The first episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s satirical Twilight Zone inspired horror series, formed a nightmare “what if?” scenario around social media, 24 hour news channels and, ultimately, audience complicity in increasingly sadistic televised entertainment. The second episode, “15 Million Merits”, could easily be that society in the not too distant future. Set in an unspecified time and place, the episode – co-written by Brooker and wife Kanak Huq, the former Blue Peter presenter – puts us in a world that’s perhaps best described as being like what you’d imagine if Apple designed a prison.
In this future society people divide their time between watching TV in cramped private living quarters and watching TV at work – spending all day peddling exercise bikes to earn the titular merits. Here merits have replaced money and powering away on the bike – presumably to generate power for all the TVs – is how people get money to spend on food (purchased exclusively from vending machines) and entertainment. In the best traditions of dystopian sci-fi, little is explained. The one beacon of hope in people’s lives is the thought of becoming a TV star by taking part in the “Hot Shot” talent contest, as judged by Julia Davis, Ashley Thomas and Rupert Everett.
The living quarters themselves are comprised of four walls which double-up as TV displays, controlled by motion sensor technology obviously inspired by X-box Kinnect, with merits used to buy new clothes for each person’s avatar as well as various apps – such as alternate wallpapers and alarm clocks for the bedroom. The most haunting and potentially horrifying prediction here is one that sees the hero – played by Daniel Kayluuya - using most of his “money” skipping the constant adverts for pornography (by now quite overt and mainstream) and extremely crass reality TV shows (most of which revolve around humiliating fat people). With fat people reduced to figures of fun and forced to work as cleaners, Brooker sets up a society in which there is a clear stigma against those who choose not to ride the bikes.
Kayluuya’s character is disillusioned with this existence and has a lot of merits saved up, owing to the fact that he’s not interested in all the tinsel. However he soon meets, and finds himself instantly attracted to, a girl played by Jessica Brown Findlay, whom he hears singing in the toilets. She sings nicely but not exceptionally, but convinced of her gift he decides to buy her entry ticket for “Hot Shot” in the hope of finding some meaning for his own existence. He sees her singing as something “real” in a pre-fabricated world, and when things don’t go to plan – and that fragile, imperfect beauty is ruthlessly beaten down – he has a break-down reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network.
Findlay’s singer might not be the best, but the way the studio audience – comprised of viewer avatars – reacts to her performance is emblematic of the sorts of hate-filled comments people make in a world in which they feel increasingly alienated and anonymous. Here the bombastic and ugly “Hot Shot” – a stylistically perfect parody of well-known UK talent shows – is a conduit for people’s misdirected rage, apathy and nihilism. The horror aspect, again, comes from the realisation that the events on-screen are not too far removed from where we sit now.
The whole episode is full of astute social observations and brimming with sharp black comedy, but it stood out for me because of its unexpected beauty and tenderness. The interactions between Kayluuya and Findlay are really very sweet and the music (Stephen McKeon) and direction (Eros Lyn) invested in these moments a type of sensory pleasure I always associate with Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmeric, heart-wrenchingly beautiful Punch-Drunk Love. As a piece of satire it’s also incredibly strong, again looking at viewer complicity more than promoting a trite “technology is evil” line.
This article was first posted on December 10, 2011