What I’m finding about this – now that I’m writing a lot more pre-air reviews, often with shows I’ve not watched all the way through or had to finish quite quickly – is that… well, it’s just a fundamentally different thing, I suppose. Especially when you’re under embargo and have to follow certain spoiler stipulations and so on. Different task! Adjusting to that still.
Today, something a little bit different. For the tenth anniversary of Black Mirror’s first episode, I’ve dug this out of the archive and dusted it off a bit – it wasn’t written for this website originally, as will probably quickly become clear, but I think it still stands up reasonably well.
If there is one thing that defines Black Mirror, it is clarity of vision. The series – loosely a speculative fiction anthology, though originally commissioned by Channel 4’s comedy department – is the brainchild of screenwriter, satirist, and former journalist Charlie Brooker, who, as showrunner, is involved in every aspect of making Black Mirror. Notions of auteurism can, of course, serve to obscure the contributions of Brooker’s collaborators: most obviously Annabel Jones, who has executive produced every episode of the series alongside Brooker, but also occasional co-writer William Bridges, the director of each given episode (particularly after Black Mirror moved to Netflix, and higher-profile creatives began to work on the series), and so on and so forth. Indeed, Brooker himself has been dismissive of the idea that Black Mirror can be understood as his work alone, charging viewers to “never trust anyone” who “discusses a film or TV show as though it’s the work of one individual”, describing each instalment as “the product of months of heavy lifting by literally hundreds of people” (Brooker, 2017, p. 12).
Nonetheless, it is difficult to reduce the show from Brooker’s perspective, and his particular creative vision: though the realisation of his ideas is the work of a dedicated production team, the starting point is always, per Annabel Jones, Brooker “writing all of the scripts and [coming] up with all of the ideas” (Strause, 2017). Of course, Black Mirror is something of an idiosyncratic production, and the specifics of its development illustrate how Brooker came to be an unusually influential showrunner. Up until relatively recently, the ‘showrunner’ role was a largely American affect: the term was first coined by industry magazine Variety to refer to one particularly influential producer (Hong, 2011); it was later understood primarily in terms of Davids Chase, Milch, and Simon, three contemporaries of one another at HBO in the late 90s and early 2000s (Gilbert, 2014); the role was strengthened following strike action by the Writers Guild of America in 2007 (Collins, 2007). Across the past decade, a similar position of near-ultimate authority has been carved out in British television (Royal Television Society, 2015), with Brooker’s role on Black Mirror arguably an early antecedent of that. Even before Black Mirror’s move to Netflix (an ostensibly-international-but-functionally-American platform, much of its programming the domain of influential showrunners), Brooker was acting in such a capacity, largely because of the anthology’s comedy roots. “There’s a culturally different approach in drama, compared to comedy,” explained Shane Allen, the former Channel 4 executive who first commissioned Black Mirror. “In comedy, the writer is king or queen and is usually the creative centre of gravity […] Charlie and Annabel have always been showrunners in the US sense rather than the UK series-producer sense, in that they are the key creative influence on the show” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 17).
Black Mirror, in short, always afforded its creators a somewhat unusual (for British television, at least) degree of freedom to express their artistic vision; it is a product of and articulates Charlie Brooker’s worldview first and foremost. This is what lends the series that aforementioned clarity – “what Black Mirror is” feels, if not sharply defined (a key part of the series is its unpredictability, after all), then at least easy to characterise. It is a series about the digital age, and the underlying tensions and anxieties that animate it; as Angela M. Cirucci and Barry Vacker (2020, p. ix) argue, “Black Mirror expresses the philosophical angst and technological fears for millennials in the twenty-first century”. That is not to say Black Mirror is a show about technology, exactly. One oft-repeated joke about/criticism of Black Mirror, widespread to the point Brooker acknowledged it (Strause, 2019), summarises the series as “what if phones, but too much?” (Lavery, 2015). The joke is funny, if imprecise, obscuring the aims of the series somewhat; certainly, Brooker refutes the idea that Black Mirror is “a show warning about the dangers of technology”, suggesting such a reading is “like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a movie warning about the dangers of silverware” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 321). Instead, Black Mirror is not so much about the excesses of technology, but rather how such developments might expose and exacerbate underlying flaws in the human condition. Put another way, Black Mirror does not try to predict the car; rather, it aspires to be about the traffic jam.
