One of the new episodes of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” takes place in a terrifying technological dystopia where almost every person is hopelessly addicted to small black devices, oblivious to the real world around them.
In other words, it takes place in 2018.
While “Black Mirror” usually takes place in the near future, its episode “Smithereens” takes place in the here and now, following a grieving rideshare driver (Andrew Scott, aka Hot Priest on “Fleabag”) who kidnaps an intern at a social media company who he blames for all the problems in the world. Because it looks straight at our app-obsessed present, rather than inventing some new technology to serve as a metaphor, there’s something potent about the episode that makes it the best of the three new ones released last week.
“Black Mirror” is an anthology series, which means every episode tells a different story, each related to technology and its impact on humanity. Originally a BBC series, the show shifted to Netflix in its third season, and there’s overall been a slight warming in the show’s tone. While there are still some very dark, very scary episodes, like last season’s “Crocodile,” other episodes like Season 3’s “San Junipero” or Season 4’s “U.S.S. Callister” suggest the possibility of a happy ending, or at least not an unredeemably bleak one.
While “Smithereens” is pretty bleak, the other two episodes in Season 5 continue this warming trend. “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” is definitely getting the most attention, starring Miley Cyrus as a glitzy pop star named Ashley O. The episode at first focuses on Rachel (Angourie Rice), a shy, lonely teenager who is obsessed with Ashley and tries to be inspired by her bubbly, positive messages.
Rachel’s father buys her “Ashley Too,” an Alexa-like device that looks like a little robot version of Ashley, and supposedly has her consciousness downloaded into it. As Rachel becomes obsessed with Ashley Too, treating her like a new best friend, she shuts out her older sister Jack (Madison Davenport) and the other kids at school.
But, in real life, Ashley is anything but positive and bubbly. Tired of the pop-star game and chafing under the control of her aunt and manager (Susan Pourfar), Ashley yearns to bust out of her bubble and become a real artist. As Ashley and her manager struggle for control of her life, Rachel’s Ashley Too robot begins to resemble the real, unfiltered Ashley.
The episode is a lot of fun, especially since director and series creator Charlie Brooker shoots it in a heightened, stylized way that resembles those made-for-Disney-Channel shows and movies Cyrus used to star in. But somewhere along the way it loses its focus; after spending so much time developing Rachel’s character, she’s largely pushed to the side to focus on Ashley’s drama. Still, it’s a clever episode, not least because sharp-eared listeners will notice that Ashley O’s big sunny hit song is really a reworked version of the very un-sunny Nine Inch Nails song “Head Like a Hole.”
The last episode of Season 5 is “Striking Vipers,” in which a “Street Fighter”-type video game becomes an unlikely conduit for two old college friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They played the original version of the game in college years ago, and now in their 30s, decide to reconnect by playing a new virtual reality version.
What happens inside the game between them won’t be revealed, but it certainly sends their relationship in a different direction. The pacing of the hourlong episode is a little sluggish, but the performances are good. Like the best of “Black Mirror,” the story isn’t about new technology, so much as what we reveal about our essential natures — sometimes noble, often not — when that new technology becomes part of our lives.
Also on streaming: Don’t sleep on “When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s searing four-part Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five, five teenagers of color who were wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape in the 1980s.
Mix a little Scandinavian crime noir with stunning New Zealand locations, and you have the Denmark-New Zealand co-production “Straight Forward,” which premiered Monday, June 10, on Acorn TV. The gritty crime thriller follows a con artist’s attempts to stay out of the grips of a vengeful crime boss.