SERIES "Black Mirror"
WHEN | WHERE Season 5 starts streaming Wednesday on Netflix.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Comprising this anthology's fifth season, there are three episodes. "Smithereens," about Chris (Andrew Scott, "Fleabag") who works for a London-based ride-sharing company and who is stalking the offices of a social media giant, Smithereens. He needs to talk to the company CEO (Topher Grace). One day, Chris picks up a Smithereens employee (Damson Idris, "Snowfall"). In "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," a high school student, Rachel (Angourie Rice) asks her dad for a special birthday present -- an Ashley Too, an Alexa-like device, which is modeled on pop star Ashley O (Miley Cyrus). And in "Striking Vipers," a pair of old friends, Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, "Aquaman") and Dan (Anthony Mackie, the "Avengers" franchise) reunite when Karl gives his pal a particularly vivid virtual reality game they both can play together, remotely.
MY SAY Any good writer needs a break from routine, and one of TV's more gifted ones, "Black Mirror" czar Charlie Brooker, got that with "Bandersnatch." The surprise "Black Mirror" movie drop late last year was unlike anything he or anyone else had ever done, by essentially putting viewers in control of the story's fate. It was a gimmick, but at least a gimmick consistent with the true meaning of "Black Mirror:" Technology has ingenious ways of sucking us in, and keeping us in.
The fifth season is a return to routine — just three episodes like the first, and also a return to "Mirror's" familiar theme, of the Svengali-like hold that little device in our hands maintains over us. But Brooker clearly wants to prevent routine from becoming routinized, which means more stretches. Miley Cyrus' brain is downloaded into an Alexa-like doll. Is that stretchy enough for everyone?
While not exactly Cyrus's brain — rather, it's her character's, but the distinction in this episode feels unimportant. Ashley O is supposed to be a Miley Cyrus, or a Miley Cyrus 2.0. She's an assembly-line pop music star with all the right dance moves, and all the right songs, each one indistinguishable from the other. Ashley O could be interpreted as a sendup of the Old Miley, except Cyrus and Brooker seem to have a broader, easier target here -- a rapacious industry that would be happy to turn a star into a vegetative state, as long as the star's brain kept producing songs.
There's an interesting idea somewhere in here, far from a routinized one. But "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is essentially a dystopian Disney Channel movie, or perhaps some "Very Special" episode of "Hannah Montana" (the one perhaps where Hannah's dad and manager, Robby Ray Stewart, turns into a psychopath?) It's a little bit of slapstick, a little bit of drama, all wrapped in a few broad messages about predatory music industry marketing practices. It also feels particularly off-brand for "Black Mirror."
"Striking Vipers" is better. Deploying simulated reality -- think the same technology of fourth season standout "USS Callister" -- it explores human sexuality, and intimacy, and the taproots of desire, in this instance, same-sex desire.
The standout of the three, however, is "Smithereens." Like the most effective "Black Mirror" episodes, you're left on your own, following a story that offers no bearings, fewer clues. A gifted actor, Scott sells the episode in every scene, raging against an unseen enemy. As you will see, the enemy is a familiar one.
BOTTOM LINE A spotty return, while only one episode, "Smithereens," is a flat-out winner.