Such aims are easily contextualised, situating Black Mirror within a lengthy tradition of speculative fiction. The most obvious antecedent for the series – and, per Brooker (2011), an explicit influence – was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, an anthology drama broadcast in America from 1959 to 1964. Serling, a dramatist whose television career began in 1955, was “a liberal whose moral convictions influenced the tales he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell them” (Murray, 2016, p. 97), but often faced interference from television’s corporate financiers. On one occasion, Serling wrote a script that alluded to the lynching of Emmett Till; “at the behest of the sponsor […] all references to racism in the South were generally expunged”, leaving Serling with the sense he was “striking out at a social evil with a feather duster” (Murray, 2016, p. 96). He later remarked that “drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state” in the American South (Murray, 2016, p. 96). His solution was The Twilight Zone, where his more controversial themes were shrouded in a cloak of ambiguity and metaphor: use of allegory and science fiction liberated Serling from corporate and network interference, allowing him to articulate striking political and moral ideas about McCarthyism, nuclear proliferation, racism, capitalism, and more that he otherwise would have been prevented from writing. “A Martian,” as Serling observed, “can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.” (Murray, 2016, p. 97).
When developing Black Mirror, Brooker and Jones explicitly positioned their series within the same mould as Serling’s: one pitch document read “just as The Twilight Zone would talk about McCarthyism, we’re going to talk about Apple” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 17). Critics have drawn parallels between the two series, arguing that both “confront the existential conditions of modern technological civilisation” (Cirucci & Vacker, 2020, p. vii), and noting that “episodes of The Twilight Zone are as intimately connected to the Cold War as Black Mirror is to the first decades of the twenty-first century” (McSweeney & Joy, 2019, p. 3). Though Brooker and Jones did not face the same overt censorship as Serling (who, in another similarity, is often understood as essentially being one of television’s earliest showrunners (Gilbert, 2014)), their efforts to channel the zeitgeist and dramatise the fears of the day are done under the same guise: Black Mirror deploys the same allegorical techniques to represent “where not just the worst tendencies of our society will or might take us, but where the dominant tendencies already have taken us” (Sculos, 2017, p. 6). As a result, then, Black Mirror is a lens to understand digital society and culture because that is explicitly how it positions itself. If the production can be characterised by the clarity of Brooker’s vision, it matters where he sets his sights: the digital monsters of an analogue world that is dying and an electronic world that struggles to be born.
Various themes recur across Black Mirror: surveillance culture (The Entire History of You, White Bear); artificial intelligence (Be Right Back, White Christmas); virtual reality (San Junipero, USS Callister); Big Data and algorithms (Smithereens, Hang the DJ); so on and so forth. However, it is not strictly accurate to say that Black Mirror articulates these themes through “the lens of tomorrow” (Cirucci & Vacker, 2020, p. 12). Again, the series must be understood as an expression of Charlie Brooker’s vision first and foremost: this is not a neutral depiction of digital culture, but one filtered through the perspective of a particular individual. (What else would a black mirror reflect but its creator?) That aforementioned clarity of vision seems less like a virtue, and more like a fundamental limitation – everything that makes Black Mirror discerning can also make it myopic.
Certainly, that Brooker self-describes as “not very political most of the time” is revealing, albeit perhaps not in the way it was intended (Brooker, 2016). This bleeds into Black Mirror, which has been criticised for taking an “irksomely non-materialist” (Sandifer, 2015) perspective in its approach to digital culture – for example, Gerry Canavan (2019, p. 260) suggested that the fourth season episode Black Museum displayed a “shocking […] level of optimism about the possibilities for liberal reformism to successfully manage the challenge of emerging” technologies. Canavan considered this unusual for the series, but his is far from the only criticism of Black Mirror’s liberalism; indeed, others have gone further, highlighting not just an individual episode but damning the entire series as “shambling around like the liberal consensus is going to save us from itself” (Sandifer, 2015).
What is particularly striking, though, is the journey Booker has taken in the years since Black Mirror’s debut in 2011. It is helpful here to contextualise Black Mirror within Brooker’s wider satirical and comedic career here – as noted earlier, Black Mirror was first commissioned as a dark comedy, and structurally often still resembles a comedy. (Donavan Conley and Benjamin Burroughs (2019, pp. 139-140) wrote extensively about Black Mirror’s signature “narrative bait-and-switch” technique, which they dubbed a “traumatic twist” apparently without realising they were in effect describing a punchline.) As a satirist, Brooker positioned himself as “an angry outsider” (Jacques, 2020), though the contradiction between the exasperated iconoclast and his mainstream broadcast slot was always lurking in subtext. Even James Brassett – who mounted a committed if unconvincing defence of Brooker’s supposed capacity for radicalism without noticing any incongruity between that and his “place within the acceptable mainstream of British society: BBC programmes [and] Guardian columns” (Brassett, 2016, p. 169) – was forced to concede that Brooker was not an outsider by any stretch. A white, middle-class centrist, Brooker’s work failed to escape “class and racial hierarchies”, and he himself occupied “an increasingly privileged position within (mediatised) British society” the more successful he became (Brassett, 2016, p. 187).
