There's a perverse sort of symmetry at work with the latest season of "Black Mirror" arriving during the holidays. With many prospective viewers still spending time with their families — or avoiding them via our many hand-held screens — what better way to bring them closer than through Charlie Brooker's bleak and often biting anthology series about the many ways technology could further ruin our lives?
Named after the visual reflection of our devices when powered off, "Black Mirror" began in 2011 as an import from the U.K.'s Channel 4, and memorably kicked off with a bizarrely prescient episode about a prime minister's close relationship with a pig (Google it). Since then it has resembled a sort of "Twilight Zone" for the digital age, imagining not-too-distant futures of Yelp-like ratings for people, a dystopian endgame for "American Idol" and how digital footprints could yield a haunting sort of immortality. The series was acquired by Netflix in 2015 and the six-episode fourth season — debuting Friday — marks its second since coming to the streaming service.
Of course, for all its cautionary examples of technology run amok, the series earned its greatest notice for "San Junipero," a timeless, digitally enhanced love story that constituted its most hopeful moment and earned two Emmys out of three nominations earlier this year.
Brooker has acknowledged that the grim sociopolitical climate while he was writing in 2016 led him toward similar such flickers of hope in this season. But whether that will be enough to keep someone watching will prove to be in the eye of the beholder, and the show's often nihilistic world view isn't the biggest issue.
With rotating casts and directors, anthology series are uneven by nature, and this season feels more so as "Black Mirror" occasionally struggles to capture the sense of surprise that was long its greatest strength.
"Arkangel," the cinematic series opener directed by Jodie Foster, imagines a sophisticated surveillance device that seizes upon the fears of a helicopter parent (Rosemarie DeWitt). In a familiar flourish, the episode's technology is less of a threat than the behavior it enables and amplifies, and the deterioration of the relationship between mother and daughter (Brenna Harding) feels all but inevitable, which diminishes its impact.
Similarly atmospheric with its frozen Icelandic setting, "Crocodile" may be the season's least satisfying for its downward predictability. Directed by John Hillcoat, whose work on "The Road" and "The Proposition" testifies to his skills in depicting the worst human impulses, the episode hinges on a woman with a dark secret (Andrea Riseborough) and the lengths she will go to protect it. The technology of the episode — so much is accomplished in the "Black Mirror" universe by placing a lozenge-sized device on your temple — becomes almost secondary as an average person's descent to cruelty strains disbelief more than what ultimately implicates her.
The post-apocalyptic chaos of "Metalhead" will also look familiar for anyone who's seen "The Road" or "28 Days Later," but it benefits from a compact, breathlessly paced story (the season's shortest at around 40 minutes) that pits a desperate woman (Maxine Peake) against a mechanized "dog." Shot in black-and-white for maximum bleakness, the episode draws inspiration from the clumsily cute yet terrifying four-legged subjects from the Boston Dynamics robotics videos that go viral once every few months, and is all the more haunting for it.
In a telling indication that Brooker's instincts to lighten up this season were correct, the most enjoyable episodes are also his least weighty. The "Star Trek"-spoofing "U.S.S. Callister" was teased in one of the season's trailers, and a rich cast of Jesse Plemons, Michaela Coel, Cristin Milioti and Jimmi Simpson relish mocking some of that series' vintage tropes, though a rescue effort that's drawn straight from the "Black Mirror" playbook may be its most meta moment of all. And "Hang the DJ," an examination of an all-encompassing, decision-making dating app of the future, looks toward the messiness of a burgeoning romance (Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) with a sneaky optimism that may exceed what made "San Junipero" so involving.
As if to cleanse the palate from those notes (and, in a glancing reference, "San Junipero" as well), Brooker closes with "Black Museum," a sort of anthology episode in its own right that features a perhaps Brooker-esque curator (Douglas Hodge) of a roadside attraction leading a guest (Letitia Wright) through his collection of artifacts of technologically assisted torment and trauma. "Fun story, huh?" he asks her at one point, sneering like a carnival barker.
It's by far the season's darkest, most grotesque ride and, to an extent, raises the question of whether the viewer is the one most tormented. Or whether, perhaps, the episode's extended examination of crime and punishment will be a favorite for someone with a specific appetite.
In the tradition of "Black Mirror," the best and worst are often all in your reflection.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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