by Josie Kafka
The first episode of Black Mirror’s third season portrays a world taken over by a hive-mind logic, in which the only permissible outrage is passive-aggressive downvoting, and the only credit score that matters is your likeability index.
Written by Michael Schur (Parks and Rec, The Good Place) and Rashida Jones (an actress most known for Parks and Rec, but also a writer—she penned Celeste and Jesse Forever), “Nosedive” is the closest Black Mirror comes to comedy. That is, if you count depressing, and all-too-close to reality, to be a comic mode.
Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) lives in an Instagram-worthy world of pastels, perfect selfies, and poreless skin. Since everyone is rated, everyone thinks constantly of their ratings. Grumpiness, or even just a desire to “get real” (as the old reality show described it) doesn’t just lead to innocuous-but-embarrassing downvotes. A low ranking can get you fired from your job or prevent you from getting a place to live.
This world allows for some delightful gags that are, of course, on the nose: Lacie taking a perfect bite of her cookie to take a picture of it, but then spitting it out (since she struggles with her weight) was a beautiful epitome of a society in which superficiality rather than sincerity rules the day.
However, the inauthenticity of this world is quite frightening, as we see when Lacie experiences the nosedive towards social irrelevance that gives this episode its title. In her quest for likeability (spurred by the need to find a new home), she winds up doing everything she can to make it to a former friend’s wedding. Of course, “doing everything she can” means obvious effort and complex emotions, both of which wind up working against her in a world that considers sprezzatura to be the vital ingredient of perfection.
Cherry Jones’s character underscores the horrors of this world. Her portrayal of truck-driver Bets is bittersweet, since she is the wisest character we meet, but also the one who has truly lost what matters: her husband was refused cancer treatment because his score wasn’t high enough. There’s something humorous-slash-horrifying, too, in the way that her survival kit consisted mostly of a thermos of alcohol.
Then again, what other response is there to a world like that, other than to opt out and screw the consequences? It’s a problem at least as old as Socrates, who argued that an unexamined life is not worth living; Thoreau would probably add that a peer-pressured life is equally untenable.
Lacie’s own reaction is less philosophical and more primal, though. Having reached the absolute nadir of unlikeability, dirty, kicked out of her friend’s exclusive wedding, and jailed for the crime of being unlikable (well, and threatening people with a cake knife), Lacie shouts vicious insults at the man in the next cell as he shouts them back. It’s the perfect freedom of not caring, of connecting perfectly to someone through authentic emotions, and it’s the closest thing to hope this show will probably ever offer.
Years ago, showrunner Charlie Brooker described Black Mirror as “the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes time if we're clumsy.” In an odd bit of synchronicity, “Nosedive” portrays the way we’re living right now if the Peeple app—which rates humans like Yelp rates restaurants—takes off. And it looks horrible.
• Interesting, isn’t it, that the four people we see really downvoted are two women who don’t fit traditional beauty standards (Cherry Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard) and two men of color (the co-worker with the smoothies and the guy in jail)?
• Speaking of beauty and Bryce Dallas Howard: I spent the whole episode admiring her poreless skin, only to realize—in the last scene—that it was just really good makeup. And, behold, she looks so much more beautiful with panda mascara and her freckles shining through. It’s such a gorgeous shot that reminds us that the most beautiful things are the most real.
• Many people have noticed the similarity between this world and the world of MeowMeowBeanz on the Community episode “App Development and Condiments.” Charlie Brooker says he has not watched Community, which is a pity—please watch it, Mr. Brooker!
Four out of four tapenades.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)