The most obvious marker of this success is Black Mirror’s move to Netflix. While broadcast rights were initially with Channel 4, negotiations broke down with the publicly owned network ahead of the third season of Black Mirror; the streaming service Netflix, who held the international rights to the series, made a bid to fund production of a subsequent two seasons upfront. The angry outsider is now, plainly, an insider, and the changes in his output can be easily observed. Consider Smithereens, part of Black Mirror’s third season on Netflix, which is conspicuous for its remarkably credulous depiction of the type of person Brooker (2014) once condemned as “evil” and “sinister”. Smithereens suggests the problem with tech CEO Billy Bauer is that his product is too addictive, exposing the limits of Brooker’s increasingly apolitical, non-materialist approach; Bauer’s real-life counterpart, Jack Dorsey, is more often criticised for his wilful negligence in allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to use his platform Twitter freely and without censor (Levin, 2019).
Moving to Netflix does not just represent diegetic narrative changes, however; it has also shifted Black Mirror’s vantage point, the series now no longer a lens to understand digital culture but in fact a piece of digital culture, as illustrated by the 2018 interactive special Bandersnatch. Much of the writing about Bandersnatch focuses on its thematic content, what it says about free will, surveillance, and simulationism – each an interesting line of thought in their own right, albeit ones that obscure the real significance of Bandersnatch. Netflix, Jesse Damiani (2019) argues, “has been a data company longer than it has been a content producer” – and Bandersnatch represents both an evolution and an escalation of that practice. Even “seemingly inconsequential” choices offer Netflix “valuable advertising insight” – the interactive film is “a new form of data mining that has the capability of […] collecting data indicative of real-time decisions, such as musical taste, product preference, and engagement with human behaviour” (Elnahla, 2020, pp. 508-509). Little transparency is offered by Netflix to subscribers over how their data is used, what exactly is collected, or whether third parties are given access. These are exactly the sort of opaque data practices Black Mirror would once have warned against – notably, Netflix was one of the corporations that Brooker (2014) described as “evil” for their “sinister mass manipulation” of user data – yet now Black Mirror is an active participant in the datafication of consumer culture. How different is Black Mirror from the technology it depicts?
Bandersnatch was not Brooker’s idea. The interactive storytelling format was pitched to him by Todd Yellin, Vice President of Product at Netflix (a role largely dedicated to leveraging vast amounts of data) – though Brooker initially turned Yellin down, some weeks later he relented. While Brooker wrote a labyrinthine script for Bandersnatch, Netflix developed new – and proprietary – data mining algorithms to accompany it (Strause, 2018). A little over a year and a half later, Brooker and Jones signed a “landmark deal” with Netflix, which saw the streamer invest heavily in their new production company Broke and Bones, with the option to subsequently buy it outright as well. If that option is acted upon, Netflix would hold exclusive rights to any future “series and interactive projects” (emphasis added) the pair might work on (Cremona, 2020). Their first Broke and Bones production for the platform, Death to 2020, imitated the format of Brooker’s previous BBC Screenwipe projects; it contained integrated advertising for Netflix properties such as The Crown, Tiger King, and Floor is Lava (Kanter, 2020).
More than anything else, ironically, this commodification and neutralisation of Black Mirror recalls the first script Brooker wrote for the series: Fifteen Million Merits. This early instalment of the series offers an exaggerated yet compelling caricature of capitalism, depicting a world organised around a television talent show; the main character, Bing, uses the show as a platform for an incendiary critique of society. He threatens suicide – but is offered a regular broadcasting slot of his own. Bing accepts, his radicalism subsumed within the entertainment industry. Brooker has joked that this is broadly autobiographical, comparing Bing’s show “where he rants and raves and there’s no point to it” to his own (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 66) – yet it bears a genuine resemblance to Black Mirror, too, foreshadowing the move to Netflix. At Channel 4, Black Mirror satirised digital culture; at Netflix, Black Mirror doesn’t just celebrate big corporations in episodes like Smithereens, where unrepentant surveillance saves the day, but does their data-mining work for them too. One struggles to imagine what, exactly, Rod Serling might have done had The Twilight Zone been co-opted the same way.
