DirecTV continues to impress with its savvy original-programming acquisitions, the latest being a pair of U.K. imports: “Black Mirror,” a creepy and clever anthology series, informed by a slightly cracked view of technology; and “Secret State,” a familiar template for a political thriller imbued with star wattage thanks to a cast headed by Gabriel Byrne. If there’s one to watch it’s the former, which captures some of the unsettling aspects of modern life considered through a near-future prism. Comparisons to “The Twilight Zone” shouldn’t be tossed about lightly, but this falls within those heady dimensions based on a sampling of the six episodes produced for Channel 4.
The “Black Mirror” premiere, written by exec producer Charlie Brooker, might be the most bracing, if only because it covers so much ground in such a provocative way: The British prime minister (Rory Kinnear) is roused from sleep and told that a Royal princess has been abducted. The kidnapper’s demand, posted via YouTube: That the Prime Minister must engage in a sex act with a pig on live TV, or the princess dies.
What at first sounds like a sick joke gradually becomes a bizarre question of politics, media coverage and voyeurism — the last element being a recurring theme, perhaps most disturbingly in a later hour featuring “Being Human’s” Leonora Crichlow. A subsequent episode, meanwhile, finds a society equipped with micro-chips so people can replay their memories, an option that begins to border on obsession when a husband starts suspecting his wife has cuckolded him.
Virtually every installment is designed to make you think, particularly about some of the technological advancements that have taken root so rapidly we easily take them for granted. Is it healthy, for example, for a woman (Hayley Atwell) to avail herself of a service that enables her to approximate a continuing relationship (via email and chat) with a dead boyfriend, even if that’s designed to ease her pain?
Smartly written and well cast, the individual episodes keep circling back to such apprehensions, with darkly satiric overtones that distinguish it from most of what’s currently on U.S. TV. (The series actually premiered in December 2011, followed by a raft of international sales.)
“Secret State,” by contrast, is a polished-looking product that adheres to a more traditional formula — namely, conspiracies and paranoia — the U.K. in particular has excelled at mining. Adapted by Robert Jones from the 1980s novel “A Very British Coup,” the story opens in a small British town ravaged by a petrochemical accident, leaving the Deputy Prime Minister (Byrne) to sift through the damage and try to determine who’s at fault after the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes.
If there’s a note of irony here, it’s that the multinational conglomerate in question is American, reversing the polarity of the British Petroleum oil spill off the U.S.’ Gulf Coast, which doesn’t make the cloak-and-dagger machinations any less fun for those who have time for another one of these exercises. Moreover, Byrne is flanked by Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane, among others, so it’s at the very least not a bad way to kill time while waiting for “Game of Thrones” to return.
Inevitably, the pool of British dramas is being drained a bit as more premium players (including Starz and DirecTV) now regularly fish those waters for affordable original content, but even some of the relative novices occasionally hook big game. By that measure, discriminating DirecTV subscribers casting about for something a little different should really like what they see in “Black Mirror.”