How often do you check your Facebook account after posting something particularly witty, hoping to catch people in the act of liking or loving your words? Does it give you a little thrill to find your latest picture being retweeted to the wider universe beyond your followers? What about revenge? Don't you love it when people are caught on camera making racist or sexist remarks and bring down upon themselves the wrath of the internet? Or when pizzerias that refuse to serve gay and lesbian couples find themselves deluged with terrible Yelp reviews?
Now, imagine a world in which every single interaction between people is embedded in social media. People carry around a smartphone with which they rate each other, every single glance or greeting, on a scale from one to five, and your current score is essentially your life: People rated at 4.5 or higher receive better terms on their loans, while people who fall below 3.0 may be barred from entering their place of employment. Somebody who doesn't like your bumper sticker or your shirt has the power to hurt you socially and financially. Your very life and livelihood depend entirely upon making nice with every other person you meet.
If those possibilities add up to a nightmare that might actually come to pass — well, the television series "Black Mirror" specializes in them. "Black Mirror," the third season of which recently debuted on Netflix, is perhaps best described as science fiction set five minutes in the future, with series creator Charlie Brooker eschewing the romance of far-off worlds to examine the horrifying (and more immediate) implications of trends within our own. Each episode is a self-contained story, which has earned the series numerous comparisons with "The Twilight Zone," though a better analogue might be the stories of Philip K. Dick, for more than anything else, "Black Mirror" calls into question the very idea of authenticity. To wit — the very first episode of the very first season entailed high-level discussions among the staff of the British prime minister and talking heads in the media as to whether their leader should have sex with a pig on live television in order to satisfy the demands of an apparent madman who had kidnapped a member of the royal family and was threatening to kill her.
But politics provides an easy target for explorations of inauthenticity. What about our personal lives? The third-season episode "Nosedive," with its social media nightmare, asks to what extent we perform this role of ourselves, especially with the rewards so tangible, while another season favorite of mine, "Shut Up and Dance," questions to what extent we are — and perhaps even should be — allowed private lives. In this episode, a teenager named Kenny (Alex Lawther) is being blackmailed by an unknown party who has hacked his laptop and thus acquired, via the camera, footage of him masturbating to internet pornography. This hacker puts Kenny in contact with various other blackmail victims all forced to play their roles in some larger, mysterious scheme lest their darkest secrets (a planned affair, racist emails) be released to their respective contacts. Lawther absolutely nails his portrayal of an awkward teenager out of his depth and willing to do anything to avoid that, to avoid being seen like the people in his videos (he's still just a child, after all). Easy to fault people in the public eye for their failures of virtue, but the public eye is everywhere these days, and virtue, it turns out, is just another performance.
"Nosedive" and "Shut Up and Dance" are just the tip of the iceberg. Other stories in this six-episode season explore the blurring between reality and increasingly advanced gaming systems, the dehumanization of enemies during war, the possibility of happiness in virtual reality, and much more. "Black Mirror" is not television to binge; each episode is emotionally wrenching (and will leave you scrambling to cover up all the internet-accessible cameras in your possession), but nothing in film or television better explores the world around the corner from now. St. Paul wrote that we see through a glass darkly, but "Black Mirror" reflects with horrifying clarity.