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REVIEW: ‘Black Mirror's uneven new season doesn’t earn its optimism



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A still from Black Mirror's Season 5. The new season only has three episodes, a contrast to previous ones. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Happy endings are hard to come by in the harsh world of “Black Mirror,” but they’re all over this three-episode season. Instead of the usual turmoil, our heroes triumph: Damsels in distress are saved, sisterhoods are restored, compromises made.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel earned.

The season is oddly optimistic for “Black Mirror." The series needs its cynicism and bittersweet element. It’s what best sells the show as the modern, technology-centered answer to the speculative fiction tradition established with the original “The Twilight Zone” series.

The show has always been one that scolds the technology-reliant among us, and previous seasons have veered into preachy territorywith their messages. “Black Mirror” is at its best when it leaves audiences conflicted at the intersection of multiple questions, but all of the newest season’s offerings don’t deliver beyond slivers of interesting ideas.

The episodes don’t leave viewers with an uncomfortable feeling thinking about their own relationship with technology and how far they would be willing to go for its benefits.

Unfortunately, that’s the whole point of “Black Mirror.”

Saying we’re all addicted to social media isn’t groundbreaking anymore. Creators wanting to meaningfully engage with new understandings of privacy, presentation and the human condition need to give viewers morematerial to work with. This season ultimately doesn’t deliver, but it comes close.

The strongest episode of the three is the Anthony Mackie-led “Striking Vipers,” the show's latest exploration of the possibilities virtual reality video games offer.

The episode asks interesting questions about gender, sexuality and pornography while also including the season’s funniest line that has already inspired memes and references about polar bears — it'll make sense once you watch it — on social media.

But even in the standout episode, the writing is at times lazy and overly direct. You get the sense that creator Charlie Brooker doesn’t respect the audience enough to let them reason through a situation, insteadspoon-feeding basic plot points in an intelligence-insulting way.

Where much of the writing in this season is lacking, the acting is some of the strongest in the series so far. Maybe only the highs of standout season three episode “San Junipero” loom above this season’s performances.

“Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” follows a pop star, played by Miley Cyrus, who feels trapped by her branding and aunt-turned-manager. Cyrus is amazing in the role, maybe in part because the idea of her as a fatigued pop star struggling to reclaim her identity isn’t the most foreign concept.

Even the season’s weakest episode, “Smithereens,” gives Andrew Scott a part that’s impossible to look away from. Scott is known for playing Moriarty in BBC’s “Sherlock” and for his recent role as The Priest in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sharp and witty "Fleabag." The script in “Smithereens,” which reaches the rare benchmark of being both melodramatic and boring, doesn’t stand up to those other shows.

Scott’s performance in the episode, however, exceeds his work in the other shows. Not to spoil anything, but a sequence of mostly close-up shots of Scott talking on the phone delivers some of the finest acting seen in any episode of “Black Mirror.”

The season is also very strong visually, with the standout episode “Striking Vipers” being the best example. “Striking Vipers” was directed by Owen Harris, who also directed previous episodes “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back.” The three make an interesting trilogy on love in the time of technology and are all stunning to watch with their delicate and personal style.

In most areas, this season was exquisite. But “Black Mirror” isn’t a show fundamentally based on visual splendor or strong acting. The point is in the writing, in reveling in its own cleverness about the devices we use every day and inviting us to do so as well.

Too bad these scripts suck. Maybe the next season will be better, because we all know Netflix will probably never cancel it.

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