TV Review: Black Mirror 1.1, "The National Anthem"

The first episode of Charlie Brooker's twisted riff on The Twlight Zone takes aim at the role of social media in news and politics.

rating: 4

Charlie Brooker's Twilight Zone inspired horror anthology Black Mirror begins on Sunday with "The National Anthem", the first of three stand alone episodes which at once juggle razor sharp satire, silly jokes and disturbing imagery. It's safe to say it's unlike anything else you've seen on British television in the last twelve months - in fact you'd probably have to reach back to Chris Morris' similarly warped Jam to find something even remotely similar. The premise of this episode is difficult to explain without spoilers, so to put it extremely vaguely: it's about a Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) who awakens one morning to find that a member of the Royal Family has been taken hostage and will be killed if he doesn't fulfil an unusual and embarrassing demand on live television within the next few hours. He spends the rest of the episode racked with increasing levels of despair, as portrayed very humanely and without gimmick by Kinnear, trying to come to terms with whether or not he should, or indeed must, comply with the demand. All three episodes are united by the theme of technology and where it is leading society. Here the first thought of the staff at Downing Street is not to tell the public about the crisis but, in today's world, this is increasingly impossible - the kidnapper puts his video on YouTube. Then the topic comes to dominate discussion on Facebook and Twitter, with the PMs advisors increasingly swayed by public opinion, which is - throughout the episode - subject to whim. It's also a running gag that the public are ahead of the 24 hour news channels who - super-injunction style - aren't allowed to talk about the demand (and then, later, aren't allowed to talk about it with the same degree of frankness). Courtesy of the social networks, the Prime Minister's dilemma is played out in public, quickly becoming the target of as many crude jokes and offensive slurs as po-faced comments about the kidnapping. As is so often the case today, people's reactions become the story, with endless opinions polls and voxpop segments rolling on increasingly desperate and tacky 24 hour news channels. It's a cruel and hyper-modern farce played like a thriller - and very straight. It's also very intelligently made, with all the media savvy you'd expect from someone who analyses TV for a living (with shows like Screenwipe and his newspaper column). In this episode audience discomfort comes from our complicity in the on-screen action - much in the same way it does Michael Haneke's Funny Games but with more likelihood of it reaching the intended audience. The show's greatest stroke of satire though comes via the event I'm at pains not to talk about. No doubt many will find the central, black joke to be simple shock humour - and it may work on that level alone - but it also serves as the single biggest indictment against modern media and reality TV in particular in that it's the only logical place Brooker could really go. Where else can you go in an age when George Galloway voluntarily acts like a cat on Big Brother and Brian Paddick eats kangaroo testes on I'm a Celebrity? "The National Anthem", like the subsequent two episodes, is extreme but never so extreme as to seem far-fetched. Its potential to sicken viewers lies in its uncomfortable closeness to where we sit now, albeit through a distorted, macabre lens. It's also very funny and, with Kinnear presenting his Prime Minister so sympathetically, much more dramatic and nuanced than you might expect for a show in which... well... best you just wait and see. "The National Anthem" is on Channel 4 this Sunday at 9pm. Read our interview with series creator Charlie Brooker here.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.