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Black Mirror reminds us that sometimes unhappy people sing happy songs

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If “Smithereens” shows how a substantial running time can improve a slight story, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” shows how it can completely fail an overstuffed one. What starts off as an episode about an awkward teenage girl using a pop idol to find confidence turns into a story about a pop idol struggling under the control of a psychotic, greedy parental figure turns into a story about a robot with a person’s personality imprinted on it turns into a rescue mission turns into a triumphant tale about empowerment and turning generic pop music into generic grunge. The biggest draw here, apart from the stunt casting of Miley Cyrus as Ashley (who is pretty much exactly what you’d expect of her), is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. By the time you realize “not much,” the end credits are rolling.

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Oh sure, there’s potential theming here. The way “empowerment” has become a brand, with generic messages of confidence and believe-in-yourself churned out for an audience desperate to hear any assurance that there might be some way out of their misery; the idea that famous people have problems too (gasp); and, I dunno, something about the shallowness of modern popular music? But it’s all quite dumb. One gets the sense that Charlie Brooker may not exactly have his finger on the pulse of youth culture, and the idea that anyone needs to spend over an hour explaining that “sometimes when people sing happy songs they are sad” is… a bit much.

It’s also bizarrely structured, as we don’t actually get to the plot till about the forty minute mark. Everything else, from Rachel’s awkward efforts to express herself to her classmates, to her father’s efforts to build a more “humane” mousetrap, to Ashley’s doomed attempts to extricate herself from her aunt-manager’s control, is just set-up. And really, only the last bit actually matters from a narrative perspective. The “mousetrap” is just an excuse to give two of the episode’s teen protagonists access to high-level computer tech (and also a convenient taser for the final act). In probably the most glaring failure of the script, Rachel is basically forgotten once the story kicks in.

It is, again, bizarre. For the first forty minutes, this is a low-key family drama contrasted against a glimpse of the darker side of fame. Then the Ashley Too robot comes to life and the whole thing turns into an a kid’s adventure film, completely with ludicrous disguises, combat against threatening (but surprisingly easy to subdue) adults, and a heart-warming ending. Everything is resolved in a way that’s fundamentally meaningless to the first part of the episode’s questions about the value of poptimism.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think either half is particularly good, although at least the first part was trying to be sort of honest. That peaks with Rachel’s doomed efforts as a dancer at her school talent show; after the Ashley Too (in pre-sentient mode) “teaches” her how to move the way her idol does, Rachel tries to prove herself in front of her school, with predictable disappointing results. It’s a rare, and sad, expression of adolescent humiliation and misery that doesn’t strain to make its protagonist feel bad about herself. No one in the audience laughs at Rachel; even the teenage boys leering at her don’t make a ruckus. And while it’s clear she’s not a terrific dancer, it’s also not as awful as hearing someone’s voice crack as they try and cover a Mariah Carey song.

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If you’ve been to a school talent show, this all feels pretty accurate, even the moment when she slips and falls and runs off the stage. It’s recognizably human, and it makes the episode’s eventual excesses all the more exasperating. This may not be the overall most authentic presentation of tween girl angst put to screen, but at least it’s trying to wrestle with difficult ideas. And while the early scenes of Ashley facing off against her overbearing (and just fucking horrible) manager aren’t as compelling, they at least make the effort to exist in a somewhat believable world and tell a story about actual people.

That’s not to say I demand kitchen sink realism from Black Mirror, but the series generally works best when it grounds its science fiction ideas in thorny truths about human nature. Barring that, it needs to offer up some fascinating and unsettling new tech. “Rachel” does none of those things. It’s big sci-fi hook is the Ashley Too robot, a little doohickey that chirrups vague encouragement at its owners until they fiddle with its programming and discover that it has a full scan of the real Ashley’s personality inside, albeit hindered by some kind of “limiter.” In what way does that make sense? We don’t see the Ashley Too do anything that much more complicated than empty pleasantries and soundbites, so why would it be necessary to upload the actual person’s brain into the damn thing?

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It’s so we can get Ashley’s public imagined contrasted with her less-restrained “real” personality, and so the episode can turn into a goofy rescue mission that ends with a car chase and a giant hologram, albeit in a way that’s a lot less thrilling than any of that sounds. It’s sort of engagingly dumb if you’re in the mood for it, and I suppose it’s nice to have a season of Black Mirror where two out of the three episodes have positive endings, but it more or less forgets everything it spent the first forty minutes setting up, apart from the fact that Ashley has an Evil Aunt Manager. Hell, Rachel’s sister Jack ends up being more important to the story by the end. Rachel gets sidelined to sputtering “I’m such a big fan” over and over, before we jumpcut to Ashley performing a Nine Inch Nails cover in a club with Jack on bass, while Rachel watches from the crowd adoringly.

There are some potentially interesting ideas at play for some of the episode, but none of them are developed in any meaningful way. If anything, the only coherent point Brooker seems to be making is “pop music is shallow and bad,” which the lamest Old Man Yells At Cloud nonsense imaginable. As an experience, this is intermittently entertaining, but as a cohesive whole, it’s nonsense.

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Stray observations

  • You know Ashley is depressed when she starts writing piano ballads.
  • Man, Aunt Catherine is so absurdly awful. She doesn’t just micromanage Ashley’s life, she feeds her drugs, and then when she finds out Ashley isn’t taking the drugs, she doses her into a coma, steals songs out of her brain, and keeps her chained to a bed.
  • I almost wonder if Miley Cyrus was brought into the project late, and Brooker just changed the script to give her a larger role in the finale. By the end this plays like a reboot for a new Hanna Montana show. (That was Cyrus, right?)
  • That’s it for Black Mirror season five. It was fine, but the show would probably be better served if it just went away for a while.
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