Monday, 12 December 2011

BLACK MIRROR - "Fifteen Million Merits"

Monday, 12 December 2011

[Warning: major spoilers]

The second installment of Black Mirror was a satirical slice of science-fiction that reminded me of George Lucas' THX-1138, only where round-the-clock entertainment, advertising, social engineering and talent shows were the targets. Set in an indeterminate near-future, "Fifteen Million Merits" introduced us to the shy Bing (The Fades' Daniel Kaluuya); one of billions whose lives are an empty husk. People live in cavernous buildings that resemble car parks full of exercise bikes, which they laboriously cycle on all day while watching ubiquitous video-screens, in-between snacking on food dispensed from vending machines, before retiring to their "cells" to play violent video-games interrupted by commercials for porn.

Every surface is an interactive conduit to a world of mindless distraction here: so you can purchase virtual accessories to clothe an avatar of yourself; watch a comedy TV show called Botherguts where fat people are sprayed with sloppy food; or dream about appearing on a Britain's Got Talent-esque show called Hot Shot, where the prize of worldwide fame is the only possible escape from interminable ennui and physical toil.

It was a remarkable world to spend time in, as a comic exaggeration of current technology and leisure pursuits. We're living in a world of flatscreen TVs, smartphones, tablet computers, reality/talent shows and interactive gaming consoles already, and this drama cleverly kept reminding us of how worryingly close we're getting to becoming lost in our own private worlds. Literally locked in the "cells" of our homes, where our lives beyond are full of monotony that's less appealing than the vibrant distraction of popular entertainment (albeit it with the cost of intrusive advertising). I don't think we'll reach a time when things are as bad as what "Fifteen Million Merits" presented us with, but dramas like this are fascinating worst-case speculations. No less relevant and worthy of discussion than George Orwell's similarly fanciful 1984, yet more plausible in some ways.

The storyline presented wasn't anything challenging or unexpected, as the arc of the narrative was very traditional. One day Bing started to notice a beautiful young woman called Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), and a cautious friendship built on human interaction began to form, slowly developing into the beginnings of true love. As their relationship grew, so too did Bing's desire to see Abi escape her daily grind and audition for Hot Shot—using fifteen million "Merits" he recently inherited from his dead brother as her entry fee.

There were a great many moments that stuck in my mind after watching "Fifteen Million Merits". The scene that really left an impression was Abi's audition on Hot Shot—to Judge Hope (Rupert Everett), Judge Charity (Julia Davis) and Judge Wraith (Ashley Thomas)—with a haunting rendition of Irma Thomas' "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)". A wonderfully a cappella, spine-tingling performance, that earned Abi nothing but misogynistic comments about her titties and the chance to instead become a porn star for the "Wraith Babes" channel. Hers was an unfortunate fate that became the catalyst for Bing to smash the system, by saving another fifteen million merits so he could audition on Hot Shot himself, and use his own time in the spotlight to give an impassioned speech to the judges who are the figureheads of this corrupt society. Bing's fate was in some ways even more depressing than his would-be girlfriend's, as his brilliant "fake fodder" speech earned him the victory of two weekly TV appearances to the masses. A chance for Bing to broadcast his anarchic rants to the population... only it became clear that the people aren't actually hearing his message, they just feel the passion of his "performance" burning through their video-screens. Bing himself got to live in a much swankier, bigger "cell"... overlooking a real, beautiful, rainforest. Or was it still a panoramic video display of a beautiful green rainforest?

Bing's rage against the machine fell on deaf ears, but he'll perhaps never even realize it. Worse, for the privilege of being ignored he's become part of the system he despises, and remains separated from the girl he loved... who gave him, in a simply piece of origami, the only real thing he's ever owned and treasured. A trinket now replaces by his signature "shard of glass" he used to threaten his own life on TV.

Neatly directed by Euros Lyn (Doctor Who, Torchwood), "Fifteen Million Merits" wasn't saying anything very new, and it definitely went after some easy targets that are always being smeared by critics. Brooker has taken so many swipes at mass media and vacuous gameshows that you wonder if he has anything left to say now. But it was intelligently done and many of its ideas are still swirling around in my head the next day. It didn't deserve its bumper runtime of 80-minutes (including adverts), as the story wasn't unpredictable or brisk enough to stop that being a problem. Indeed, most people who appear to have taken against "Fifteen Million Merits" keep mentioning the unhurried pace, which clearly frustrated some people. I just hope those who found it rather slow were actually thinking about what it was trying to say, and not just sat back in their sofa's like one of the show's passive consumers of the idiot box. If so, I hope you were at least doing the ironing or riding your exercise bikes.

Overall, I heartily recommend "Fifteen Million Merits" to anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi tale that takes inspiration from reality, offering a contemptuous critique of western culture. The performances of Jessica Brown Findlay and Daniel Kaluuya were fantastic, with Kaluuya a particular standout. He's a young actor who doesn't always get the material he deserves, but this drama proved that his greatest strength is drawing the audience in with his large, expressive eyes. By the time his character exploded into a heartfelt diatribe about the evils of the society he lives in, with a shard of glass pressed to his throat, I was totally gripped by every word he was saying.

Clever, astute, passionate, rewarding and human. Black Mirror's two-for-two, with one more in the pipeline...


  • I don't watch Downton Abbey, but Jessica Brown Findlay is apparently one of the lead actresses on that show. She's one to watch. In other words, we have a new "potential Doctor Who companion" to add to lists, folks.
  • This episode was co-written by Konnie Huq (going by her real name of Kanaq), the ex-Blue Peter presenter who recently married Charlie Brooker. Huq also presented The X Factor sister show Xtra Factor for one series, until she was dismissed by Simon Cowell after failing to connect with audiences—who preferred her predecessor Holly Willoughby. I'm not sure if any of her experiences fed directly into this drama, or if her displeasure with the job just encouraged Brooker to target X Factor-style shows as the root of all evil in the modern world. Which is, of course, preposterous.
  • Was it just coincidence that Bing has the same name as Microsoft's search engine?
  • Did they give Abi a type of "date rape" drug before her audition, to ensure she was more malleable in front of the judges?
written by Charlie Brooker & Kanaq Huq / directed by Euros Lynn / 11 December 2011 / Channel 4