Death By a Thousand Screens

Digression on ’15 Million Merits’, in Season 1 of ‘Black Mirror

In the first season of the show ‘Black Mirror’, in the second episode, titled ‘15 Million Merits’, the episode’s main character, Bing, faced with a panel of judges on a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’-esque reality show, comes out with a speech, of which this is an excerpt:

“Show us something real and free and beautiful – you couldn’t.  It’d break us.  We’re too numb for it.  Our minds would choke.  There’s only so much wonder we can bear – that’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions, and only then ‘til it’s augmented and packaged and pumped through ten thousand pre-assigned filters, ‘til it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day-in, day-out – going where?  Powering what?  All tiny cells in tiny screens and bigger cells in bigger screens and fuck you.  Fuck you – that’s what it boils down to is: fuck you.”

Well, actually, pardon me, but fuck you.

I really like ‘Black Mirror’; I think it’s clever, well-made, and well-acted.  And while I don’t mind being preached to about my T.V. consumption, I don’t like the author of that sermon being the T.V. itself.

If you believe that we are all becoming slaves to our T.V. habits, then perhaps you shouldn’t go into television production.  And while I am consuming your product, please don’t lecture me on what a pathological sucker I am for enjoying it.  This is like Pablo Escobar handing you an eightball and saying, “You know, this is really bad for you.”

One possibility is that the maker of ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker, believes that his show is qualitatively finer stuff than the rest of the dreck that occupies our tiny and big screens, and we, his audience, are meant to be pleased that we are, likewise, cleverer than the bovine masses.  We should be flattered by our own good taste and impressed with our shared acuity.  However, I doubt that the great demarcation between the enlightened and hoi polloi is who is binge-watching ‘Black Mirror’ on Netflix and who isn’t, and I dislike media which attempts to assuage my critical judgement by trying to convince me that I am more sophisticated than I am.

The other possibility is that Charlie Brooker wants to be able to shame us for our screen time while at the same time benefitting from it.  That he has observed, along with everyone else on the planet, that television makes zombies of us, and he wants to preach about that while not losing viewers, and that he is in some measure, a hypocrite.

Presumably, whatever caution he intended to inspire against technology is meant to exempt his own show.  I doubt very much that I was meant to listen to that righteous little speech, smack my forehead in epiphany, turn off my computer, and stop watching ‘Black Mirror’.

And I didn’t; as I said, I like ‘Black Mirror’.  More than that, despite the fact that, in the mouth of a T.V. character, Bing’s speech is smug and pedantic and offensive, it has the insuperable defense of being also right.  And entertaining.  And maybe the message is more important than the medium.  And perhaps the screens are only as evil as the content on them is vapid.

And ‘Black Mirror’ may be self-satisfied, but it isn’t stupid.

Black Mirror is also available on Netflix.

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