For those for whom Christmas means ear-worm singles played on repeat in the shopping centre as you frantically buy plastic consumer tat for relatives you don’t actually want to eat turkey and Brussels sprouts with, king of the misanthropists Charlie Brooker has a gift: a very un-merry Christmas special of Black Mirror, the former Guardian TV critic’s own creepy drama about how the technology we use today could change – and change us – tomorrow. Unfortunately, for fans of the show it’s the equivalent of the temptingly wrapped present that turns out to be, if not a total disappointment, at least not as exciting as you hoped – a Boots gift box, maybe.
Black Mirror: White Christmas begins in a snow-bound cabin where, we’re told, Matthew (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall) have been working for five years but barely said a word to each other. But today is Christmas, and Matthew is eager to prepare the roast potatoes and share the stories of how they got there. They should be interesting – as he says, “No one ends up here without things going to total shit for them out there.”
Black Mirror‘s unique appeal lies in Charlie Brooker’s twisted visions of how technology could develop, which have included brain-implanted microchips that allow people to record and play back their memories and a dystopian future where the only escape is competing in an X-Factor-style TV contest, and managed to be both stunningly original and frighteningly plausible. There are similarly imaginative ideas here, such as a pick-up artist scheme where men watch each other’s attempts to seduce women and offer advice through, again, brain microchips, and the idea of social media ‘blocks’ applying to a person in real life so you can’t see or hear each other. “Nothing is too real”, Matthew says at one point, and the show has some moments of intelligent exploration of whether experiencing life through a screen means that simulations are real or reality is fake.
However, the two non-Christmas series of Black Mirror had forty-minute episodes to develop their conceits in detail, explore all their implications and flesh out their characters, achieving an effect which often shattered the viewer by the closing credits. Brooker here tries to tell three separate stories, linked together by the wider mystery of what Joe and Matthew are doing together, in seventy minutes. The anthology format inevitably means that the stories have to be compressed, and they often fall into overdone melodrama or sentiment in a bid to achieve the same emotional impact as a full episode of the original show without the same complexity. Mad Men star Jon Hamm is hardly breaking new territory in the role of a charismatic professional with womanising tendencies, but he is compelling as Matthew, capturing the confident charm that makes everyone want to trust him despite the moral bankruptcy that lies beneath. Rafe Spall, however, gives such a muted performance as Joe that it’s hard to get engaged in the character’s story.
Another major problem is that, despite his skill in imagining futuristic visions, Charlie Brooker has sometimes seemed bound by some retrograde notions of writing women. Black Mirror’s female characters often exist only as foils or objects of desire for the male leads, and from the vulnerable TV show contestant in ’15 Million Merits’ to the ambitious wannabe politician in ‘The Waldo Moment’, their characterisation is mostly focused on wobbling between Madonna and whore. These same sexist caricatures are on display in ‘White Christmas’, including an insulting stereotype of a mentally ill woman as sexy but ‘crazy’, a hapless victim who exists to be psychologically broken by Matthew in a flashback to his former job, and Joe’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Janet Montgomery), who’s presented as a heartless bitch for using one of the real-life ‘blocks’ – essentially a restraining order – against him. Viewers’ opinions will vary, but I thought that the show excused Joe’s pretty threatening behaviour towards Beth and expected us to sympathise with his pain while ignoring her fear of him. Painting women in fiction as callous and unreasonable for wanting to cut off contact with potentially dangerous ex-boyfriends is foolish and insensitive in the light of how common domestic abuse and stalking are in the real world.
Nevertheless, ‘White Christmas’ manages to recover slightly in its closing minutes, with a twist ending whose would-be shock impact makes it predictable, but is still executed with memorable nastiness – if you didn’t hate ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ before watching this show, you will afterwards. Black Mirror: White Christmas is very self-consciously designed as an alternative to that Rose’s strawberry cream-level sickliness you find in some festive entertainment, but while the show has plenty of striking moments, it’s overall a frustrating let-down. You may be better off just re-watching ‘The Snowman’.