Unnerving prescience aside, is Black Mirror really as smart as it seems?

I get all the references and recognise the cleverness of its tricksy plots – but Charlie Brooker's new series is patchier than its fans would admit.

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When it comes to television, cleverness is no guarantee of enjoyment. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, now in its third series (it has migrated from the impecunious Channel 4 to the flashy Netflix), is undoubtedly a real smarty-pants of a show. Its plots are tricksy, its dystopian themes are whizzy and its writing is frequently unnervingly prescient. Yet only rarely is it wholly gripping. The new series – six episodes, five of which are an hour long and one of which comes in somewhat indulgently at 90 minutes – is much patchier than either critics or fans will allow. If Shut Up and Dance (the third and best film) had me feeling sick with dread, San Junipero (the fourth) only made me long for sleep.

Some liken it to Tales of the Unexpected, a beloved ITV series based on Roald Dahl’s short stories, which aired in the late 1970s and 1980s. The comparison isn’t a good one, easy though it is to panic and clutch at straws when confronted with Brooker’s monster brain and cynicism.

Shut Up and Dance, in which an unseen individual or group goes vigilante through people’s mobile phones, comes with a bombshell of a twist, one in which the viewer’s deep sympathy for its main character – a teenage boy who has been caught watching porn online – is suddenly compromised and in the most painful way imaginable. Yet other films in this series seem, even to this arch technophobe, to follow a fairly predictable trajectory. That they are chilly is to be expected; the fictional future is rarely warm. That they are tired is another matter altogether.

Take Nosedive, the first episode, set in a pastel-pink future in which human beings rate each other all day long according to a five-star system. Social media-induced plastic smiles – an ersatz form of happiness that spells instant death to authenticity – are, as any fool who spends too long on ­Facebook or Twitter will know already, pretty much the highway to hell, or at any rate to a prescription for Prozac.

And so it proves here. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) needs a four-and-a-half-star rating to qualify for a discount on her rent, and her only hope of achieving it lies with the speech that she’ll make at her childhood frenemy’s wedding. (Think of all the strangers who’ll “five star” her on hearing it!) But when her flight is delayed, the mask briefly slips, and with it her rating. Quite soon, she finds herself persona non grata. “I cannot have a 2.6 at my wedding!” screams Naomie (Alice Eve), aspiration oozing from every pore. Brooker’s point – that social media can have a corrosive effect on our friendships – isn’t an obscure one, for which reason his satire feels outsized, a custard-coloured JCB digger in a field of black Smart cars.

It’s moderately amusing to discover that many tech-focused websites have already cheerfully rated Brooker’s new films for the benefit of their readers. Nosedive, predictably, doesn’t come out too well in their surveys, and neither does Hated in the Nation, which features drone-hacking and a deadly hashtag, or Shut Up and Dance, with its plot that turns on text messages. (What next: a Brooker drama in which a landline takes centre stage?) Men Against Fire, about the effects of technology in warfare, does better, as does Playtest, in which a young American, stranded in London and hoping to earn his airfare home, signs up to try out a new artificial-reality game, with disastrous consequences. Most of all, though, the geeks adore San Junipero, a love story set both in the 1980s and – don’t read on if you haven’t seen it yet – an assisted living centre for the elderly. Oh, the screeds that have already been written about this one.

I get all the references. I’m as keen (or not) on Belinda Carlisle as the next forty­something; I’m alert to Ally Sheedy and how one might pay homage to her Brat Pack loveliness; I spent what felt like two years of my life shifting my weight from foot to foot in cheesy dives that strongly resembled Tucker’s, the nightclub in San Junipero. Yet, for all its much-vaunted poignancy – Charlie-Brooker-has-heart shock! – it felt pretty soggy to me. A blunt instrument hidden inside a bubble perm: we’re talking Joel Schumacher, not George Orwell. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind