Netflix UK TV review: Black Mirror Season 3, Episode 1 (Nosedive – spoilers)
Ivan Radford | On 21, Oct 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. For our spoiler-free review of Black Mirror Season 3, click here.
“We’re all so caught up in our own heads, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s real.” That’s Lacie in the first episode of Black Mirror’s bigger, bolder and backed-by-Netflix third season. This new incarnation of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series arrives with its upgraded budget worn on its sleeve: the first of its six stories takes place in the USA, the cast includes Bryce Dallas Howard, and the visuals are quietly jaw-dropping. But beneath its glossy surface beats the same, dark heart that has always made the show so unsettling.
Nosedive sets the tone immediately, as we’re introduced to Lacie in a world that could almost pass for our own. The idea is straight out of the Black Mirror playbook: what if everyone had their own rating out of 5, voted for by other people and always on display? Like Uber, but with humans instead of cars.
Lacie leads us into that world, a woman who’s a solid 4.2 out of 5, but desperately wants to climb into the exclusive 4.5-and-up bracket of “influencers”. And so she runs around with a constant smile on her face, practicing her laughs in the mirror, and posting pictures of carefully groomed coffee and biscuits on the web. All of it is designed to get positive online feedback, boosting her life score.
It’s a gloriously wicked satire on our rating-obsessed culture, as we see everyone trying to be ultra-polite to get a good score. Dip below 3.5, and you end up an outcast, marked out as not valuable. Get above 4.5 and you can get access to special deals on posh lifestyle complexes, living a perfect life alongside all the other big rankers.
Brooker’s spoken before about the gamification of platforms such as Twitter, which we treat as something we have to win, and Nosedive takes that logic to a scarily plausible extreme. Writers Rashida Jones and Michael Schur manage to capture all of that craving for approval and fear of being our flawed selves and create a world out of it with the minimum of exposition. Lacie’s brother, who lives on her sofa and doesn’t care about his low score, is a mildly clunky narrative device, but the unspoken interactions in Lacie’s workplace, as a colleague tries to get his rating back up by buying everyone else smoothies, are painfully realistic.
Bryce Dallas Howard is an ideal fit for Lacie, her strained mask of happiness perpetually on the brink of cracking – you can visibly see her frustration, as she positions her old cuddly toy on her desk at work for the ideal snap, or she swipes someone else a high rating on her smartphone in an increasingly deliberate way.
“Two stars?!” she exclaims at a worker at a car hire company, after he deals with her (aggressively nice) complaint about not having a charger for her electric vehicle. “It wasn’t a meaningful encounter,” he shrugs. The show repeatedly mines those everyday moments for the recognisable pressures of social convention, then follows them with a queasily familiar ringtone – up for a high rating, down for a low. The episode’s editing conditions us into waiting for that inevitable sound effect. Soon enough, we’re anticipating the fallout of every forced grin and barely concealed sigh.
So when Lacie gets a call from Naomi (“NayNay”), an old school friend who’s a high 4, their shrieks of elation at catching up ring entirely, hilariously false. When NayNay asks Lacie to be maid of honour at her upcoming wedding – we’ve already met her boyfriend via (how else?) online photos – Lacie’s desperate enthusiasm is simultaneously relatable and sickening.
Alice Eve is equally perfect as this perfect image of success (look at the number of times she’s been unfairly cast as a two-dimensional object in films). She’s more than what’s on the surface, of course; you can sense the strain in Eve’s always-on persona, the sheer effort it takes to do yoga and frame each Skype call perfectly.
As the titular Nosedive begins, Naomi’s flawless exterior is peeled back to reveal a reassuringly bitter underside. All it takes is one accidental coffee spillage on someone else to send Lacie’s rating spiralling – and her race to get to NayNay’s wedding only pushes her nearer and nearer to the edge of snapping. “I’m maid of honour, I can’t miss the flight,” she explains, exasperated, to the airline employee telling her that she’s going to have to miss the occasion. “I’m sorry about that,” comes the reply, with a calm friendliness that makes it clear she couldn’t give a flying monkey’s. The script really sparks in these exchanges; the false politeness of customer service employees has grown to define everyone.
Director Joe Wright brings this all to life with the glossy sheen and pastel colours of the most hipster Instagram account imaginable. Long tracking shots of Lacie running have the heightened artistry of an advert, while the production design is subtly immersive: visual ratings pop up by everyone’s face as soon as they’re on screen – we have no way of not seeing them, forcing us to make superficial judgements too – and the characters’ smartphones are only a translucent screen away from the latest models. Even the weather, courtesy of the Los Angeles-like backdrop, feels artificial. It’s like watching an episode of a TV show watched by people in The Truman Show.
Wright’s cinematic visuals are matched by a score from the inimitable Max Richter, whose work on The Leftovers is echoed by the happy/sad vibe of Nosedive’s main theme. As Lacie’s life gradually spins out of control, Richter gently weaves the noise of each downrating into the music, making it impossible to escape the number-fuelled ecosystem.
The result is bleak, but it’s also lighter than Black Mirror’s usual stories – and not just in terms of appearance. Unusually, the episode plays everything for comedy more than horror; a late cameo from Cherry Jones (whose caustic presence has been a highlight of Amazon’s Transparent) as a trucker unafraid to tell it like it is emphasises just how absurd the whole world has become. Of course, we discover, it’s not just Lacie consulting an expert on how to manage her social ranking; NayNay has her own expert too, well aware that a low-4 maid of honour has an authenticity that will play well with other users, while a low-3 will only look embarrassing.
The pacing is perfect, accelerating into the laughs rather than pausing for pathos. It’s only as Lacie gate-crashes the wedding reception (Naynay has inevitably found a more acceptable replacement) that the speech she has been reciting over and over to camera is finally heard in full – and it comes out wonderfully garbled, delivered slowly, with a burst of physical slapstick and fist-in-mouth awkwardness. Without music to accompany it, the scene feels (for the first time in the episode) unsettlingly raw. By the end, Howard is holding a knife and being dragged away by security in a way that feels oddly believable.
Only as she’s put in a cell without her social media lenses on does the music return and the sorrowful cello takes on a note of hope. Another lensless prisoner and she begin to swap insults, enjoying not having to worry about what the other thinks. It’s a refreshing antidote to Lacie’s cry of “I love you!” at NayNay’s wedding – a social media crush, rather than actual affection – and a genuinely funny piece of dialogue. “You look like an alcoholic former weatherman,” she spits at him. Sometimes, there’s nothing like being horrible to bring two people together.
The result is a masterfully crafted critique of our current status economy, where housing, transport, careers and mortgages are already determined by formulaic rankings – and where social media invites us to conflate status with Status. In a world where high follower counts on Twitter and YouTube have become signs of success and celebrity, and where taxi cabs can turn you down based on your score, Nosedive is an disturbingly hysterical, eerily accurate satire. But, more than that, it’s a thrilling statement of intent from the show: the first time Black Mirror has been laugh-out-loud funny throughout, this a bold opener that sees Brooker and co. sticking with what they do best, but daring to explore new tones and settings. It’ll leave you racing to the next episode – but not before rating this one out of five stars.
Black Mirror Seasons 1 to 3 are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.