With no Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or Tales of the Unexpected to go around in recent years, there’s been a gap in the stand-alone off-kilter drama series market for some time. There must be hundreds of scripts out there, with concepts too big for a short film, too small for a feature, which would fit this kind of series, but it naturally takes a recognisable name attached to convince channels to put up the cash for shows which change cast and location every week, yet don’t have the cross-generational appeal and branding of Doctor Who. Mark Gatiss’ spooky three-hander Crooked House was a recent success, and now comes Charlie Brooker’s thematically linked trilogy of dark tales, Black Mirror.
15 Million Merits is the second episode (it kicks off with The National Anthem on Sunday 4th December, and the third, The Entire History of You, is written by Peep Show and The Thick of It’s Jesse Armstrong), but while they all share similar strands of techno-paranoia, they are entirely separate stories.
The setting: a sarcastic version of the near future. Society exists in a drone-like state, cooped up in cell-like rooms, the walls giant TV screens, only to join the masses for seemingly pointless exercise bike cycling while crummy reality programmes and game shows play on a loop. The more you pedal, the more ‘merits’ (or cash) you earn. Into this bleak existence, we follow Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), gradually running out of patience with everything his life entails. However, an encounter with newcomer Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay) gives him a fresh sense of purpose, to give her the chance to escape the daily drudgery through the sole remaining goal to aspire to in life: appearing on TV talent show ‘Hot Shot’.
Considering Brooker is someone who takes such pleasure in words, relishing the chance to create new amalgamations of insults and spew delicious bile at the drop of a hat, what is most striking about the start of 15 Million Merits is how it is very light on actual dialogue, focused primarily on establishing the word in which it is set. The story is all very contained, but you get enough of a flavour of society at large thanks to impressive design, belying the budgetary restrictions, and some first-rate concepts employed expanding on contemporary technology and taking it to its next natural stage of progression. Everything is operated through Kinect-style gestures and movements, people exist through and purchase items for their Xbox Avatar-esque ‘dopplers’, and everything seems to have a paywall attached – you even have to pay to skip adverts. Exposition is kept to a minimum, allowing the actions of the characters and the imagery speak for itself, with skilled and measured direction from Doctor Who and Torchwood: Children of Earth (i.e. the only good Torchwood episodes) director Euros Lyn.
It helps though that the performances are mostly excellent too, with Kaluuya and Brown-Findlay compelling and believable leads. There is a genuine sweetness in their interactions with each other, which while Brooker has deflected to being his wife’s touch (Kanak “Konnie” Huq is co-writer of this episode), he was certainly capable of achieving amidst the satire and gore of Dead Set. However, although Huq hosted a series of The Xtra Factor, don’t expect the inside track on talent show TV, as there’s nothing particularly revelatory here. In fact, despite an engaging setting, a sci-fi slant, and hilarious turns by Rupert Everett and Julia Davis on the ‘Hot Shot’ panel (Ashley Thomas aka Bashy is less convincing as the third judge), the …Got Talent parody is already a worn premise. Some of the other side-swipes also fall short – references to a social hierarchy built around obesity don’t hang together as well as they should, and the other pastiche TV shows and video games on offer are poorly handled. And a passionately delivered but clunky speech towards the end, while undercut nicely afterwards and leading into a satisfying, self-reflexive conclusion, still feels like a step too far into “stating the obvious” territory.
Yet, 15 Million Merits still has enough juicy ideas, neat touches, and novel twists on the perils of omnipresent media and the problems of consumer culture to see it through, and is further evidence that Brooker is as much a vicious vital voice in dramatic writing as he is in comedy.
Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits screens on Channel 4 on Sunday 11th December