Sanders isn’t held to account, of course Corinne Olympios and art expert Christy Cones are morally equivalent to Dick Cheney and Jason Spencer, of course there’s nothing to offer but shock value. Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t concerned with ethics, he’s concerned with aesthetics – the ultimate crime his victims have committed is simply looking foolish. That’s what sets America of the past, represented by Reagan, and America today, represented by Trump, apart from one another: appearances.

And so there’s only ever one answer to Baron Cohen’s central question, at least as it’s posed in Who is America?

Who cares?

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Did The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 go too far?

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Part of that question, though, is the acknowledgement that it works from something of a flawed premise: what does it even mean for The Handmaid’s Tale to “go too far”? As Margaret Atwood once noted of the now nearly thirty year old novel, there’s “nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere”, and it’s not like that isn’t still essentially true of the television adaptation; not long after a flashback saw Alexis Bledel’s Emily lose her job as a teacher because she was gay, something similar took place in Texas – more obviously, though, there’s the extended consideration of familial separation, and children taken away from their parents. If the point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that every patriarchy is its own Gilead in its own way, that people do already live there in some sense or another, to turn around and argue that the show is “going too far” is misguided at best and deeply condescending at worst, tantamount to telling someone to just shut up and stop complaining.

Yet there’s another aspect to the question, a point to elaborate on further: does The Handmaid’s Tale go too far to still be entertainment? There’s something increasingly uncomfortable about the act of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and the way it invites audiences to watch a programme that is increasingly reliant upon the shock value of patriarchal violence. It’s difficult to unpack this, because it’s not exactly the only thing The Handmaid’s Tale does – there are fantastic performances, the standout this year being Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, and some excellent direction and cinematography (to highlight a particular detail, The Handmaid’s Tale films light in a really interesting way). At the same time, considering what these performances and this direction goes towards creating, there’s something a little off about actually watching The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s not exactly that audiences become complicit, but there’s something discomforting about how the show presents its drama as something that is, on some level, meant to be entertaining.

So, something I was thinking about – quite often, actually – while watching The Handmaid’s Tale this year was whether or not it was going “too far”.

It’s obviously a fairly… limited, I suppose, comment to make about a show like this, because what does “too far” even mean? I’m not sure I did an especially good job of articulating entirely what I meant about the tone of the show this year – all the ways in which it felt different to the first season – but I’m mostly pleased with how the article turned out in the end. Indeed, it’s the sort of piece that makes me wish I was a little better at actually sharing the work I’ve done, because I imagine this is one that would’ve prompted some interesting discussions.

Probably I’m still going to watch series 3; if nothing else, I’m interested in how it’s going to continue from that cliffhanger, although I’m not actually entirely sure it was a good creative choice. I do, however, really doubt that series 2 is going to make my end of year best list – a surprise, given how highly series 1 ranked for me.

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Flowers, a quiet comedy with the feel of a melancholy fairytale, is strikingly brilliant

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The second series of Flowers, a piece which is very much in conversation with its predecessor, continues to evoke the feel of a fairytale – approaching it, however, from a different aesthetic. As writer and director Will Sharpe (who also plays Shun, the Flowers’ live-in illustrator) noted, Flowers draws on “a pagan and mystical heritage”, and that’s something the second series really emphasises. Broader in scope than series 1, moving its focus from Maurice to his daughter Amy, Flowers series 2 builds itself around the aesthetic of the aforementioned “pagan and mystical heritage”. There’s a new, warmer colour palette, in keeping with the summer setting; it’s evocative of the world of faerie, positioning mental health issues within that liminal space.

As a result, there’s a different energy to Flowers’ second series – it’s now less a haunting reverie and more of a wild rush. Indeed, something that’s worth remarking on about Flowers, and is perhaps less often spoken about, is the editing; much of Flowers comes down to the experience of watching it, the feeling of that wild rush, and that’s created in no small part by Selina Macarthur’s editing. The show masters tone such that it is, in some respects, less a television series and more of an experience –  the texture and the feel of the show is, arguably, one of the most impactful things about it.

This one, admittedly, I think I messed up.

So, I was running late with this piece, for various boring reasons we’ll call “personal problems” (in that they pertain to problems with me as a person) which put me under some time constraints when it came to actually writing it. You can perhaps tell, I think, because the second half of the article (typically the close focus/second idea aspect, insofar as I ever stick to the relatively loose structure I try and use) is a broader, more general “things that are good about the show” section, which is usually though not always a sign that I’ve struggled to get the piece to work. Possibly I shouldn’t have revealed the trick. Whoops.

