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‘Black Mirror’ Season 3 Review: New Genres, New Talent Give Anthology Series an Upgrade

Netflix brings us six more character-driven glimpses into the way technology has changed society, and they're as fascinating as ever.

Bryce Dallas Howard in "Black Mirror."

Bryce Dallas Howard in “Nosedive” form S3 of “Black Mirror”

David Dettmann/Netflix

In the five years since the debut of Charlie Brooker’s fascinating anthology series, the idea of “like a ‘Black Mirror’ episode” has become a commonly recognized reference point, invoking notions of paranoia, absurdity and, perhaps, a healthy distrust of the ways we’ve allowed technology to shape our world.

But true to the show’s technology-obsessed mindset, “Black Mirror” is always evolving — or upgrading — as the case may be. Launching today on Netflix, the six new narratives go from social satire to police procedural to horror with a relatively new influx of American talent, but the same fascination with the darker impulses of our society.

READ MORE: ‘Black Mirror’ Producers on How Tears and Horror Help Them Find New Stories for Netflix

Much of the time, the experience of beginning a new episode feels similar to watching a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, where from the word go you’re trying to figure out the game. The decision to open the season with “San Junipero,” easily the least straightforward and most brain-twisty of the episodes, does nothing to discourage that impression. But this seems almost like a necessary hook for drawing viewers into new worlds and, more importantly, engaging with new characters.

On the latter point, working to “Black Mirror” Season 3’s advantage is a new ensemble of actors. The series has always been graced by great one-off talents like Jon Hamm, Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson and Rupert Everett, and now that rank is joined by Bryce Dallas Howard, Cherry Jones, Malachi Kirby, Kelly MacDonald and more.

Malachi Kirby in "Black Mirror"

The seven original episodes darted from full dystopia to prosaic reality at a breakneck pace, a tradition maintained with the move to Netflix, perhaps even more so. With six episodes in this first block (a second block of six is coming in 2017), the “Black Mirror” team felt the freedom to stretch a bit, and there’s an aim for hitting specific genres that offers enough variety to the tone.

Even with its new flexible runtimes, “Black Mirror” tends to rush the ending, perhaps because it delights so much in the game of its setup that resolution feels like an afterthought. As just one example, “Playtest,” directed by “10 Cloverfield Lane” helmer Dan Trachtenberg, is effectively creepy but doesn’t necessarily land on a satisfying conclusion.

In some ways, it’s scarier to watch “Black Mirror” than nearly any other show on television, because of its talent for hooking you into the lives of these characters… who you know you’re saying goodbye to at the end of the hour(ish). This means that literally anything can happen, and in “Black Mirror’s” case often that anything is pretty awful (but in the best way).

It’s tricky to say which of the six installments is the best, as they’re so varied, but “Nosedive” is perhaps the most notable standout, if only because of the talent involved. “Parks and Recreation’s” Mike Schur and Rashida Jones collaborated on the script for the episode, which depicts a world just slightly too obsessed with social media status, and director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) brings their words to life with vivid colors and forced social graces. When Lacey’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) obsession with that perfect five-star rating becomes an obsession, you know nothing good will come, but the ride it takes you on proves fascinating.

Faye Marsay, Jonas Karlsson, Esther Hall and Kelly Macdonald in "Black Mirror"

“Men Against Fire” might be the darkest installment, digging into the nature of wartime, though its twists aren’t quite on par with other episodes. Fortunately, “Hated in the Nation,” starring Kelly MacDonald as a detective seeking out the connections between a series of bizarre deaths, is such a compelling sci-fi procedural that it’ll delight “X-Files” fans (while maybe making them mad all over again at the wasted potential of Season 10).

As with any anthology series, each episode stands alone, but the overall picture painted proves to be more optimistic than one might expect. At the very least, it’s true what Brooker said at the Television Critics Association this summer: that “technology is never the villain” in “Black Mirror.” “It’s always about human failures and human messes.”

The very best aspect of “Black Mirror,” the thing that makes the show so compelling, is that Brooker and his collaborators have developed a real knack for taking these seemingly far-flung narratives and making them feel extremely relatable. You may not even notice right away, the way that these stories creep into your brain and make you reevaluate the way you interact with the world at large. But then you’ll find yourself antsy over a lack of Twitter likes, or engaging with apps too intensely, or just in general questioning the nature of your reality.

And that’s when you know you’re looking through the cracked screen of a black mirror.

Grade: A-

“Black Mirror” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix. 

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