Christmas came a little late this year as, on December 28th, Netflix released ‘Bandersnatch’, the latest episode from the hit series Black Mirror.
Black Mirror: Choose Your Own Disaster
Before we talk about the episode, can we take a moment to marvel at what a triumph Black Mirror even is?
Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television and easily Netflix’s most successful acquisition. Netflix has become a Necromancer for television, reviving canceled shows and unwanted movies.
“You got a show you love what been canceled?” it whispers. “Give it here.”
“You think no one wants to see your movie?” it asked the Major Studios. “I’ll take it off your hands.”
“Anything you want, Netflix can provide,” said the giant red N on your screen.
“What about Firefly?” asked millions of fans.
“Shut up and watch Fuller House!” said the box.
But much like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, sometimes dead is better. It’s no secret that Netflix has had a bumpy ride reviving old shows. A strange form of graft vs host takes place and while shows have been brought back with the same cast and crew, something is different.
From the abysmal Fuller House to the unnecessary Gilmore Girls to the rocky but overall decent Arrested Development. Netflix’s acquisitions of other people’s TV shows have left a lot to be desired. Sure, especially for the latter, expectations were incredibly, unrealistically high, but audiences felt something had changed. The host rejected the graft.
There were exceptions to the rule; Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was a clever twist on the cult classic and Queer Eye returned with a wonderful cast and a determination to make you cry (Tear Eye?) but as I say, those are exceptions.
So when it was announced that Netflix was not only going to stream previously unavailable episodes of Black Mirror for America but also creating all-new episodes, I was excited but trepidatious.
And generally speaking, I’d say that Black Mirror has had a triumphant return. While the show has practically tripled its content, it remains an incredibly well-crafted show, with some of its very best episodes coming in later seasons. “Nosedive”, “U.S.S. Callister”, and “Hang the DJ” are all post-Netflix additions, along with “San Junipero”; the internet’s favorite thing ever.
Some were concerned about an American acquisition leading to an Americanized show and those concerns were valid. “Nosedive” was the first episode to feature a predominantly American cast, the cinematography was generally warmer, and the budgets were greater. But with it came a slew of larger and more technically ambitious plots. While the seasons have their low points (cough “Metalhead” cough), it’s still better than “The Waldo Moment.”
The show also became less all-grim-all-the-time with “San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ”, two stories about technology used to bring lovers together, being among the higher rated of the shows entire catalog.
But enough about Netflix. How’s the episode?
Black Mirror Goes Through the Looking Glass
**Minor Spoilers Below**
Bandersnatch tells the story of Stefan, played by Fionn Whitehead. Stefan is an up-and-coming game programmer with his greatest ambition being to adapt a beloved choose your own adventure novel (Bandersnatch) into a CYOA video game.
The year is 1984, video games were simpler, and “Relax” only made people want to relax and not to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
The episode starts you off right away with a seemingly innocuous choice. What cereal do you want? The treat of this episode is in the little details like if you choose one cereal or another you will see different advertisements throughout the tale.
Stefan must then navigate his tense and overly secretive relationship with his father, visit his therapist (Alice Lowe), and pitch his game to developer Mohan Thakur and coding legend Colin Ritman played by Asim Chaudhry and Will Poulter respectively.
From here, the episode becomes increasingly elaborate. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Almost immediately after you make your pitch to the execs, you are presented with a huge decision. “Do you want to work for us? Yes or no?” That’s a big choice. It could affect the course of the entire viewing experience. Holy cow!
Hold your horses. Because, as my wife and I soon learned, the episode has you on rails. And we quickly realized that some answers will bring you to the end of your story immediately. Once you reach the end of your story, Netflix then brings you back to the beginning and allows you to choose another path.
Describing what happens in this episode is a real challenge because you’re actually describing three or four episodes worth of content. And again, I can’t describe where the story goes without being too spoilery, but suffice to say, this episode has a lot on its mind about the illusion of choice.
Being a CYOA story, there are a dozen directions for the story to go, involving drugs, assault, kung fu, and more than a few fourth-wall breaking revelations, the latter of which tickled me personally. Before long, Stefan, trapped in a maze of his own creation and seeking guidance from the Hunter Thompson-esque Colin Ritman, comes to suspect that his actions may not be his own. Perhaps something is guiding his decisions. And who knows what they may make him do!
The Illusion of Choice
Written as always by Charlie Booker, the teleplay for this episode must have been immense and I have no idea how it would read on the page. However, I do have an idea of how they managed to film this. Unfortunately, the answer is tied to the episode’s greatest flaw.
“Bandersnatch” is a daunting story to try to tell in film and reminds one of the Remedial Chaos Theory of Community. However, while the ambition to create this massive undertaking is commendable, its impossible to deny that most choices either don’t change the story much at all or come to a dead end a few choices later.
Black Mirror has a generally agreed upon tone and a series of easter eggs and references to prior episodes prove that this is all taking place in the same Cookie abusing, social point gathering, robot dog hunting, pig sodomizing universe. With that in mind, I wasn’t expecting skeleton pirates to drop from the sky, but I was expecting more.
Part of the Problem Is the Company We Keep
Stefan is a real wet blanket of a character. It’s hard to support him, even though he’s given the most tragic backstory imaginable. And what’s more, the game asks you to make some rough choices with him, neither of which help you connect with or empathize with Stefan and half of which end his story abruptly. And if you do pick the right one, the story we’re following is about someone’s mental collapse. That’s not disastrous in and of itself, but for a story that could go in any direction, it’s disappointing that the directions all feel so narrow.
Stefan’s therapist has nothing to do and an action scene between her and Stefan is dorky in the extreme. His father is a rotten apple from the start. The only character worth embracing is Colin Ritman, who gets a fun but half-baked scene where he talks about multiple realities and then he vanishes from the tale.
Many critics have referred to Bandersnatch as “groundbreaking” but its only groundbreaking in so much as there are dozens of options you can choose. As the episode points out, books have been doing this for decades, and video games have allowed players to choose their own adventure practically as long as they’ve existed.
It is hard to deny that with a more adventurous story and a group of characters we cared about this would be a fantastically different episode.
I will say I loved the ending. Or at least one of them. And that’s the biggest problem for me. The water cooler aspect of Black Mirror is removed if we don’t all have the same story and there simply isn’t enough variety to make me want to keep going back to see what I missed.
I feel like Bandersnatch is reaching for a major thesis about the concept of choice, but in the end, it’s mostly just a pleasant gimmick that is in danger of “choosing” its way up its own butt.
Last Word on Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
No one would say Bandersnatch was easy to make. Indeed, the episode goes out of its way to show you how complex and difficult a CYOA story is to construct by making the construction the literal plot of the story. The ambition to create this is commendable. The ambition of the story is lacking.
According to mentalfloss.com, one of the first Choose Your Own Adventure stories, The Cave of Time had “40 possible endings, with some paths leading to glory and others ending in alien invasion, tyrannosaurus attack, and other forms of ruin.” Call me when someone makes a CYOA with that level of insanity. I’ll choose that one.
Oh, and one last thing. Minecraft: Storymode by Telltale Games is another CYOA series on Netflix. It stars Patton Oswalt and my wife and I had a lot of fun with it. Maybe animation is the best medium for this kind of story.
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