Ultimately, it is this that makes Black Mirror such an apt lens to understand digital culture and society. Yes, its thematic content is often an engaging avenue to approach the anxieties and fears that define the new digital Anthropocene – but so might any given piece of speculative fiction. Black Mirror, after all, has inspired plenty of imitators, from Electric Dreams (2018) to Soulmates (2020) to a rebooted version of The Twilight Zone (2019). These are often quite compelling themselves, occasionally moreso than a given episode of Black Mirror; Kill All Others, an episode of Electric Dreams written and directed by Dee Rees, is in some ways a more substantive take on spectacle and hyperreality than Black Mirror has offered. But it is not Black Mirror’s diegetic narratives that make it such a potent way to understand digital culture – rather, it is the narrative of its production, and Black Mirror’s gradual transformation from observing, chronicling, and satirising digital culture to becoming an active tool in some of its worst contemporary excesses.
The full bibliography for this article, with details on each piece cited, can be found on the next page.
Another piece for the Radio Times! This has been in the works for a while now, actually – I think this piece might’ve had one of the longest durations between arranging the interview, conducting the interview, and publishing the interview? Worth the wait, anyway, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out.
Omari’s great in It’s A Sin, too – he really deftly handles what is, narratively, quite a deceptively complex role? Looking forward to seeing what everyone makes of the show; it’s quite unlike anything Russell T Davies has done before, I think. (In some ways, anyway, there’s a lot of it that’s absolutely of a piece with his other shows.)
Last year, Stath Lets Flats didn’t make my top ten. I included it under honourable mentions – almost, but not quite, good enough for the list. This year, I think it might be one of the straightforwardly funniest shows I’ve seen all year.
Yesterday, I was talking about Derry Girls as being one of the most distinct comedies on television at the moment, comparing it to Fleabag and This Way Up. I almost said it was more distinct than Stath Lets Flats, too, before something gave me pause. Where Derry Girls is recognisably different from its contemporaries and easily distinguished from its predecessors, Stath Lets Flats is, well, unrecognisably different. It’s not hard to highlight influences on either – Derry Girls is a little bit like The Inbetweeners, and lots of people have pointed out that Stath Lets Flats is a bit like The Office or Alan Partridge. (I would contend that Stath himself is maybe not a million miles away from Mr Bean, actually.)
But where it’s relatively easy to explain what Derry Girls does distinctly – quite how specific its voice is – for the most part, its humour and its rhythms are pretty easily understood. Stath Lets Flats, on the other hand? It’s often quite difficult to articulate exactly how funny it is after fact: it isn’t so much that explaining the joke ruins it, but that it’s really hard to explain the joke in the first place.
Part of the appeal – the easiest bit to explain – is Jamie Demetriou. He’s front and centre in Stath Lets Flats – obviously he is, as creator, writer and star. One of the first things you notice about Demetriou is how tall he is; the next is how good he is at physical comedy. It’s not subtle, exactly, but it is a constant feature in the background – lanky and gangling, watch how he folds in and out of cars or fumbles his energy drink. In fact, the recurring energy drink joke that opens the second episode is probably the best example of what Stath Lets Flats is and what it’s good at. If you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably not going to enjoy the show full stop.
The other thing about Stath Lets Flats is the language. This is where it gets a bit more difficult to articulate exactly what’s going on with Stath, because just on a basic level, the way the title character talks is almost entirely like any other character on television. Sam Wolfson called it “almost his own language, a creole of north London slang, Greek idioms and the patois of ineptitude”, which is a neat way of putting it, but still doesn’t quite capture the almost lyrical nonsense of Stath Lets Flats. Sarah Manavis wrote probably the best piece of Stath’s dialogue I’ve seen so far: how the recognisable slang chafes against unexpected vocabulary, a tenuous, disjointed echo of something you’re faintly familiar with. It’s not, as Manavis points out, a million miles away from internet shitposting. Or, put another way? If The Good Place is the sort of programme that would try and fail to make a joke about 30-50 feral hogs, Stath Lets Flats is the sort of programme that would make a joke that taps into the same sense of humour – and make it work. It’s probably the only sitcom on television that could make that claim: a whole mode of comedy, otherwise completely untapped on screen. That’s something special, no matter how you try and sell it.
