Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black Mirror Episode 1: "The National Anthem"


It's fitting that I learned about Black Mirror on Twitter, because episode one, “The National Anthem,” is about Twitter—and Facebook, and liveblogging, and sexting, and selfies, so very of the moment that it risks near-instant irrelevancy. Which in no way lessens the pleasures of watching it—in fact, the opposite is true.

The episode opens with a phone call informing British prime minister Michael Callow that Princess Anne, the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped. On video, Anne tearfully relays her kidnappers’ ransom demand: at 4:00 p.m. that day, the Prime Minister must "have full, unsimulated sexual intercourse" with a pig on live TV. When he sputters to his staff that they are not to let this information leave the room, they look at him in consternation. They got the video off YouTube, they say. It’s already gone viral.

This is a story not only about what unfolds at #10 Downing Street, but also, and more importantly, about the Internet response, each feeding off the other in a ravenously symbiotic relationship. From the moment the Anne video is posted, social media is all over it; British news networks, temporarily muzzled by a Defense Advisory Notice, scramble to catch up. None of the other networks are running the story yet, one UN News reporter says. “I hear Facebook’s coverage is pretty comprehensive,” snaps another. Yet another announces that The Guardian is liveblogging the event and running “a short thinkpiece on the symbolism of the pig.” The Prime Minister’s wife scrolls, horrified, through a slew of tweets like “Callow gonna get pig AIDS LOL,” hashtagged #PMpig and #trottergate and being posted at a rate of 10,000 per minute.

“The National Anthem” is a gripping, blackly comic and at times emotionally acute commentary on the dual nature of online memory. The Internet both never forgets—and forgets all too quickly. #trottergate is tailor-made for social media, which gobbles it up then tosses aside the bones as it scrolls down to the next scandal du jour—or du second. When it becomes clear that the PM and his staff can neither rescue Princess Anne nor outwit her kidnappers, one of his staff members assures him that it will be “a criminal offense to store any recording or still images of the event”—as if such a stopgap could possibly close these floodgates. But, as it turns out she needn’t worry—leave them alone, and they’ll close themselves.

Perhaps "The National Anthem"'s hyper-relevancy means it won’t age well—but, for this subject matter, a short lifespan seems appropriate. The episode is tears along at breakneck speed until ill-fated broadcast begins. Then, the camera cuts away from the television where the PM, fumbling with his belt, is approaching the pig, to pan in super-slow motion across the faces of a bar full of spectators who, perhaps, moments earlier, were posting the cruel tweets, their faces now twisted with disgust, disbelief and maybe even sympathy. This story is a mirror held up in front of us for the briefest of moments—but the glimpse we catch lingers.

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