On Anthologies, and the Gradual Demise of Hating Television

black mirror fifteen million merits

Netflix offers a new series to stream called Black Mirror, an anthology sci-fi show the likes of which has gone out of fashion in recent years with the ascendance of the can’t-miss drama. Whereas Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt and even a third stab at the Twilight Zone made their mark in the 90s and early oughts, in today’s “Golden Age” of television – which I enjoy very much, don’t get me wrong – the anthology model has taken a hit.

I hope the anthology can make a comeback. Perusing YouTube for poorly made stuff like HBO’s “Perversions of Science” (could you imagine prestigious HBO pushing this now?) is getting old. But what I want to focus on was an the episode of Black Mirror I watched called “Fifteen Million Merits.” It’s about a guy living in a world in which crude media – mostly cruel game and talent shows, and porn – is omnipresent, and impossible to escape without incurring what appears to be a financial penalty. The fears underlying this episode appear to me have come about ten to fifteen years too late. Lowest common denominator entertainment and debased reality TV haven’t been a prominent theme in public criticism of media since around the time the Surreal Life went belly up in 2006.

The gradual demise of assuming that mass media is turning the nation into one of unadulterated boobs has gone mostly unnoticed, but it’s implicit in the rise of quality television. Everyone’s enamored nowadays of scripted gems like Orange is the New Black and Breaking Bad. Not Cheaters and Jerry Springer (or god forbid Shasta McNasty). The idea that Hollywood would inevitably turn to cheaper-to-produce reality television indefinitely turns out to have been an erroneous prediction.

Fears surrounding the one-to-many nature of television has been supplanted by anxiety about the many-to-many nature of consumers/YouTubers/bloggers cocooning themselves into their favorite niche, be it political or entertainment-based. While neither situation is ideal, I prefer the latter. It at least requires engagement, not passivity.

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