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New 'Black Mirror' Story Is an Interactive Triumph - Thanks Partly to You
December 28, 2018  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

Friday, Dec. 28, 2018 – I’ve just experienced one of the more original and unpredictable dramas I’ve ever seen as a TV critic. It’s the brand new, one-off installment of Black Mirror on Netflix. And I didn’t – and couldn’t – watch it on my TV set…

The way I regularly watch Netflix, and all other television that broadcast, cable or streaming sites offer, is on my big-screen family room TV. But this morning, when I awoke at 3 a.m. ET to watch Bandersnatch, the cloaked-in-mystery installment of Black Mirror dropping at that hour on Netflix, a promo explained, teasingly, that I couldn’t watch it. Not on my TV, because it wasn’t quite smart enough.

Instead, I had to go sign in to Netflix on a device capable to allow me to interact with it – a smartphone, a laptop, anything with a touch pad or mouse or something. At 3 a.m., you can imagine how warmly I greeted that news. But I’m a professional TV critic, so okay, I’ll play along – but, I clearly remember thinking, this better be good. This better be worth it.

Boy, is it good. Boy, is it worth it…

Bandersnatch, written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, has nothing to do with Through the Looking-Glass or Lewis Carroll’s “frumious Bandersnatch.” Nor does it have anything to do with George Orwell’s 1984, even though that’s the year in which this new Black Mirror story is set.

Instead, Bandersnatch is about a young computer hobbyist, in the early days of Commodore computers and the crudest of graphic interfaces and games, who sets out to adapt a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, named Bandersnatch, into an interactive computer game. The wannabe programmer, Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead), teams with a burgeoning tech company to develop his game – with a deadline that gets to him, in ways that eventually lead him to his psychiatrist, past traumas and present issues with his father, and a reevaluation of his own perceptions of reality.

I really enjoyed the version of Bandersnatch I saw – but it won’t be the same one you see, because each viewing experience is unique. All along the way in this narrative, there are choices to be made, and you, not the protagonist, get to make them. They start off as innocuously as possible, but the stakes keep escalating. At first, it’s: Which cereal should Stefan eat? But before too long, the choice is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

And when Stefan begins to suspect he’s being manipulated by someone or something from the future, Bandersnatch turns darker and deeper – implicating the viewer into the action, and its consequences, even more than a first-person-shooter perspective. And there’s a point, at least in my version of this roller-coaster of a narrative, where the plot gets very funny, and very, very creepy, all at the same time.

It also, it’s worth noting, connects perfectly with the central Black Mirror obsession with the less beneficial uses and side effects of modern technology.  

In New York in the late Eighties, I saw an ambitious play named Tamara, staged at the Park Avenue Armory with actors moving from room to room, and floor to floor, performing the action in its period murder mystery. What made the play so fascinating was that each audience member was permitted to enter or exit any room when following an actor – so each person, by taking his or her own path, witnessed a different play than anyone else. At intermission, a buffet was served, allowing people to intermingle, compare notes, and plan which way to go for the second half. Bandersnatch felt something like that – and, when it was over, felt truly special.

Netflix dropped this Black Mirror special three days before the end of 2018. The only problem with that is that Bandersnatch, if presented even a few weeks earlier, might have made a lot of TV critics’ end-of-year Top 10 lists.

It certainly would have made mine.

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Wow! Tremendous activity in the Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality/Video Game spaces, glad the world of TV has begun to catch up. BTW, is this a video game or interactive storytelling (does it have to be one or the other?) Coming from Black Mirror, a compelling narrative makes this a great test for the future of this experiment. There was a reason about non-disclosure of device ahead of time. Glad you brought in the mention of a great play; Sleep No More and other shows are getting into the interactive experience too-in different ways. Despite the uniqueness of the format, there are probably a limited number of segments/endings-wonder how built out all the variations are. Mike Nesmith wrote an interactive novel online (1998) and later had to release it as a linear novel. Are the audiences (and critics) ready for a regime change? We’ll see! Or maybe the question is,why did it even take THIS long?
Dec 28, 2018   |  Reply
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