The eccentric, off-kilt lead is but one part of an eccentric, off-kilt ensemble of course. The obvious standouts are Natasia Demetriou and Al Roberts – their almost romance and sweet chemistry is one of the best parts of the show – but often it’s the less prominent supporting characters who really shine, like Kiell Smith-Bynoe as Dean, the closest thing to a straight-man the show can manage. My personal favourite, though, has to be Ellie White (Natasia Demetriou’s frequent collaborator and comedy partner) who, as Katya, is a perfect foil to Stath. Probably one of the most obvious improvements between the first and second series – other than the sense that all involved are now a lot more confident in what they’re doing – is the fact that Katya shows up more often in series 2.
There’s been an instinct, amongst some, to suggest that Stath Lets Flats is a parable for the Brexit age. It resonates, yes, and it’s not hard to see how or why – I’m fairly sure the cast and crew did a twitter thread about how each character voted a few weeks ago, though I can’t find it now.
But that’s almost missing the point. Stath Lets Flats doesn’t need to be “about” anything to be worthwhile – indeed, Jamie Demetriou said it’s about everything apart from Brexit. It’s valuable because it’s one of the most idiosyncratic, most original, and funniest shows of the year. No wonder it made this list.
(Incidentally, I’ve just noticed the Netflix version of that scene doesn’t use the Madonna track, but a different piece of altogether more generic pop music. Totally flattens the scene, puncturing any impact it might’ve had. I do hope it’s not like this on the international version – like, there’s no way that would stand as a highlight of 2018 on television, it’s not even a tenth as good as the original as broadcast version.)
It’s brilliant, of course, and surely the best argument that British TV comedy is having a moment – it’s vivid and vibrant, witty and sincere, and so compulsively specific in its concerns and its charms. I think Derry Girls is likely to be remembered at the forefront of that comedy revolution – moreso, perhaps, than its contemporaries like Fleabag or This Way Up – because of quite how distinct it is. Not the most original programme, no – what is? – but the one with the most distinct voice (both in a comedic and a literal sense). At some point around the first series, I’d meant to write a piece about how authentic it felt. That’s true, of course, but it’s less about how authentic it is, and more about how compulsively specific it is – everything so acutely tied to one place, so entirely filtered through one lens.
I had a rule, in compiling this episodic list, that no show could be represented twice. There were a couple of moments where I wasn’t entirely sure exactly which episode I wanted to highlight from a given show – but for Derry Girls, it was always very obvious. In fact, actually, The Prom was one of the first selections I made for this list. A lot of that is quite idiosyncratic. I’m always talking about how comedy is something I find difficult to write about – so instead I just lampshade it and write about writing about comedy – because humour is often so subjective and so personal. That’s true, obviously, and across this list it’s never more true than here: The Prom is a collection of all my favourite teen comedy tropes, from Michelle bringing two dates to the dance to James taking Erin after she was stood up. Plus, it also had some Doctor Who references, which is obviously always a plus. Really, it’s just a huge amount of fun: the cast is brilliant, and they always are, but I think for my money they’re never better than they are here. In a way this is almost peak Derry Girls, and absolutely my favourite episode of either series.
Somewhere, vaguely, at the back of my head, I’ve often thought that I’d like to write television: that this criticism and commentary is a sideline, a stopgap, a precursor to an actual career. It’s a lofty goal – a dream – and something I am probably more inclined to be realistic about now than I used to be. Still, though, it persists. (The Oscar is now planned for 2030 rather than 2025.) When I think about what I’d like to write, though, it’s not a million miles away from Derry Girls – and, specifically, not a million miles away from The Prom. If I end up having written something even half as good as this, I’d be pretty pleased.
It’ll be interesting to see where Derry Girls goes from here, and for how much longer. This sort of sitcom always has something of a shelf life imposed on it, by both the age of its characters and the age of its cast – The Inbetweeners and Some Girls only managed three series each, while Drifters managed four. More likely than not, we’re closer to the end of Derry Girls at this point than we are at the beginning. That said, creator Lisa McGee has said she’d like to end the series with the Good Friday Agreement – which took place in 1998, three years after Bill Clinton’s 1995 visit to Derry at the end of series 2. Maybe there’s scope for five series of Derry Girls after all? Four series and a movie? A movie feels plausible – The Inbetweeners got two, Bad Education got one, People Just Do Nothing is going to get one – so perhaps that’s where Derry Girls is heading.
Either way, hopefully there’s much more to come – it’ll be nice for Derry Girls to hang around as a staple of these lists, the best of 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well.
