blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Black Mirror (2011) s02e01 – Be Right Back

Okay, now I’m beginning to understand some of the “Black Mirror” hype. Despite its trying for too clever and not getting there title, Be Right Back is fantastic. It overcomes director Owen Harris having one shot and repeating it over and over again: lead Hayley Atwell is on one side of the frame, the other side of the frame is empty space; it’s like Harris composes for a smartphone.

Speaking of smartphones… they’re the obvious thing Back gets wrong about its future. The episode aired in 2013 when smartphones were still small and clunky, so the future phones are small and slim. There’s also some hilarious stuff with Atwell’s touchscreen laptop, which is a commercial for why the product category hasn’t taken off. But, otherwise, no real notes on Back’s future. Though, asterisk. Charlie Brooker’s script ignores a whole lot of Atwell’s story so as to not talk about the future practicalities.

Atwell’s a young widow. Actually, wait. Unclear on her and Domhnall Gleeson’s marital status. It sure seems like they’re married—they’ve been together ten years, and they’re renovating his dead mum’s house to live in, which seems like a married thing. But when he’s been gone a few months, Atwell’s sister (Claire Keelan) is thrilled to see Atwell shacking up with some new guy. I mean, grieve how you’re going to grieve, which is also the episode plot.

See, in this future, they—they being the brandless tech companies (the least believable thing about “Black Mirror”… its intentional lack of capitalist reality)—have made a large language model you can train with a dead loved one’s online presence so you can converse with them. Upgrades start basic, with you uploading private emails for better training, but it can also do fake voices (better than the fake voices in last season’s “Black Mirror” future, where they never fixed crappy robot voices). Since FaceTime wasn’t a thing yet, Back doesn’t involve any video calls.

I mean, Skype was a thing, right?

Anyway. The story’s about what happens as Atwell starts using the zombie email service to cope with her grief and new stresses. She goes from reluctant to addicted, eventually upgrading to the OT VIII level, which will change her life forever.

The story’s pretty good, but Atwell and Gleeson are spectacular. They’re great alone; they’re great together. It’s Atwell’s show—episode—but Gleeson’s essential.

So, the secret to “Black Mirror” is apparently genuinely great performances to glaze over mediocre production and cravenly plotted scripts.

To be fair to Brooker, Back is one of the few cases where something continues past its natural ending to find an even better one. Except, of course, the only reason they pull it off is Atwell and Gleeson.

They’re so good.

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