by Mitch Pollock
Black Mirror landed on British television in 2011 like a bomb. Its debut episode, “The National Anthem,” presents a standard political thriller plot: a beloved British princess has been kidnapped. Then comes a wickedly absurd twist: the only acceptable ransom is for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig, live on television. Yes, really. But the bigger twist is that this grotesque display isn’t really the point of the episode. The resolution is less about whether he goes through with it (spoiler: he does) and more about the disturbing voyeurism of the public: no one can stop themselves from watching. It presents what is Black Mirror’s guiding thesis: technology isn’t the problem—we are. It can help solve our biggest problems or reveal the darkest parts of our nature.
Fans of Black Mirror know “The National Anthem” is only the beginning of the show’s risky, groundbreaking storytelling. The six episodes comprising the first two seasons proved Black Mirror a worthy successor to The Twilight Zone, updated for the information age. Netflix noticed its success and offered creator Charlie Brooker a deal to produce series three, with bigger budgets, double the episodes-per-season (from three to six), and a new international scope.
Bigger budgets and long seasons freed Brooker to flex his creative muscles. The Netflix Black Mirror installments include an expanded variety of visual styles, themes, narrative structures, and genres. Brooker has offered up Black Mirror twists on romantic comedies (“Nosedive,” “Hang the DJ”), war films (“Men Against Fire”), and police procedurals (“Hated in the Nation”), among others. My favorite example of the show’s bold, genre-bending storytelling since partnering with Netflix is last season’s “USS Callister.” It’s the funniest episode to date, but also reflects the darkness that’s often just below the surface of passionate fandom. Also, despite being a spoof, it’s probably the best Star Trek episode this century, though I’d have to check with The Short Loop’s resident Trekkie, Alex Wheaton, on that point.
This history led us to the show’s most experimental entry yet: “Bandersnatch,” an interactive film released on Netflix in December. It centers on Stefan, a teenage computer game developer who tries not to lose his mind while working on his passion project, a sprawling choose-your-own-adventure game. At least, that’s how the story starts; the viewer must then make decisions for Stefan, and the story diverges with each choice. This leads to a different experience each time you watch—or “play.”
The result is a set of interlocking story paths so complicated, its creators disagree on how many endings exist. Netflix has claimed there are five main endings, while others involved with the production have said six or twelve. Director David Slade said that so much material was filmed, “some people will just never see” some of the endings. As for Brooker, he told the Hollywood Reporter, “My answer to the question of how many endings there are is: All of them.”
So, what do all those endings add up to? Does the story match the ambition of the form? After spending hours on this experience, I’ve concluded that the “Bandersnatch” story on its own is merely average for Black Mirror, which certainly isn’t bad. It brilliantly links the themes with the structure. As Stefan dives deeper into his game and his mind starts to slip, he doubts his own free will and wonders about alternate timelines where things may have gone differently for him and his family. Certain story strands take this in a very meta direction: Stefan can become aware of the forces beyond his control that dictate his actions. Choose the right path and he might even discover the existence of a future entertainment platform called “Netflix.” The meta narrative is fun, and there are moments that provoke genuine reflection on free will and the immutability of the past. But too often, the film is content to raise these questions and move on; there’s no resolution for Stefan or the viewer. Most of the endings I found were cool and interesting but ultimately unsatisfying (with one possible exception that io9 dives into here).
But “Bandersnatch” is more radical than a regular episode for several reasons. Both the technology behind it and the finished experience are fascinating. Netflix first experimented with interactivity with a few children’s specials, but they wanted to go much bigger for their first adult story. So, they approached Black Mirror, and “Bandersnatch” was conceived. While Brooker nearly lost his mind writing a script that got more complicated each day, Netflix had an even harder task.
The dynamic story led Netflix developers to engineer a tool called Branch Manager to “track state” while in the app. The tool allows the film to remember all the viewer’s choices, even if they loop back to an earlier point to try again. Some story paths can only be accessed this way: Stefan might have to make the wrong choice before he makes the right one. This proprietary software will be used for future interactive projects at Netflix. They also had to make sure that the platform could support a smooth decision-making mechanism for their millions of users across all devices (Google Chromecast and Apple TV are the only devices not supported). All this work delayed the rest of series five, which was supposed to launch shortly after “Bandersnatch.” It’s now slated for later in 2019. When it was all said and done, the creative and technical effort took over a year.
It’s no coincidence that Black Mirror upped its creative game after the Netflix deal. Netflix’s efforts to make “Bandersnatch” work are a continuation of a decade-plus of innovation. They invented streaming entertainment in 2007. The concept of “bingeing” television originated with Netflix, first through their licensing of shows like “Breaking Bad,” then through original content, starting with House of Cards in 2013. Free from the confines of network TV time slots, studio mandates, and advertising, the creators behind Netflix shows could experiment with and redefine season and episode lengths. The freedom Netflix gives to these creators has led to some of the most innovative shows on television.
Netflix’s greatest disruption, which feeds into all the others, is how they utilize user data to make decisions. Their Big Data algorithms are for more than user recommendations. They help the company make decisions on what content to produce and license. They’ve even given showrunners notes based on algorithm results, which Maniac director Cary Fukunaga recently revealed. Some might assume that Netflix’s Big Data approach to programming would inhibit risk-taking, but their track record suggests otherwise (Just look at Maniac. It’s the craziest show they’ve ever made!) This data-driven approach has helped them find their biggest hits, like House of Cards and Stranger Things, by knowing their audience’s tastes better than any other entertainment company.
A review of Netflix’s past year validates their innovative culture. Their first sensation-causing show, House of Cards, came to an end. They caused new sensations with popular debuts like The Haunting of Hill House and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. They put out great new seasons of existing favorites like Daredevil, BoJack Horseman, Ozark, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and American Vandal. They let Fukunaga throw every genre, concept, and visual technique he could think of into Maniac. They signed new deals with huge names: the Coen Brothers, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, and the Obamas, to name a few. And they capped off the year with two high-impact movies. Roma, directed by acclaimed director Alfonso Cuaron, has entered awards season with high hopes of making Oscar history. And Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, was viewed by 47 million people in its first week on the platform and spawned the first great memes of 2019.
“Bandersnatch” is simply the latest entry for both Black Mirror and Netflix in their long records of groundbreaking entertainment. I look forward to Black Mirror series five later this year; perhaps I’ll write about it. But I’m even more excited to see what Netflix does with this new technology and mode of storytelling, this year and beyond. If their history is any indication, “Bandersnatch” is just the first bomb to drop.