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Opinion | Don’t choose ‘Black Mirror’

Watching 'Bandersnatch' was like playing 'Kaun Banega Crorepati', where viewers care only about the format, not about the player

‘Bandersnatch’ stars Fionn Whitehead as a troubled video game programmer.
‘Bandersnatch’ stars Fionn Whitehead as a troubled video game programmer.

Happy new year, all—but not if Black Mirror can help it. Last week, just in time to send us all down a last-minute rabbit hole, British satirist Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team premiered a Netflix “event" called “Bandersnatch", an interactive episode of the show that you could play over hours and hours, or wrap up quick. This was always on the cards. In July last year, I had written in this column about how well Netflix would be suited to provide a platform for grown-up multiple choice storytelling, after doing well with simple but addictively fun kiddie shows Puss In Book and Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile. You play using your remote or your phone, making choices when prompted in order to take the story forward.

Black Mirror being Black Mirror, they created a choose-your-own-adventure game about the creation of a choose-your-own-adventure game, a self-congratulatory piece of circuitous entertainment where the stakes never feel truly high and where, if all the meta dominoes line up a certain way, the hero in a 1980s story wonders why he is being controlled by an entity called Netflix, while his psychiatrist wonders: “Is Netflix a planet?"

This oh-so-meta nudging and winking is an example of an overused television trope called “lampshading", which essentially indicates that the writers, aware of the audience’s scepticism, directly draw attention to what they’re doing—the way characters in a slasher movie talk about slasher movie conventions, for example—which allows creators to pretend their decisions are based on self-aware cleverness and not on storytelling convenience.

In “Bandersnatch", Brooker and Co. enjoy pointing out how cruelly we, the remote-wielding audience, are treating the protagonist, but ultimately every divergent or “wrong" decision we take, however intentionally, spirals us back toward a storytelling fork, making our choices count for little. If I mess up the choices, I should be hit by the end credits immediately. But Netflix and Black Mirror don’t want game over. They want us to keep re-spawning and trying, and thus throw us back into the familiar end without us choosing a reset, giving both us and the leading man more information as we move ahead. It’s too easy. This progressive Groundhog Day approach could have been ambitious and immersive were it not implemented so inconsistently, and the lampshade answer provided is that ultimately your hero can only succeed by creating a game that limits the pathways of choice—giving “the illusion of choice"—which is why the creators have oracularly done the same. Give me a break.

The production is top-notch as always, and Fionn Whitehead is superb as Stefan, the troubled programmer trying to build the multiple-choice game—even though, thanks to the actor’s resemblance to Wes Bentley, I kept wondering when he was going to pick up a video camera and start filming the plastic bag from American Beauty. There are apparently 5 hours of playable footage in the game, and trillions of combinations in which to play them, and though the decisions range from the banal (which breakfast cereal to have?) to the bloody (to chop up or bury a body?), repercussions seem mostly skin-deep. There isn’t as long-reverberating a butterfly effect as we’d expect from Black Mirror.

Predictably for Black Mirror, though, the story ends badly. There is no truly happy ending, even though some are more satisfying than others. This is honestly too simplistic a story to have made it to the real show, but the interactive overhaul makes it worthy of discussion. The visual integration of the choices taken is impressively seamless, but the real thrill of “Bandersnatch" is the fact that many people who wouldn’t otherwise play video games found themselves spending the last weekend of the year on one. (All the actual gamers I spoke to before writing this column were incredibly disappointed by the lack of sophistication in the narrative.)

A close friend texted that watching Bandersnatch was like playing Kaun Banega Crorepati, and that’s a pretty spot-on analogy, actually. In that show, quiz host Amitabh Bachchan forever babies the contestants, asking if they’re double-sure about their choices till they change their minds to the right path, and viewers care only about the format, not about the player.

Still, points to Charlie Brooker for flinging the doors open, at least for mainstream audiences. The problem with Bandersnatch—besides the name that sounds like it is promising a Sherlock rerun—is that the scenes are too tedious for us to want to explore them again. Repeat-viewing works when we are eager to re-watch scenes, when there is something more to notice and build upon than just Easter eggs for hungry Redditors.

I wager comedies can do it better. Arrested Development or The Good Place or Rick And Morty could take a much cleverer and more ambitious stab at interactivity, with scenes already worthy of multiple viewings and readings. My money’s on Netflix’s smartest show, BoJack Horseman. Imagine if creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg turned a season’s worth of that visually rich and emotionally resonant show into a playable movie, a world we could tinker with and go back and forth on. That might just blow the bloody doors off.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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