The Prime Minister being forced to have sex with a pig on live telly! In 2011 The National Anthem, the first ever episode of Black Mirror (Mondays C4), pursued that unbeatable central idea ruthlessly, nailing points about accelerated news cycles and online mob justice. It announced Charlie Brooker’s drama strand as a sleek beast, willing to bite. But two more self-contained episodes tempered this, the satire making gentler observations about people rather than just technology.
Black Mirror returned for series two this week and moved further towards small, personal drama with a parable of grief that had a tender and macabre heart.
Be Right Back took us to the near-ish future. Martha (Hayley Attwell) had a boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), who was infuriatingly obsessed with social networks. The smartphone widow became an actual widow when Ash died in a car accident, but she had access to an online service that used his endless shares, photos, videos and status updates to simulate first his internet chat, then his phone calls and finally, using a spookily humanoid robot, Ash himself. Could she really bring him back?
In The National Anthem, the only emotions at risk of being trampled by the outlandish set-up were a politician’s. A bereft young woman is different, so it was more important to face the challenge that virtually all sci-fi has: make us forget the premise and start feeling the humanity. Plus, coming up with original sci-fi is like trying to think of a new horsemeat joke – Be Right Back was very close to Solaris, Caprica and several famous others. The answer is to make the gimmick a tool, not a master.
At first the virtual Ash was a piercing metaphor for a soul coping without its mate. Martha had Ash’s voice in her earphones and pretended he was with her as she took a hilltop walk and attended the 12-week scan of their unborn child. Martha sort of knew it wasn’t really Ash and that what she was doing was sort of crazy, but talking to people you wish were there is a level of madness most people have been to.
A really bold writer might have stayed inside Martha’s mind, but Black Mirror is about digging down to the logical, horrible conclusion. So she got hold of the walking, talking, lifesize Ash – and the craziness spiralled, particularly since she quickly took the robot to bed. In real life, boyish Ash had struggled to ring beautiful Martha’s bell; because he understandably hadn’t Facebooked that info, the Ash robot had no such flaw. It was, well, a love machine. She enjoyed a sweaty, cathartic montage with it.
Physical intimacy might be something bereaved partners crave, but replacing a real man’s overawed stabs with a priapic cyborg rather undermined the poignancy. Sex with a robot was not much less icky than sex with a pig.
Brooker’s preoccupation with nuts and bolts was transmitted to Martha. She was never mad enough with grief to justify the folly of that sex scene, or for her to stop noticing details like the replicant’s smooth skin and inability to sleep convincingly. His obviously imperfect presence was a quirky distraction, when what we wanted her to do was lose her mind and take our disbelief with it.
Because she didn’t, the otherwise perfectly thought-through final scenes didn’t hit home. Martha led the robo-slave Ash to a clifftop and told him to throw himself off, relenting when he convincingly broke down in tears as the real Ash would have. Attwell and Gleeson had been excellent throughout but were rawer and braver than ever here. Then the subtle, wrong-footing coda: years later, Martha’s daughter climbed their loft ladder to visit her “dad” – Martha having found a place for the hurt and the memories.
Both moments would have been powerful if more emotional legwork had been done to earn them. The transition Brooker needs to complete is from a writer who can skilfully make ideas ping in our heads to one who can make them settle in our hearts. As it is, you can still see past the curtain to the whirring cogs.
Lena Dunham’s Girls (Mondays Sky Atlantic) delivered its most talked-about episode yet – some going, since every episode is reviewed and blogged every which way – by stripping away the machinery, such as it is. None of the other girls appeared and, after an opening scene in which Hannah (Dunham) witnessed an argument between pathologically rude coffee-shop manager Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and a customer (guest star Patrick Wilson), it was just Dunham and Wilson.
Wilson was Joshua, a sensationally hunky, newly single, 42-year-old doctor who was angry that the coffee shop’s trash had been appearing in his bin. Hannah turned up at his luxury brownstone soon after to confess to the crime. He took it well. Hannah, drunk on his assuredness, his looks and his adult, just-so furnishings, threw herself at him. They spent the next two days holed up at his place, blissfully eating, drinking, sleeping and shagging.
Sitcoms often include what’s known as a “bottle episode”, trapping the main character(s) in one location with a much reduced cast – Mark and Jez locked in a bathroom, or Miranda and her mum in the psychiatrist’s office. They’re usually there to help the series come in on time and on budget, but they also allow writers to pick at their protagonist’s unseen depths. That was Dunham’s intention here and she did it with a cruel honesty that was breathtaking even by her standards.
Like the season one episode The Return, another detour in which Hannah left New York to visit her parents in Michigan, One Man’s Trash played out like elliptical flashes from an indie movie, saying everything that needed saying in under 30 minutes thanks to Dunham’s unholy talent for originality that doesn’t sacrifice clarity.
What we saw was Hannah’s fantasy: one sex scene in particular was so tangibly breathy and hot that if we hadn’t cut away from it after less than a minute, Dunham and Wilson would have had Don’t Look Now-style rumours flying around about whether they were acting. As well as being sexually satisfied – for once Hannah was screwing without there being something weird about it, having taken control instead of goofing or apologising – she was looked after too, skipping around in nothing but one of Joshua’s cashmere pullovers (“I think your sweater costs more than my rent!”) and watching him cook.
A sequence that instantly became notorious encapsulated this odd mix, as the pair childishly played table tennis in just their pants, punctuated in the middle by a single shot of them humping in very grown-up fashion on the table. Only Dunham would dare to consider such a potentially absurd and embarrassing scene, let alone pull it off.
Then Hannah – knotted, destructive, unloveable Hannah – blew it. After turning the steam up so high in Joshua’s shower that she fainted, she woke up and confessed that deep unhappiness was behind her thirst for bohemian experiences. This wasn’t just a bit of a fun she could move on from easily. Joshua couldn’t keep the disgust from his face and when Hannah saw it, she couldn’t stop herself unravelling everything, complaining that Joshua (or Josh as she called him, against his wishes) had shared little of his feelings. It was over: coupling, honeymoon and break-up, a fatally unequal relationship sketched by Dunham’s wise script in no time at all.
At the end, Hannah let herself out and returned to her life. Possibly none of this had happened at all, and even Hannah’s daydreams are a place where she inexorably buggers everything up. It was a new way for Dunham to lay her alter ego bare. If this was Hannah hitting a new low, it was Girls achieving a dizzy new high.