Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.


Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erstwhile television critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker launched Black Mirror in 2011 on Channel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Netflix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a technological dystopia set in the very near future.  Invariably, the stories revolve around a societal What if question that is taken to its logical extreme.

The topics that each episode explore are momentarily intriguing, and it’s all glaringly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twenty minutes are generally fairly entertaining. But invariably the episode soon fizzles out, because Brooker is not really concerned with, and therefore not much good at, drama. He’s all too easily dazzled by the cleverness of his initial conceit. And his latest, Bandersnatch, continues the trend.

Black Mirror.

Nominally a feature film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much heralded hybrid, the interactive film. The idea of an interactive film emerged about 25 years ago as the digital revolution took off, and there were a number of factors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the deleted scene. At the same time, a new generation of video game consoles arrived, offering massively more sophisticated graphics. And the evolving world of Virtual Reality promised an even more impressive visual landscape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So viewers began to ask themselves, what if we could decide what happens in a story? Could we choose a version of the film with those deleted scenes, instead of the one that the film makers ended up deciding on? And if so, what other things could we change about the stories we watch? Bandersnatch is the realization of that fantasy.

Your first decision, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twenty minutes, you’re intrigued. You get ten seconds to make a black or white, Yes or No decision. And the story progresses, and ends, according to the decisions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choices, the film ends prematurely, and you’re offered the opportunity to go back to your “wrong” decision, and choose the other option. Of course you could politely decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obviously you don’t, you go back to follow the alternative story lines, with their choice of endings, to see what other ways the story could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an interesting idea, and it’s all terribly meta and frightfully clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your decision, that decision no longer has any weight or value. So any sense of tension and all the drama is immediately neutered. 

When one character says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this building, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 seconds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhilarating, and frightening and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the other decision, just to see what happens, before you know it, you’ll be glancing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you started playing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because interactive dramas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s really interesting. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Bandersnatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a really interesting polemic. And a polemic, like all the other Black Mirror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an article in Vanity Fair, or in one of the Guardian supplements, it would have provided for a really interesting distraction. But as a drama, never mind a 90 minute plus drama, it’s woefully dull and progressively tedious.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s secret sleeper star

BoJack Horseman.

Season 4 of BoJack Horseman aired on Netflix this past autumn, and if you’ve yet to be pointed in its very particular direction you’re in for a treat. It’s the latest in the long line of animated, adult dramedies that stretches back to South Park (reviewed earlier here), King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead and of course the Simpsons.

Ensconced in his hilltop, penthouse apartment in the mythical LA suburb of Hollywoo, BoJack is a washed-up hasbeen who used to the star of the squeaky-clean sitcom Horsin’ Around, who spends his days in a drug-fuelled, alcoholic haze of privileged self-pity.

Diane, Todd and BoJack.

The show’s stiletto humour stems from two sources. On the one hand, it’s a gloriously acerbic picking apart of the media landscape as the worlds of film, television and publishing are gleefully trashed. Brilliantly barbed one liners are fired back and forth with sarcastic brio, in the way that was supposed to have been done in the, whisper it, disappointingly overrated His Girl Friday.

And on the other, half of the characters are, by the bye, animals. So Bojack is in fact an actual horse. But his stoner houseguest Todd is a 20 something guy, and Diane, his soulmate and ghost writer is a 20 something girl. She though is married to BoJack’s best frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter, who’s a golden Labrador. And his agent Princess Caroline is a cat, who later hooks up with a wealthy mouse, heir to the Stilton Hotel fortune. What all this allows for is some fantastically laboured puns and slapstick, together with a plethora of ridiculously elaborate setups that eventually produce wonderfully silly pay-offs.

The main man, Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

All of which would be enjoyable enough. But what really elevates the series is the emotional depth and complexity that they manage to reap from the soapy storylines that they hang all this on. They do this, as Emily Nussbaum writes in her piece in the New Yorker here, by expanding the show’s horizons from season 2 on, by giving each of the protagonists their own storylines, instead of just focusing on BoJack, as they do in season 1. So you end up being as invested in Todd, Diane, Princess Caroline and even Mr Peanuttbutter, as you do in BoJack.

The result is both the funniest, and the most engaging show currently being aired anywhere on television. And it’s hard not to conclude that its showrunner and chief writer Raphael Bob Waksberg is some sort of a latter day Dorothy Parker. If you’ve yet to sample its delights, then by all means begin at the beginning, with season 1. But be warned, it gets significantly better from season 2 on.

You can see the trailer for season 4 of BoJack Horseman here. And here’s a 10 minute compilation of some of the funniest bits from season 2 here.

Sign up for subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

 




Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Netflix, What Is It And Should I Sign Up?

Netflix is the most successful Video On Demand provider in the US. And despite its impressive attempt at shooting itself in the foot last year by needlessly solving a non-existent problem, it’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

For a small monthly fee (€7 in Ireland), they give you access to their library of films and television series, which you can then stream as many as you like of via your internet connection.

So its principle selling points are, that on the one hand you don’t waste any of your precious hard drive space, as all of the titles are stored centrally by Netflix. And on the other, you have an extensive and limitless choice of titles to pick from. So, your access to the internet aside, what’s it like?

Well it’s certainly easy to sign up to, and they pride themselves on making it as painless as possible to unsubscribe from as well. The idea being, that the service they provide is something you can come back to at your leisure, when something you see there catches your eye. And I imagine that many of the people who availed of their introductory free month trial will very probably continue to subscribe subsequently. After all, you really only need to see a couple of films, or a tv series in any given month to justify the price of €7.

But if they’re hoping to make a serious dent in the market on this side of the Atlantic, then they’ll have to significantly expand the number of titles they give you to choose from. Naturally they’re only starting up now, and it’s very much a work in progress, but it is none the less a disappointingly limited selection.

On a more general level, what impact is streaming going to have on our every day lives? Well, as with most things connected with the internet, it’s not so much the death of one thing and the birth of the next, as it is a re-imagining of the overall landscape.

Just as cinema was not in fact killed off by the advent of television, and then video, dvd, cable and satellite. On the contrary, it was strengthened with their arrival by having its reach significantly extended. In effect, they provide cinema with what amounts to a whole new market in which to profit from. So too the internet, and specifically streaming will serve to yet further extend that reach, and to ever more firmly bind them all together.

The reason why streaming can never replace cinema or indeed television is simple. It’s completely reliant on the Hollywood studios that make so much of all the film and television that people most want to see for all its content. And those studios are only every going to drip feed the likes of Netflix after their cash cows, the Harry Potters and the Batmans, have duly earnt their crust in cinemas and on mainstream television first.

The only way around that is for Netflix to begin producing its own content, which is exactly what it’s begun doing. But it can no more be certain of producing the next sure fire hit than anyone else can, and would need in effect to become a rival studio in order to be able to compete on a level playing field. Which is of course what Sky has done by joining forces with 20th Century Fox. So rather than replacing anything, streaming becomes one more arm in an overall, global media strategy.

But the main and most obvious reason why streaming is most likely to add to rather than subtract from how we watch and listen to films, television and music is quite simply numbers.

In 1920, the world passed the two billion mark. Since then, it’s more than trebled, and by the middle of this century that number will have more than quadrupled. Furthermore, the number of people who now live in what is known as the developed world has exploded over the same period. So there are incalculably more people now all trying to watch and listen to the same sorts of things.

Add to that the fact all surveys suggest that those who do download, whether legally or illegally, tend to spend more than they used to on their entertainment, and it all points to the same thing. Streaming is one more means for a hugely enhanced landscape to expand even further.




Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.