3.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Mirror‘s synonymous status with technological dystopia came to a head. A Radio Times interview with its creator, Charlie Brooker, found him acknowledging the bleak reality around him (a world that seemed to be satirizing itself with how dystopian-adjacent it could take things), saying “I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart, so I’m not working away on one of those.”

Three years later, however, with coronavirus having lulled, and with newer technological developments and trends having reared their heads, Brooker appears to have changed his mind. Black Mirror returns for a sixth series with the freshest and weirdest coat of paint in its 12-year history.

Such a long history means Black Mirror has come to be seen through many vantage points, with audiences trying to box it into a category that defines what sums it up most efficiently. Identifiable traits certainly exist across all the episodes; taking familiar modern technologies and turning them into something threatening via futuristic extrapolations, exploring the implications of simulated realities, inquiring into the nature of surveillance and control, and so on. But with this new batch of five episodes, Brooker has shifted Black Mirror away from specific technologies so it’s more about representing various social trends.

“Joan is Awful” may be a slight exaggeration when it comes to describing the episode’s eponymous tech-CEO (Annie Murphy), but to those she oversees and lives with, it’s not that far of a stretch. One of the first business decisions we see her make is firing Sandy (Ayo Edebiri), a loyal employee, before promptly yet accidentally tossing her vape on Sandy’s head while leaving work. In a later therapy session, Joan confesses to living in a marriage where she finds her husband, Krish (Avi Nash), boring to live with, and then romantically reconnects with old flame Mac (Rob Delaney) before heading home for the night and flipping on Streamberry—this world’s Netflix analogue—to keep herself entertained…

But there’s something especially odd about Streamberry’s selections tonight (many of which are nods to Black Mirror episodes past and future): a new drama titled “Joan is Awful,” where actress Salma Hayek (as herself) is dressed exactly like Joan, complete with her distinctive strand of white hair. It seems like a coincidence Joan initially dismisses… only to realise the show precisely retraces the events of her day, complete with her exaggerated cruelty toward Sandy (now played by Camirin Farmer), as well as her adulterous meeting with Mac (now played by Ben Barnes). Within minutes, Joan’s self-image crumbles and the popular new show threatens to destroy her life and relationships. And as she tries getting to the root of how her life is somehow being rapidly adapted for television, Joan uncovers a secret that takes her deeper into a conspiratorial web of innovations that Streamberry is behind.

Brooker ensures “Joan is Awful” covers an awfully timely amount of ground with the subject material being tackled. Among the technological advancements being featured and exaggerated in the mishmash of Joan’s predicament are AI-generated deep fakes and narrative content, streaming-service algorithms, advertisement consumer data collection, and the dreaded consequences of skimming over boring Terms of Service—a deadly cocktail that makes for one of the most narratively ambitious combos Black Mirror has ever tackled.

The episode also doesn’t bother taking itself too seriously. There’s a kind of fourth-wall-leaning fun the episode gleefully engages in, with details like Cate Blanchett being the actress playing Joan in the “Joan is Awful” show within the Salma Hayek-starring show Annie-Murphy’s Joan is watching herself. (Worryingly, with some research, one may discover a clause in Netflix’s actual Terms of Service eerily reminiscent of Streamberry’s ToRs that Joan neglected to read…)

While “Joan is Awful”‘s bold focus on the modernizing shape of modern streaming makes it the most timely episode of Series 6—combined with the fact that, despite its swings at comedy, its technological focus makes it the most reminiscent of classic episodes—it’s also the most unwieldy. There’s merit and entertainment to be had from tackling these ideas—to the extent where it seems Brooker’s gnawing off the hand that feeds him—but the episode’s ideas don’t cohere all that neatly by the time it reaches its hilariously crazy conclusion. It barely even holds together on a conceptual level as it introduces twist upon twist.

It’s an ambitious premiere, but for a show best known for its airtight sci-fi concepts, no matter how bleak, hopeful, or comedic their presentation is, “Joan is Awful” falls short of the best Black Mirror has to offer. This stems from the narrative’s inability to match the panache of its ideas in a cohesive way.

UK | 2023 | 58 MINUTES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer: Charlie Brooker.
director: Ally Pankiw.
starring: Annie Murphy, Salma Hayek Pinault, Michael Cera, Himesh Patel, Avi Nash, Wunmi Mosaku, Lolly Adefope, Rob Delaney, Ben Barnes, Jared Goldstein, Jaboukie Young-White, Ayo Edebiri, Kayla Lorette, Leila Farzad & Max Harwood.