When people meet “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker, there’s one thing they always want to know: How messed up is he?
“I think I’m pretty normal,” Brooker says with a laugh. “But that depends on how you define normal.”
It’s a fair question. For “Black Mirror,” he pens scripts about the dark side of technology — the title refers to a shiny screen — with episodic stories that might seem outrageous at first blush, but soon prove all too timely. These have included “Fifteen Million Merits,” in which the only way out of a life of drudgery is to appear on a reality competition, and “White Bear,” in which a strange signal turns a small town into zombies obsessed with stalking and filming a woman.
The reach of “Black Mirror” is particularly impressive given that there have been only seven episodes in total; season one aired on England’s Channel 4 in 2011, followed by a second season in 2013, and a Christmas special in 2014. But now fans’ prayers and Twitter demands have been answered, as Netflix, which took over rights from Channel 4 last year, unveils six new episodes Oct. 21. This season boasts more recognizable faces (Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Kelly) and some big filmmakers (“Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” director Joe Wright, “10 Cloverfield Lane” helmer Dan Trachtenberg.)
|Illustration by Boris Pelcer for Variety|
Each script has its share of dark twists and what Brooker calls “what-the-f–k moments.” While the stories center on the dangers of electronics, he stresses that he is not anti-technology.
“I know that’s shocking to people who see the show and expect the Unabomber to have written it,” he admits. “Or some Luddite living in a cave still furious about the typewriter being invented.”
In fact, Brooker is a former gaming journalist and an early adopter of many technologies. “I’m quite optimistic. I think social media is an incredible invention. It’s just that we, as an animal, aren’t yet adept at using this incredible new power we’ve been given. It’s like a new limb we’ve grown, and we’re flailing around and knocking all the furniture over.”
Brooker’s co-executive producer is Annabel Jones; together they run House of Tomorrow, a company within Endemol U.K., which produces “Black Mirror.” While he has written or co-written almost all of the episodes, the two work closely to come up with ideas.
“There’s usually a spark, and we explore it together,” says Jones, who shares a playful, teasing rapport with her partner.
Says Brooker, “Usually they are ideas that make me laugh and make you go, ‘Oh my God, that’s awful.’”
Jones agrees. “It’s a winning recipe,” she notes. “And if I’m reduced to tears, it’s a bonus.”
The two first paired on “Dead Set,” the 2008 series about a zombie outbreak occurring during the filming of “Big Brother.” After the success of that show, Channel 4 asked if they wanted to do another series.
“I’ve always been a fan of one-off, quirky, weird stories you’d see on ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected,’” Brooker explains. “Also, the BBC would put on one-off plays that were often controversial or incredibly depressing. I missed those shows where you would run to someone and say, ‘This guy was the last man on earth, and he broke his glasses, and it was amazing!’”
|“I think social media is an incredible invention. It’s just that we, as an animal, aren’t yet adept at using this incredible new power we’ve been given. It’s like a new limb we’ve grown, and we’re flailing around and knocking all the furniture over.”|
But “Black Mirror” isn’t just dark thrills; the stories are rooted in complex characters. “We want an interesting concept with a preposterous idea,” says Jones. “But we want to keep it grounded, and find the most interesting human story within it.”
That was apparent with the 2011 premiere episode, “The National Anthem,” which featured a cringe-inducing exchange between the prime minister (Rory Kinnear) and a pig. What sounds like little more than a gross-out gag is instead a multilayered narrative that raises moral and ethical questions of personal and patriotic responsibility.
“The National Anthem” is one example of how the fiction of “Black Mirror” so closely imitates truth. In 2015, it was alleged that Prime Minister David Cameron had placed his private parts inside the mouth of a dead pig while in college. The story prompted Brooker to post on Twitter: “Just to clear it up: nope, I’d never heard anything about Cameron and a pig when coming up with that story. So this weirds me out.”
When Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, The Washington Post referenced the 2013 episode “The Waldo Moment,” in which an animated bear stumbles into politics and starts a revolution. It’s not uncommon now for fans to reference the show in relation to ominous or strange news events, describing them as “very ‘Black Mirror.’” Brooker says he’s flattered. “If someone sees an odd article and they think of me, I’ll take it,” he laughs.
“Black Mirror” was well-received upon its debut in the U.K; Netflix began showing the episodes in the U.S. in 2014. “Netflix was very much the tipping point for us in America,” says Brooker. So when a third season was being shopped around, it made sense for Netflix to make a bid for the broadcast rights.
“From the moment I saw that pig onscreen in series one, I knew we had to bring Charlie Brooker’s warped warning to the entire world,” says Cindy Holland, VP of original series for Netflix. “Charlie is a true visionary, and we are honored to work with him and top-notch producer Annabel Jones to bring new thought-provoking episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ to its fervent fan base and to a broader audience globally.”
Some of the new episodes take place in the U.S., although Jones says this happened organically. “If we’re changing anything, we want it to feel earned,” she notes. “There are good reasons these episodes are set in America, just as we have an episode set in Scandinavia.”
“Black Mirror” has always featured great actors and rising stars — Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson appeared in “Be Right Back,” and Jon Hamm signed up for the Christmas special after a friendly meeting with Brooker. “While we were talking, I was thinking, ‘It would be really embarrassing to ask,” Brooker admits. “But I also can’t not ask!”
The producers have secured some impressive talent for the new season as well. Mackenzie Davis of “Halt and Catch Fire,” says she was a huge fan before starring in the new episode “San Junipero.”
“I adored it, but it always felt like something a bit distant and far away,” she says. “It seemed like people just went into the woods and made this amazing
Howard, who stars in the episode “Nosedive,” says her friends kept bugging her to watch the show. When she finally did, she was alone in New Zealand and was “an absolute wreck afterward.” She adds, “I sent videos to my friends saying, ‘Why did you tell me to watch this?’ And I told my therapist, ‘I’ve just taken a nosedive!’”
Later, Wright reached out to her about starring in the episode. “When I arrived in South Africa, I played him that video, and it was exactly a year to the week it had happened,” recalls Howard. “And the episode was titled ‘Nosedive.’”
Sounds very “Black Mirror.”
For more discussion of the new “Black Mirror” episodes, tune in below.