Premise: When the Princess is kidnapped, the Prime Minister of England is given a bizarre demand for her return that will change his life forever.
About: Black Mirror is a UK show that the writer, Charlie Booker, described as a sort of technology-centered mirror into our immediate future. I love how he put it to The Guardian: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?” Booker is a bit of a controversial guy with a strange sense of humor. Early on in his career, he used to write cartoons for a magazine, and one of them was so offensive, it actually caused the magazine to be pulled from the shelves. The cartoon was titled “Helmut Werstler’s Cruelty Zoo” and chronicled a zoo where children could deal with their anger by beating animals. All in the name of satire of course. Though it sounds like the people didn’t get it. Robert Downey Jr. is a fan of Black Mirror and optioned one of the episodes, “The Entire History of You,” to make into a movie.
Writer: Charlie Brooker
Details: 44 minutes
I’m about to put my complaining hat on. I will wait a minute to allow you to find your complaining acceptance hat and put it on as well. That way, we can all work together in harmony. Are you finished? Good. Cause I have a question.
What the hell is up with TV?
This was supposed to be the Golden Age of the medium. I’m starting to think that that only thing “golden” about it is the paychecks Hollywood’s getting.
We’ve reached a saturation point, something we all knew was coming, but now that it’s here, it seems to have dimmed everyone’s imagination. I caught an advertisement for the new Netflix show, Marco Polo, the other day, so I decided to check it out. Within five minutes I wished I was playing the game instead. As in the game, “Marco Polo.” As in I WISHED I WAS BLIND. Not only was the production value below your average History Channel show, but the question arose: What was the point?
I’ll tell you what the point is. There are too many slots and not enough good ideas. So people are throwing shit at the wall. Kinda makes you wish Genghis Khan was in some of these meetings. I bet he’d have a thing or two to say about what gets on the air.
I mean is there a must-watch TV show out there at the moment? The Walking Dead has been borderline unwatchable this season. But at least it’s in the position of having run out of ideas. These new shows haven’t come up with an initial idea.
This probably has something to do with why I’m going back to 2011, arguably the best year of TV ever, to review today’s show. You guys across the Atlantic Ocean have already heard of Black Mirror. But we in the states are getting our first taste of it now, probably because it recently appeared on Netflix.
Black Mirror: The National Album, follows Prime Minister Michael Callow, who has just been informed that the Princess (as in THE Princess of England) has been kidnapped. A video has been uploaded to the internet showing the Princess begging for her life.
Her unseen kidnapper then gives his demands for giving the Princess back. Actually, it’s only one demand. But it’s a doozy. By 4 o’clock this afternoon, the Prime Minister will have to have sex with a pig on live television.
Naturally, Callow assumes this is a joke. But he’s quickly assured it’s real. What follows are two intercutting storylines where the government tries to locate the princess’s whereabouts, while they also prepare for the worst case scenario – the pig loving.
Talk about a ticking time bomb!
While at first, Callow refuses to even entertain the idea, the country’s love for the princess begins to sway public opinion to do the deed. Callow realizes that if he is responsible for the princess’s death, his life and his legacy will be in ruins. Which is why he desperately needs to find that kidnapper. Will he succeed? Or will he have to have sex with a pig on national television? The show’s on Netflix. Check it out for yourself.
To borrow a phrase from my brothers and sisters across the pond. This was BRILLIANT.
This is the kind of television we should be making over here, but we’re scared to because we’re too busy making snore-fests like Marco Polo. Now I know what some of you are thinking. “So, uh, wait a minute here, Carson. You’re saying that we should be aspiring to make TV shows about… pig-fucking?” It’s not necessarily the pig-fucking that we should aspire to. It’s trying something different.
What is every show out there doing right now? Every show on television. They’re giving us linear storylines, right? Whether it’s a procedural or a serialized show, the series are connected from one show to the next. Black Mirror comes at this with the opposite approach. It gives us a show with standalone episodes, each a little mini-movie. That’s the kind of thinking that allows you to stand out from the pack.
The writer takes that non-traditional approach and then applies it to the episode. If I told you about a TV episode where a Prime Minister has to fuck a pig, what’s your first reaction. “It’s got to be a comedy,” right? The genius of “The National Anthem” is that it goes in the exact opposite direction. It takes the set-up DEAD SERIOUSLY.
That’s why this episode has such an unsettling feel when you watch it – why it stays with you – it’s going against what you’re used to.
This seriousness allows us to take the question driving the episode seriously, which then allows the show to do something all great stories do – break the fourth wall. The audience is now putting themselves in the Prime Minister’s shoes. “What would I do?” they’re asking.
And the awesomeness of the episode is that it really makes a compelling argument for why the Prime Minister has to do it. This isn’t some average woman we’re trying to save. They make it clear it’s the most beloved woman in the entire country.
Not only that, but it has a brilliant structural set-up. We have a clear ticking time bomb. The stakes are sky-high (princesses dying, fucking pigs on national television). There’s a goal inherent with the problem (he must find the princess before he’s forced to do this horrifying act).
(spoiler) But what I really loved was that the writer capitalizes with a climax that would’ve never flown over here in the states, an ending that embodied the chance-taking spirit of the show. It actually happens. The Prime Minister actually has sex with the pig. And it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to watch.
And what makes it all the more impactful is that the writer is actually trying to say something about our society. We’ll watch anything, no matter how big of a trainwreck it is. But what’s our limit? Do we have one? Everyone in the U.K. heads out to their local pub to enjoy the party. But when it actually happens, when they actually start watching, they realize what a sickening lot they’ve become. It’s a sobering moment.
But the big point I want to make is that there were three moments where the writer made a choice that every other writer in the world would’ve made the opposite choice, and that’s why this episode stands out. The first is by creating the show in the first place. A non-linear show goes against all traditional thinking at the moment. The second was to take an absurd premise and treat it seriously. Everyone else would’ve played this as a joke. (spoiler) And the third was to actually have the Prime Minister fuck the pig. Every other writer would’ve backed off of that. They would’ve found the kidnapper at the last second.
I’m not going to go ahead and say that Black Mirror is my new favorite show or anything (I didn’t love the second episode), but I love the spirit and the innovation of the show, and I think we ought to be doing more of that over here, lest we be stuck making more shows like Marco Polo.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Before you write a script, consider every angle you can tell the story from. Sometimes what would seem obvious as a comedy might end up being way more interesting as a drama. One of the best ways to shock a reader is to approach material from the least obvious angle.