Those of us who revere “The Twilight Zone” generally aren’t inclined to call any other series “the new ‘Twilight Zone.’ ” Rod Serling’s 1959-1964 anthology classic, with its provocative short stories on future shock, cosmic irony, and political extremism, is in a league of its own. In stark black and white, with literary touches, it delivered all the deep global anxieties of the Atomic Age.
But the brilliant anthology series “Black Mirror” comes awfully close. It’s a different beast from “The Twilight Zone” in its state-of-the-art production values and longer episode lengths. The show is an iPhone compared to the ticking wristwatch that was “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a sleek techno song compared to the insect-fear sounds of the original’s Marius Constant theme. But the subjects of “Black Mirror” — high-tech, the future, group behavior — are nearly as chilling and darkly satirical. The six new episodes of season three, each self-standing, just became available Friday on Netflix.
The territory of “Black Mirror,” created by Charlie Booker, is actually juicier than “the future,” that vague idea drifting out there in time. The show is specifically about the near future, set in worlds that look remarkably like our own — except for a few significant tweaks. There’s no “Blade Runner”-esque stylings here; Brooker and his writers give us logical progressions forward from life as we know it now, slight exaggerations that warn about present dangers. They’re dystopian visions, but painfully familiar. When I saw the movie “Her,” I remember thinking that it would have made a good episode of “Black Mirror.”
A number of other TV shows have also been dabbling in the near future. “Orphan Black,” “Humans,” and even “Westworld” traffic in our tomorrows and day-after-tomorrows rather than the year 2525. Post-apocalyptic series are still thriving, with the likes of “The Walking Dead,” “The Strain,” “12 Monkeys,” and “The 100”; but their catastrophic scenarios transport us to a scary time and place that seems somewhat Other. They’re apparitions of such extremity, often with supernatural elements, that they’re more easily dismissed than the near-future dramas. “Black Mirror” and its ilk reach us where we live, they take our current way of life and inch it toward the edge without going over it. There may be an apocalypse on the way, what with all these clones and artificially intelligent creatures, but these shows take place in the meantime.
Like “Her,” condensed versions of “Orphan Black,” “Humans,” and “Westworld” would probably make great episodes of “Black Mirror.” They all describe 2016 2.0 or, in the case of “Westworld,” 3.0. We have drones, we have smart technologies that get to know us, we have self-driving cars, we interact with computer voices on the phone; what’s next, in this time of rapid development, and what is disturbing about it? The robots in “Humans,” like those in “Westworld,” are beginning to behave independently of their human owners, or their owners are becoming inordinately attached to them — which sounds far-fetched until you think of how much many of us rely on and play with and live through our personalized phones.
One of the best new “Black Mirror” episodes, “Nosedive,” is about a time when social media has fully taken over. Right now, we “like” or add emoticons to Facebook postings; in “Nosedive,” we rate one another from 0-5 based on each posting we make, and the higher our overall rating average, the more social and financial benefits we get. It’s like a digital caste system. Bryce Dallas Howard plays an insecure woman named Lacie, a 4.2 who desperately works to improve her ratings by staging happy photo ops and practicing her smile in the mirror.
Like everyone in her circle, Lacie amps up the fake niceness during her encounters. She doesn’t just post an idealized version of her life on Facebook, as we do now; she creates an alternative made-up self. No matter how miserable she is on the inside, the outside is always cheery and ready to be rated. She lives in fear of others’ judgments. The look of the episode, directed by Joe Wright and co-written by Mike Schur and Rashida Jones of “Parks and Reacreation,” matches Lacie’s sickly sweet online persona, with the pastel colors running rampant. “Nosedive” is a social media nightmare.
Another episode, “Shut Up and Dance,” is about what happens when your computer doesn’t only track you, cookies style, but gains enough damning information to blackmail you. I won’t get into spoiler details, but if you think about identity theft and the next generations of webcams, GPS devices, and various tech conveniences, you can see how episode co-writers Brooker and William Bridges came up with this particular version of modern terror.
Before Netflix produced the six new episodes of “Black Mirror,” the show — two short three-episode seasons and one Christmas special — came from the UK’s Channel 4. So that means there are 13 stories — all good, some better — waiting for newcomers on Netflix. They’re waiting to frighten, to invite you think about your life, to make you wince, and to make you laugh. Look, that’s the signpost up ahead. Your next stop: Black Mirror.