Anyway, a day or two later, with some more though, I realised what I would have liked to write for the second half of the article, because it (hopefully) would have actually advanced all those ideas about fairytales and pagan mysticism I put forward in the first half. Essentially, the character Shun is kind of at a remove from the rest of the characters, right? On a couple of levels, really; there’s just the fact that the character is at a bit of a loose end sometimes, not a member of the family, whatever, but there’s also the metatextual level – Shun is played by Will Sharpe, who created it and writes it and directs it. He’s more of an observer for a lot of it, and we also know he’s the creator.

Also notable, though: Shun is the only one who ever interacts with these magical realism elements. He has that moment with his family (is that significant because of like, forests and the dead in both English and Japanese culture?) at the end of s1, and – eliding spoilers – s2 has an ending similarly shaped around Shun. Well, similar in that he’s important. Anyway, what does that say about the show?

Not a clue, but I felt like I’d stumbled onto something really important but didn’t have the time to actually let it develop into anything. That felt like a particular shame, because I really loved Flowers, and it’s always a bit of a point of personal disappointment when it feels like I’ve not done a show justice with my writing. Ah well. One to revisit one day, maybe.

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How The Good Fight found clarity in chaos, and answers in absurdity

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The Good Fight’s title sequence is instructive. Set to a frantic score by David Buckley, it marries ordered elegance with violent disruption; a vase of flowers, phones, a gavel and so on all explode, their pieces scattered. A vibrant red claret from a shattering wine glass fills the screen, and dust and ash float across a dark background.

What it is, in effect, is a means to set the stage. It establishes chaos as the status quo. And then it begs the question: what next?

Where last year The Good Fight heralded a need to fight, it now turns to a different question: how can you fight? Again, the title sequence is instructive, having been fine tuned since last year; the television screens, added to the explosive line-up this season, juxtapose the absurdity of Putin’s overly macho image with the chilling horror of Charlottesville marchers. It’s a world where the awful and the absurd are so often the same; it’s a world ripped from the headlines, after all. As Diane Lockhart (The Good Fight’s inimitable lead, Christine Baranski) notes, “I used to laugh at the absurdity of the news. Now I’m all laughed out”.

I love love love The Good FightIt’s one of my favourite shows of the past two years; ahead of writing this article I spent a whole day rewatching episodes of season 2 and, while I normally hate binge-watching television, it was genuinely the most fun I’d had in ages.

The ending of this piece is perhaps a little weak; I think there’s a thread of connective tissue that I didn’t quite get right, which hampers that conclusion a little. A few days later I worked out how to fix it, though… and then promptly forget it, which is irritating.

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Why wasn’t Electric Dreams as popular as Black Mirror?

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In almost every respect, Electric Dreams seems poised as a response to Black Mirror. There are surface similarities, obviously – both are high concept science fiction anthology programmes, after all – but it’s more illustrative to look at who was behind Electric Dreams; when you consider that it was co-produced by Amazon and Channel 4, the intent becomes obvious. Both had reason to want a drama similar to Black Mirror – Amazon to compete with Netflix, and Channel 4, as the latter programme’s original home before it was moved to Netflix, as a replacement.

In the lead up to Electric Dreams’ release, it seemed more than likely that the series would see equivalent success to Black Mirror. And yet, ultimately, Electric Dreams failed to replicate the success of Black Mirror. Which begs the question: why?

I was generally pretty fond of Electric Dreams, if admittedly frustrated by a lot of it. Across the ten episodes of its first season, there were some genuinely quite impressive hours of television; I think if I were inclined to isolate one particular flaw above all others, though, it’d be that sometimes Electric Dreams felt a little scared of subtlety and ambiguity. There were a couple of different episodes where the conclusion of the episode went to great lengths to explain things as much as possible, often unnecessarily, and sometimes to the detriment of the piece as a whole.

Still, though, there was a lot to like from Electric Dreams – it assembled some really quite impressive creative talents, arguably functioning better as an anthology series in that regard than Black Mirror. And yet Black Mirror still remained the more popular series, with Electric Dreams seemingly struggling to make much of an impact. This article, then, was an attempt to get to grips with that.

As an article, it’s probably not as analytical as it should be, nor evidence-based enough – really, what I needed was a lot of statistics and viewer data, and probably quotes from lots of different reviewers, AI numbers, that sort of thing. I did not have that. What it ended up as, then, was some speculation as to why Electric Dreams didn’t quite work in the UK. Even then, mind you, I might not have been correct in that speculation – just typing this up now it occurred to me that Electric Dreams might have been “too sci-fi” in a way that Black Mirror isn’t, for lack of a better way of putting it. So who knows really.

