Before 2017 left us, it dropped off a new season of Black Mirror on Netflix. This season isn’t blowing people away the way Charlie Brooker’s near-future dystopian series did in the past, primarily because we seem now to be on the inside of the mirror itself, with Black Mirror prophecies routinely appearing to come true. Even well-written episodes about technological dependency feel almost predictable as we seem too aware about our inevitably crippling relationship with gadgetry and digital validation. In short, we know what’s coming and—alarmingly enough—it sounds like we have made peace with it.
The standout episode for me this time is called Hang The DJ. It is a superb title (repurposing a killer phrase from the chorus of a song by The Smiths, called Panic) and the episode itself is lovely and romantic and severely frightening. The episode is set in a world where people are giving themselves over to dating apps in the quest to find their perfect algorithmic soulmate. The system sets people up, and you may or may not get along, but—here’s the catch—you need to stay with the person you are matched with for as long as the system tells you. This seems perfectly fair when matched for 12 hours or a day, like a slowed-down speed-date, but existentially mortifying when matched with someone for years even when you’re sure you don’t like each other.
The episode finds its conflict in the idea that you might actually meet someone you like, but, because you have both bought into the system and its quest for some rarefied perfection, the choice of staying with that person is not in your hands. Amy meets Frank and they make each other laugh, but is that enough for a future? What does the algorithm say? And why must they listen?
This is all part Tinder, the dating app, and part The Lobster, the Yorgos Lanthimos film about a world where you have a few weeks to find a partner, failing which you are turned into an animal. That, the film says, is where animals come from, and there are so many dogs in the world simply because most people choose to be turned into dogs after
More vividly than the great Lanthimos film, the show reminded me of a 2009 science fiction romance called Timer, a film by Jac Schaeffer with a fascinating premise. Like each stand-alone episode of Black Mirror, this film is set in a recognizably advanced future where people choose to get wrist implants that count down to the moment they will meet their soulmate, like Fitbit for those wary of flirting. It isn’t the best-crafted film, but it is heavy with big ideas, like the way we approach life and romance and singledom when equipped with quantified knowledge we aren’t meant to have. If you are 22 and told you will only meet your soulmate at 45, what do you do with the life in between? It is a film I recommend, if only for the questions it asks of you.
The Hang The DJ episode is scarier, perhaps because we’re seeing it now, because it is easy to literally see it coming true. I am relieved to have gotten married before the existence of the swipe-driven dating apps that seem too efficient and mercenary in their attempts to smoosh people together, but we all have friends who Tinder and Happn and what have you, and frankly I can imagine most of them choosing to opt for a system with the comforting promise of eventual perfection, after trading in current spontaneity and choice.
The offer is always one of convenience: one that says you only have to put yourself out there exactly as much as the other person, and that rejection is only momentary and will lead immediately into the next set-up, and that—maybe most importantly—you and the other person more or less agree to hook up before you even meet. The app works, say the advertisements (be they in the shape of Facebook banners or your newly “matched" friends), and you decide that you’d rather trust in this co-dependent system than risk falling on your face. This is an absolutely rational decision, but the end of uncertainty is a dismal and unromantic thing. How good is a night of passion without the doubtful hand-wringing and butterflies the evening starts off with?
Burn down the disco, sang The Smiths. Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/it says nothing to me about my life. A fine philosophy indeed, but, as we all know from years of parties with cut-rate DJs and friends forcing their own songs on the room, all it takes is one great song. This could be obvious, it could be cheesy, it could be embarrassing, it could be trash. This song could be all those things at once and still be perfect for you, making you flail with happy, automatic abandon. The best thing about a song like that is hearing it come to life from out of nowhere, turning your feet around. Why would you ever want to see that coming?
Streaming tip of the week
There is only one Dave Chappelle, but thankfully Netflix just gave us two new specials from the devastating comedian, Equanimity and The Bird Revelation. He’s a master provocateur, and these shows are essential viewing, even—especially, in fact—if you don’t agree with him.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets @rajasen