Black Mirror has made its name depicting oppressively dark visions of our future in neat little 60-minute installments. The best moments of its genre-bending new season, however, come when Black Mirror lightens up.
By far the most ambitious episode of the season, and likely to be its biggest crowd pleaser, is ”USS Callister,” a feature-length Star Trek spoof starring Jesse Plemons as the preternaturally charismatic captain of a starship. Plemons is magnificent in the role, speaking every word with a hilarious air of hubris that’d make Captain Kirk jealous. He’s joined on the USS Callister by a crew of very intentional genre clichés: the vaguely “foreign” assistant, the geeky engineering officer, and, most importantly, the beautiful love interest, who inexplicably wears less clothing than everyone else.
“USS Callister” is wholly unlike anything the dystopian tech series has ever attempted, and the result is a surprisingly funny and effective trek into the final frontier. That’s about all I can divulge, as Netflix has requested that critics don’t give away any of the specific plot twists, but know that, despite the quirky genre turn, it’s still very much a Black Mirror episode.
The other highlight of the new batch of episodes is “Hang the DJ.” It’s essentially, “what would Match.com look like in a hundred years?” The episode follows two good-looking 20-somethings (Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole) who are paired up via a highly advanced dating system that brings its users one step closer to their mathematically perfect match with every partner. The episode’s trailer shows how the system’s faceless AI, or whatever it is, tells users exactly how long their relationships will last before they even begin. Fall in love with your match? Too bad, you only have a few hours together. Hate the person you’re linked with? Tough luck, you have to spend a year with him.
As a story mainly about a creepy futuristic technology, “Hang the DJ” is more recognizable as the Black Mirror we’re used to than “USS Callister” is. But, at heart, it’s really a romantic comedy, exploring the ups and downs, laughs and frustrations, ecstasies and despairs of dating. Think When Harry Met Sally, if Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s “chance encounters” were orchestrated by a computer. In topic and tone, “Hang the DJ” is evocative of “San Junipero,” the most moving and acclaimed episode of the previous Black Mirror season. I cried at the end of both.
A few of the other new episodes are deeply compelling, if not quite as memorable: “Metalhead,” a black-and-white mini horror movie directed with stylish precision by Hannibal‘s David Slade, and “Black Museum,” an anthology episode that tells the stories of three different technological artifacts housed in a tacky roadside stop somewhere in the American West. The remaining two episodes, “Arkangel” and “Crocodile,” are fine but largely forgettable paranoid tech thrillers.