I’m understanding why the first episode of “Black Mirror” did a painful Lars von Trier namedrop… because the show’s just Lars von Trier-lite. This episode eventually involves a young woman being pressured into becoming a porn performer—don’t worry it’s just a terminal subplot and her experience is entirely besides the point—and it’s like, oh, what if we objectified but completely de-centered and turned her into someone else’s property.
Fifteen Million Merits takes place in the future where the British(?) government’s boffins couldn’t figure out renewable energy when it was too late and the 99% spend their lives pedaling on stationary bicycles to make energy for the world(?). There aren’t a lot of details. There is some procreation—Jessica Brown Findlay remembers her mother, which apparently others don’t—but it’s unclear when and how it occurs. It’s also unclear if anyone has any sex ed outside the porno channel they have to pay not to watch when they’re cycling. No one in the episode exhibits actual attraction to another person besides lead Daniel Kaluuya and, presumably, Brown Findlay.
I didn’t recognize Brown Findlay from “Downton Abbey” until her flirting scene with Kaluuya, which is done exactly the same as her flirting scenes with Allan Leech on “Downton.” Not the greatest moment for the script, though the functional cravenness is pragmatic. Writers Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq aren’t going to be doing any character development (or even properly preparing the narrative to allow for character development), so why not just have recognizable cast members on the anthology show do their bits from their well-known shows?
In the future, the only way for the riders to get ahead is to go on the future “American Idol” (sorry, future “Pop Idol”) and entertain their way to a better life. Is it a better life? Unclear. Merits sets up numerous potential “Twilight Zone” gotchas only to always go the path of least resistance.
Kaluuya’s the lead. He’s a rider with an incredible amount of money saved up–Merits—which you get from biking and then can spend on your Metaverse avatars. Another thing about watching “Black Mirror” with a decade-plus delay is seeing where the tech billionaires have just lifted dystopian ideas whole. But you also have to pay to eat and wash, which doesn’t make much sense. Of course, it doesn’t make much sense to have the bicycles in communal areas—everyone lives in little rooms surrounded by screens; why not just have the bike in there too?
Despite the other girl who makes eyes at Kaluuya, it isn’t until Brown Findlay shows up he gets interested in the ladies. Is there some subtext to Kaluuya and porn mogul Ashley Thomas being the only Black people in the show with lines? Maybe not. Though definitely once it turns out Thomas’s porn movies are all about Black men degrading white women. Dystopia, huh?
The acting’s decent, all things considered. Kaluuya and Brown Findlay have to play people who only exist within the context of these exact forty-five minutes, which will really hurt both their performances by the end. Though since Brown Findlay is a lady and therefore disposable to the plot, she at least gets to stop participating at some point. Kind of. It’s not better for the episode, just better for her not having to try to keep the energy going in a middling effort.
Rupert Everett guest stars as Simon Cowell, though potentially an Australian one.
Budget-wise, the episode seems fine. Euros Lyn’s direction is another middling element, particularly with the reveal shots. Jamie Pearson’s cutting is good, regardless of the content. And Stephen McKeon’s music is solid.
Is it thought-provoking? Ish? It’s affecting, to be sure, but it’s entirely manipulative.