It’s somewhere between Big Brother and Catfish, basically – a riff on the reality TV format for the Black Mirror age, I think someone once called it. A group of eight strangers are brought together in a block of flats, never allowed to interact face to face, but getting to know each other through what is essentially the equivalent of social media. Some of them are who they say they are; some of them, obviously, are not. As the weeks progress, people are voted out – blocked – and new contestants enter. In the end, it’s a popularity contest caught somewhere between authenticity and artifice (and authentic artifice, and artificial authenticity), with the eventual winner getting however much money Channel 4 budgets for each go around. (And then, probably, going on to become a social media influencer type with lots of brand sponsorships and so on, using all the new life skills they learned inside The Circle.)
Typically, when defending reality television, the argument is that it tells us something deeper about the human condition. It’s not hard to imagine a version of that line of reasoning drawn from The Circle: give a man a mask and he shows you his true face, and all that. Surely the show can tell us something about class, about race, about gender, about how they each intersect – about society – when all of these things are here willingly chosen, in turn reduced to (or exposed as) a construct?
Well, maybe. I am actually not convinced that is entirely true of The Circle, or, if it is, that’s certainly not its main appeal. Trying to reconceptualise it as a social experiment, or something far more highbrow than it actually is, seems to be missing the point a little bit. (Frankly, the moments any contestants tried to make points about race or privilege in any meaningfully introspective ways fell short – the format just can’t sustain it.) The Circle isn’t something that looks crap at first glance but then, gradually, reveals itself as a hidden gem: no, it is actually fairly consistently crap.
But it’s endearingly crap.
There’s something compulsively charming about The Circle, a difficult to define quality that makes it far more engaging that it really should be. Even if it’s not innovative, it’s definitely unpredictable. This man isn’t a builder – it’s his mum, pretending to be her son, to try and find him a girlfriend, on national television! The other players have somehow guessed this already, based on very little at all! What! There’s something weirdly captivating about this show – sure, it’s on for too long, and Emma Willis emphasises the Big Brother connection a little too much, but it’s just the right shade of quirky to sustain itself.
Case in point: a brief appearance from Richard Madeley pretending to be a twenty-seven-year-old woman called Judy. Richard Madeley – who occupies the exact right space between ‘technically famous’, ‘a bit odd’, and ‘affordable’ to be the perfect celebrity catfish for The Circle; next year it’ll probably be, like, Iain Stirling, and he will not be as good, because a proper comedian will be trying too hard and that’ll puncture the carefully curated illusion of it all – flirting with Zoe Ball’s son, all at a slightly off-kilt, disaffected remove, is not even remotely like anything else on television. It’s nonsense, of course, but unrepentantly so.
The appeal isn’t even in the individual contestants, not really. They were all entertaining in their ways, yes: Tim’s eccentricities, Jack and Beth’s burgeoning relationship, the sheer boldness of James-pretending-to-be-single-mother-Sammie the whole time. But, actually, they don’t matter: after all, they are basically normal people, and they’re essentially interchangeable anyway. (As evidenced by how quickly each were replaced, week on week!) Really, they’re only interesting under these particularly strange set of circumstances – once they’re on the outside, they’re just social media influencers, as though suspended in some sort of Circle-limbo forevermore. It’s hard to imagine anyone really wanting to stay up to date and in the loop about what these guys are all doing – after those few intense weeks, they’ll all just fade from the memory, in the end just as ephemeral as a tweet themselves. That having been said, The Circle had one last curveball to throw. Turns out Tim, the viewers’ favourite, the charming Robin Williams-esque monk turned theology professor, is a former UKIP parliamentary candidate, and YouTuber with strong opinions about how Pewdiepie isn’t antisemitic. Again: nothing else like it on television!
Admittedly, The Circle is something of an outside choice for this top ten list. It’s probably the most idiosyncratic pick, and certainly the most difficult to justify by any definition of actual quality you might hold to. But it does, just about, manage to claim the tenth spot – not (solely) because it’s my list and I can do what I want to, but across 2019 it’s been one of the few genuinely communal television experiences I’ve had, watching it with new housemates, and in turn it’s been one of the most fun. If this list is anything, it is largely a list about what’s been memorable about television in 2019 for me – and I will definitely remember The Circle.
(Also, Georgina definitely deserved to win.)
Check back tomorrow to find out my tenth favourite individual episode of television for the year!
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?
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.
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.
I love love love The Good Fight. It’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.