My goal this year was to expand my content variety to more than just books, the idea being to broaden my influences in order to widen my writing perspective. So far, I have added some graphic novels to my lineup, read several non-fiction books at my “regular” job, and made it through a couple of Netflix original series (as well as plowed through a huge backlog of their comedy specials - check out Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust as one of the best examples). But I have not encountered a show worth pouring out a few words of my own until I viewed Charlie Brooker’s phenomenal, terrifying series Black Mirror.
(Readers will recognize this is technically the second in my Netflix series, the first having appeared almost two years ago - click here if you’d like to read my thoughts on their terrific animated program BoJack Horseman)
Black Mirror was a show conceived in the UK by the sardonic television critic almost a decade ago, but it didn’t really catch on across the pond until it was vacuumed up by Netflix, which commissioned another two series (the last of which came out last December). I have mostly known Brooker via a series he produced for the Beeb around the same time: How TV Ruined Your Life. A breakdown of the hidden manipulators behind most of what we watch on the small screen, it opened my eyes to the uses and misuses of propaganda and emotion in that medium, and has caused me to think about television in a different way ever since. This is why the salient dissection of our own current technological age strikes me as a continuation of what Brooker has been doing for his career: showing us the creepy possibilities of our world and where they might lead.
Approaching his latest effort provoked a challenge in me: how can one write about a show that is already so stunningly well-written and offers the best media critique of this nonsense I have ever seen? Since I can’t compete, I am merely going to speak about how this series works, at least from my own vantage point as a flogger of the written word. The show operates on roughly two different levels. There’s the basic plot of each, many of which take place in an indeterminate, bleak future in which eye implants have replaced the smartphone screen, or technology has mutated into an out-of-control form. I would argue that the first two series, originally done for Channel 4, remain the overall best and I want to take a quick look at a few of the episodes. The dystopian “Fifteen Million Merits” stuck with me for a long time. Ostensibly a tale of a bizarre, underground “power plant” that uses human stationary bicycle pedaling for some nefarious purpose, the episode devolves into a parable about our current obsession with celebrity and reality television, and points toward a future in which everyone is looking to cash in on the phenomenon. This episode cast a harsh light not only on possible future living arrangements (each person lived in a screen-embalmed cube, which is impossible to look away from without losing merits), but also upon our celebrity-obsessed current age and its sheer emptiness.
Probably more famously from the second series was “The Waldo Moment,” which Brooker himself has alluded to as eerily peering forth into our current worldwide political malaise. In this one, a conservative British MP stands against a cynical neophyte and a pretend, CGI rendered “puppet” that exists solely to point out the meaninglessness of the entire political exercise. The “real” politicians do their best to point out that adding more nihilism to the process won’t help anything, but in the end “Waldo” the profane creation ends up garnering a significant percentage of the vote without actually winning. The entire episode was at once a blistering commentary on the sorry state of political affairs pre-Brexit, but I also read it as a very broad commentary on the entire concept of critiquing the political moment anymore, especially in the age of TheDonald as our wonderful Commander-in-Chief.
I also want to give high marks to the “White Christmas” special, featuring a stellar and disturbing performance by Jon Hamm and possessing its own three dark, intertwined tales that lead to an incredible, emotional payoff.
The later, Netflix-commissioned series are almost as good, while in my opinion not quite reaching the heights of the initial episodes. But even among these twelve are many that I found to be quite phenomenal. “Playtest” from series three is a creepy dive into the world of brain-augmenting video games, and its multiple false endings really freaked me out. “Hated in the Nation,” the series three closer, was a dystopian tale about the use of drone bees that took over for the real creatures (killed off through climate change) to assassinate whoever the Internet hates the most each day, and also contained a few subtle call backs to earlier episodes. And I would say that “Crocodile,” covering the lengths someone goes to cover up a horrible crime as well as the technological misuses of memory, and “Black Museum” which contained multiple stories like the Christmas special, were two of my favorites.
In the best episodes, almost all of which are written by Brooker, these stories point out the misery and destruction lingering just underneath the “black mirror” of our screens. While each has its own internal plot and setting, the greatest part of this series is its ability to show us where technology is heading, and why we face such a dangerous course. I found this show to be a healthy corrective to the kind of jargon that emanates from Silicon Valley these days, especially in the age of companies such as Cambridge Analytica. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who enjoys science fiction and the way it can be used toward cultural and critical analysis.
(I should also mention that I did wrap-up another series before this one: LOVE, co-created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin that concluded its three-season run this year. That show hit too close to home for me to write about in-depth, but I may re-binge-watch it at some point and put something down.)
I still hope to write about some other Netflix original series (including Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things), but it may not be for a few months. This blog will primarily remain one about writing, books, the creative process, etc but I will continue broadening my influences and blogging about them. Until then, thanks for reading (and watching)!
We Were the Mulvaneys
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a quick dive into High Fidelity. Then I took on another author suggestion from a coworker who I would have otherwise (stupidly) kept regaling to a “read later” list: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. I was struck by Oates’ abilities as an author to show the story on every page, and that she reminded me of another author I used to call my favorite - Stephen King. Although as we’ll see, I would argue that Oates does King one better in almost every fashion. Let’s take a look at two major lessons writers can draw from this book.
Use of language. This is possibly Oates’s finest skill, and she brings it to bear in various layers throughout the text. The story is about the dissolution of a family, and you can see these people come alive on the page as well as the farm that begins as their home and ends up in disrepair and sold. The descriptions of the farm life, the way the characters act as they speak to one another, and the use of simile and metaphor are all reminiscent of King, but much better done.
Use of character. This may actually be the stronger part of the novel, as Oates deftly shows us the breakdown of each individual character while also protracting the story out via their various perspectives. The book is ostensibly “written” by Judd, the youngest Mulvaney, but the perspectives shift subtly into scenes that he could not have seen, but possibly heard about from his older siblings. Each character’s view on the horrible events that tear their family apart apply a layer of depth to this story and a stunning emotional weight. If I had a caveat to any of this, I’d say I wish we got to spend more time with the eldest child, Mikey (“Mule”). There is an interesting vignette involving him early on, but later he goes off with the Marines and we don’t hear much from him until his father visits toward the end of the book.
My stupid nitpicking aside, it is easy to see why the book is considered one of the best this (very prodigious) author has produced. And speaking of her considerable body of work, I should point out that King himself praised Oates and her productivity a few years back. With (at least) 40 more books out there, I will definitely return to this author in the future.
Up next, I’m going to take on a recommendation given to me by my editor years ago, when I was beginning this series as experiments. This would be David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. And stay tuned for another update in the “how to write a book” series hopefully within the next month. Thanks for reading and writing!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.