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Kiri was an engaging drama that raised a lot of questions, but offered few answers

Thematically, however, the series was weak; it gestured at larger ideas, broaching the topics of race and the role of the media, but was constrained in its interrogation of these ideas. Such concepts are a recurring thread across Kiri, but they’re generally left unexamined – a background presence, rather than the focus of any particularly sharp or incisive commentary. Writer Jack Thorne spoke about how he wanted the drama to “pose questions” rather than answer them necessarily, noting that he “always likes things where [he doesn’t] know the answer”. There’s a value to this, of course – and, indeed, a sense to it. Many of the ideas Kiri touches on are complex, lacking easy answers, yet there’s a feeling as well that the series just doesn’t entirely try to get to grips with them. Much of the complexity and nuance surrounding these concepts is acknowledged, but unexplored; there’s a lack of any real scrutiny to Kiri.

I liked Kiri, but also I kinda didn’t. Nuance! I’m not sure I got this article quite right, admittedly, but also I kinda did. More nuance!

Tell you what is odd, though – this was on Hulu in America, and went out under the National Treasure title, which was the title of one of Jack Thorne’s shows the year before. The two were pretty much unrelated, as far as I know, so that was an odd matchup.

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Analysing The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 trailer and news

the handmaid's tale season 2 trailer elisabeth moss channel 4 hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the best new dramas of 2017; an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, it managed to be one of those rare few adaptations that in fact improved upon its source material.

It’s returning for a second season in 2018, which will be released on April 25th. Today, at the Television Critics Association press tour in California, showrunner Bruce Miller, executive producer Warren Littlefield and star Elisabeth Moss revealed some additional details about the upcoming second season.

In hindsight, I should have called this “analysing what we know about The Handmaid’s Tale season 2″. The current title is much too wordy.

Anyway, this is presented mostly for posterity now – subsequent news has mostly revealed that my theories, particularly about Marisa Tomei’s character, weren’t quite right.

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Some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017

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One of the things that always stands out to me about year-end ‘best of’ lists is that there are usually quite a few shows that, for whatever reason, I never got the chance to see. What’s nice about that, of course, is that those lists become a set of recommendations for me to work through for the next few months.

But it did get me thinking, though – how about a list specifically to that end? Here are the shows, then, that you might have missed; ones that flew under the radar a little bit, either because of the channel they were on, the language they’re in, or the time of year they came out.

It’s obviously an incomplete list – how could it not be? – but here’s some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017…

The State

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The State took on a controversial and difficult subject matter in a sensitive way – but more than that, it did it at exactly the right time too. A nuanced and considered look at how people are radicalised, it was a compelling drama that drew on extensive research of real-life cases. Intense and emotional, The State explored nuanced storytelling in place of simplistic thinking – always willing to challenge audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, this was a stark and powerful drama.

Clique

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The first episode of Clique was a particularly tense and taut hour of television, crafted with a real precision; it was one of the most effective pieces of drama BBC Three produced in a long time. With an unrelenting intensity, gradually probing the darker aspects of the world it put forward, Clique was an effortlessly self-assured piece of television. Certainly, it’s the sort of programme that might be easy to dismiss at face value; yet another teen drama without a huge amount to offer on its own terms. But to think of it that way it to do a real disservice to the intricate, nuanced work that was going on beneath the surface – there’s a real feeling, watching Clique, that it exists in a world that goes above and beyond the young adult drama you’ve seen before.

Ronny Chieng: International Student

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It’d be easy to miss this one – a BBC Three acquisition that was only broadcast on BBC One very late at night – but it’d be a real shame if you did. Ronny Chieng: International Student has a certain charm that you could liken to Community, perhaps, but it’s very much its own show. Witty and inventive, this series draws on the real-life university experiences of its star Ronny Chieng – the perfect straight man for his increasingly absurd surroundings. In a year with a lot of great new comedies, this is the sort of show that might not get the attention it deserves – but it is genuinely, properly funny.

Snowfall

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Part of what I like about Snowfall is that it’s slow. Not in terms of pacing, not exactly; rather, it takes a measured approach, one that really lets it dwell on the period and pay close attention to detail. In that sense, Snowfall stands out because of how well it’s able to evoke a feel for the crack epidemic in 1983 Los Angeles. It’s the perfect backdrop for a cast of characters making increasingly compromised decisions – with newcomer Damson Idris giving a standout performance, Snowfall is definitely a drama that’s worth a look.

