‘Joan Is Awful’ Keeps ‘Black Mirror’ Relevant

The tech dystopia series has turned into a horror anthology, but we all still want to look through the glass

When Black Mirror first appeared on Netflix in December of 2016, the world was staggering under the weight of a massive political realignment and a bewildering revolution in technology and communication. So it’s no wonder that Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi anthology series was such a chord-striking hit. Brooker saw things that we couldn’t quite see, and held them up to us while deploying dark humor, scary twists, and outrageous scatology. It was the show of the moment, and it captured its moment as well as Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone captured the fears and neuroses of the Cold War and the dawn of the TV age.

Now that moment has settled somewhat, so it’s not surprising that the reaction I’ve seen to season six of Black Mirror, which dropped on Netflix last week, has been sort of a mixed bag. Some love, some hate, some meh, but very little “you have to watch this now.” I’m a sucker for even the lesser Black Mirror episodes, because I admire how Brooker is able to set a mood so quickly and deliver plot twists that make sense the second you see them. He’s both the spiritual and artistic heir to Serling and to Harlan Ellison, who wrote his share of classic episodes of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits, among others.

But it’s also true that this season of Black Mirror doesn’t really strike a consistent chord, and it kind of wallows in the past rather than presenting a dystopian future. Episodes take place in 1969, 1979, and 2005. Another present-day episode leans heavily on 30-year-old VCR recordings to produce its “aha” moment. It’s more of a Monster of the Week, Twisted Tales kind of show than a tech on tech dystopia. The episodes are all quite bloody, a couple are pretty terrifying, and they’re all simultaneously on-brand but also off-brand.

The one exception to the new Black Mirror rule is the first episode of the season, ‘Joan is Awful,’ which hews closely to the Classic Black Mirror format. Annie Murphy plays a mid-level tech executive named Joan who suddenly finds her life has become the subject matter of a popular program on a Netflix-like network called Streamberry, where Salma Hayek, as Joan, plays out the day she’s just lived pretty much in real time. To give away anything else would spoil the fun, but the back half of the episode contains at least a half-dozen twists, each one better than the next. Murphy and Hayek are both hilarious and perfect, and there are plenty of other well-known guest stars, whose very existence in the episode is yet another funny twist.

Joan is Awful, unlike the other episodes in season 6, doesn’t contain any blood, though other scatologies do come into play. And the ending, while kind of dark and ironic, is also kind of funny and sweet. For people who watch Black Mirror, this episode resonated more than the others, which play more like decent episodes of Night Gallery, Rod Serling’s later, scarier, cheesier Technicolor horror anthology. Joan is Awful, on the other hand, has become a reference point. Internet searches on “Terms and Conditions” and personal privacy have leapt since the episode premiered. Netflix is even making it possible for people to create their own “I Am Awful” TV promotional ads, which fits in perfectly with the themes of the episode, and with what the overall, or at least the original, purpose of Black Mirror.

If Charlie Brooker wants to spend the rest of his life doing TV versions of horror short stories, no one is going to say no to him, and no one is going to stop him. He’s a master of the form, and he’s more than earned the privilege. But Joan is Awful taps perfectly into contemporary neuroses about streaming TV, about Internet surveillance of private lives, and about digital narcissism, and that makes it the most relevant of the current crop of Black Mirror episodes. It may be the most Black Mirror episode ever, and it will stick around after the other episodes retreat to the archives. We didn’t all have robot astronaut doubles in an imaginary 1969, but we definitely all are awful.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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