In the Critics this week | 30 August 2013

Laura Miller on <em>Downton Abbey</em>, Felix Martin on economics, Ed Smith on the role of genetics in sport and much more.

To kick us off in the critics this week, Laura Miller explores the allure of Downton Abbey across the pond, after ITV’s quintessentially British hit became the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US earlier this year. She explains that while for us it’s the “equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty”, for the Americans it is the perfect blend of familiarity and peculiarity. The period is alien: “For Americans, the interlocking, class-defined relationships in a British country house in the early twentieth century are intriguingly particular” and so “the geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downtown Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality”. But yet, according to Miller, many characters map very neatly onto American high school stock characters. Miller concludes that Downton enrages many in the UK for its depiction of painfully true class divisions that last a lifetime, but for the Americans it is the more frivolous and short-lived high school era that comes to mind and this is the key to its success.

Economics is the order of the week for Felix Martin in his review of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change, by Edmund Phelps. In his review of Scarcity, Martin puts forwards the pros and cons of behavioural economics and is ultimately impressed by the book, concluding that the authors don’t claim to have all the answers but that “they style their book as an ‘invitation to read about a science in the making’ and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics."

Mass Flourishing presents a very different economic thesis, rejecting the psychologists in favour or historians. Although Martin notes that the book “might not be to everyone’s taste” and that on first reading the thesis sounds somewhat “simplistic and historically naive”, he concludes that, although uncertain at first, “the more [he] read, the more [his] expectations were confounded and the more [he] found [himself] thinking that its basic thesis had a great deal of truth to it.” He only hopes that the economics curriculum catches up with these valuable works.

Ed Smith reviews David Epstein’s book The Sport Gene: What makes the Perfect Athlete in a very interesting discussion whether it’s talent or hard work that makes an athlete successful. He notes that modern athletes eschew the word “talent” and instead are determined to make it seem that they have achieved everything “purely through exertion and suffering”. But Smith is persuaded by Epstein’s premise that top athletes have a genetic disposition that marks them out from the rest of us; but each sportsperson is different and so homogenisation of training routines is ultimately fruitless. Instead, as everyone has a different optimal training routine, “coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believe that they know best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error”.

In music, Kate Mossman unpicks Arctic Monkey’s latest album, AM. Although she hails lead singer Alex Turner as “one of the great lyricists of the twenty-first century”, it is musically that she deems this album to pack its punches as “any thrills to be had lie in the instrumentation and slick, brawny production” in a record that on occasion pleases Mossman so much she “wants to turn [her] iPod up enough to damage [her] ears”.

Helen Lewis discusses the impact and broader significance the of the word “vagina” in her review of The Vagina: a Literary and Cultural History by Emma Rees. She agrees wholeheartedly with Rees’ condemnation of “all the cutesy little-girlisms beloved of advertisers” and concludes that “the word ‘vagina’ is medical enough to sound grown up and blunt enough not to be cutesy. It is still jarring in normal conversation, but you can mention it on the Six O’Clock News. Which, when you think about it, is close to what feminism should be like.”

Also in the critics this week:

  • Philip Maughan gives his view on Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, a photography exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery
  • Rachel Cooke passes judgement on What Remains, the new BBC Sunday night detective series
  • Antonia Quirke reviews BBC Radio 3’s The Albertopolis of the South
  • Ryan Gibley is impressed by Sorrentino’s new film The Great Beauty, despite his “very-very-noisily-with-whooping-and-crashing” approach
  • Claire Lowdon reviews Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English
  • Michael Brooks discusses organ transplants and compatibility in his view on Daniel M Davis’ The Compatibility Gene
  • Olivia Lanig analyses Tim Dee’s Four Fields
  • Leo Robson gives his view on both Alfred Hayes’ My Face for the World to See and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

To get hold of a copy of the magazine, visit your local W H Smiths or go to


Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images
Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.