Babylon Berlin

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Babylon Berlin is absolutely mesmerising. I said as much in my review of the show’s first season, but it really does bear repeating. The most expensive piece of television Germany has ever produced, every penny that went into Babylon Berlin translates to the screen – it’s a gorgeous drama, perfectly evoking the aesthetic of the 1920s. It’s also home of one of the best television moments of 2017 full stop – the almost trance-like conclusion to the second episode is breathtaking, exuding confidence and inspiring awe.

Ill Behaviour

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Ill Behaviour took an absurd premise, but elevated it into something more – a dark comedy that was also a genuinely affecting drama. With a wit as quick as it was dark, this wasn’t just gallows humour; it’s a programme about repression, denial, and the lengths people go to in extreme situations. As ever, it’s a show that works because of its characters – self-destructive and neurotic, and perfectly pitched by the cast, each have a real and meaningful character arc. Ill Behaviour is packed with laughs, but it also leaves a lasting impact long after the credits roll.

The End of the F***ing World

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One of my personal favourite programmes of the year – I know that’s true of a lot of the shows on this list, but it’s particularly true of this. The End of the F***ing World is an elegant character study, focused on two isolated teenagers who live in liminal spaces; it lends its two leads, James and Alyssa, a real interiority, serving to emphasise the poignancy – and in some ways the tragedy – of the journey they undertake. Of course, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, who really do make the series; an absolutely magnetic pairing, they’re fantastic actors who really embody the facades, neuroses and vulnerabilities of their characters.

Even then, of course, there are a lot of shows I’ve missed off this list that, if it could go on forever, I’d have loved to include – Guerilla, Overshadowed, or King Charles III, to name just a few. And that’s without mentioning all the excellent shows that, for one reason or another, I didn’t get the chance to see – shows like Three Girls, The Replacement or Bancroft.

If nothing else, that was one good thing about 2017 – there was a lot of really fantastic television.

Note: This was meant to be a Yahoo article which, for boring technical reasons I can’t work out, doesn’t actually display on the website anywhere – so I’ve put it here instead. Looking back on some of my choices, there’s a couple I probably would’ve changed – the fact that both The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin took off massively in early 2018 because they turned up on American Netflix was validating, but does make me wish I’d taken the chance to stump for Overshadowed, which I really do love.

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Why you should watch Channel 4’s The End of the F***ing World

the end of the fucking world alex lawther jessica barden charlie covell jonathan entwhistle lucy tcherniak review netflix channel 4

A confident, even elegant piece of television from writer Charlie Covell, The End of the F***ing World must first and foremost be celebrated for its characters. Focused on two isolated teenagers who have always lived their lives in liminal spaces, the series functions as a nuanced character study; use of cleverly constructed cutscenes and some of the best voiceover sequences since The Handmaid’s Tale lend James and Alyssa a real, and rare, sense of interiority. It creates a certain intimacy with self-diagnosed psychopath James and the intense Alyssa, one that serves to emphasise the poignancy – and in some ways the tragedy – of the journey they undertake.

I absolutely loved this show, though admittedly in hindsight this article is perhaps a little too slight to convey just how good it is.

If you liked this article – or if you didn’t like the article, but you did like the show – you might also be interested in my interview with the wonderful Alex Lawther. I’d quite like to interview the presumably similarly wonderful Jessica Barden, if anyone who can arrange that happens to be reading this.

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Ranking the episodes of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams, adapted from Philip K Dick’s short stories, was an anthology series offering a new take on a different science fiction concept each week. Tonight saw its sixth episode, concluding the series’ 2017 run – a further four episodes are scheduled for early next year. As with any anthology series, Electric Dreams had its highs and lows; here, then, is a ranking of each of the series’ six offerings so far.

Worth noting this is my ranking of the first 6 episodes of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, as they were broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK – The Hood Maker, Impossible Planet, The Commuter, Crazy Diamond, Real Life and Human Is, respectively. Though not in that order, obviously.

In short, I wanted to love them, but often found I didn’t. Generally, I found that the latter four of the Channel 4 broadcast were actually better than the initial six, though I’ve never really written about any of them. I’d like to go more in-depth on them at some point, though – one possible, far off project I’d like to take a crack at would be a series of detailed essays on Black Mirror and Electric Dreams.

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