This year was a mixed bag for television. Though it's been said that we've reached peak TV, viewers still have to cut through a jungle of overhyped, hacky fluff TV.
There is so much beige to truly bad “prestige” television available now that it’s hard to keep track of what is disposable and what is actually good television that goes beyond the fickleness of the online news cycle. Many shows are big on production value and nabbing A-list movie stars, directors and writers, but there was a dearth of heart and amazing characters this past year. It seemed as if many shows were trying to be Reddit bait rather than striving to be compelling based on merit.
A nightmare production that featured shutdowns, showrunner replacements and obviously telegraphed Shyamalan plot twists as the show’s main driving force, Westworld was an expensive snoozer, the equivalent of an escape room with arbitrary, disconnected puzzles that added up to less than the sum total of its parts. It was like watching two computers play chess against each other. Stranger Things took advantage of a summer lull to cynically and thoughtlessly cash in on ’80s nostalgia, complete with a goofy CGI monster and John Carpenter–lite score. Vinyl and The Get Down were costly messes. Other sacred cows plodded along the pasture, too, doing little to move the needle one way or the other, instead just sitting there going “moo.”
But all was not lost. There were some very promising debuts, from Insecure to Atlanta and Vice Principals to Fleabag (and High Maintenance joining the broadcast ranks). The People v. O.J. Simpson was a bona fide triumph (though beware the true-crime series that were greenlit in its wake). And while Bojack Horseman’s “Under the Sea” certainly deserves honorable mention as a remarkably bold episode of television, there was no better hour of scripted TV this year than Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” written by creator Charlie Brooker.
I’m going to (kinda) spoil a few things, so caveat lector ...
"San Junipero" isn’t merely a trivial bit of entertainment to binge-watch and then forget. It’ll be remembered, studied and replayed for decades and might also be one of this year’s best stand-alone films. It’s an uplifting lesbian love story that toggles between a futuristic world and a virtual, half-remembered version of the ’80s (and, briefly, the ’90s and then 2000s, when Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” ruled the charts). Its titular, fictional California coastal town is named for Father Junipero Serra, who founded many California missions.
It confronts end-of-life issues with razor-sharp sensitivity, and it took many fans of Black Mirror — which typically consists of bleak, gut-punching tales of tech gone awry, in the anthological mold of The Twilight Zone — by surprise with its warmth and rare glimmers of hope and humanity. Black Mirror certainly relies on mind-asploding twists for many of its stories, but its twists actually resonate because there’s a lot of great character work and casting to make us care about its characters when these world-altering turns come about. Westworld fails because it’s withholding so much information that we can’t actually relate to the characters. It favors world-building over character. Black Mirror — and in particular "San Junipero" — makes us care about the world via very intimate character portraits, and then turns that world on its head.
"San Junipero" tells the story of two elderly women who meet and fall in love as young women in the virtual-reality construct of a fictional seaside town called San Junipero. The main conflict emerges as they reveal different plans for how they want to spend the afterlife. One wants to spend eternity in this digital construct, while the other doesn't.
Every element of this episode deserves mention. Its story and themes are ambitious. Superficially, it’s a story about queer sexual awakening in a comatose geriatric, which is an original conceit in itself, but it’s really about love and how we choose to define our own existence, with sci-fi window dressing. Life isn’t made up of the things you accumulate or the version of reality you elect to believe in. Life is made up of the things you’re willing to give up — your values, your past lovers, your immutable beliefs about the afterlife and the human soul — to be with the people you care for.
The soundtrack will be remembered for its ’80s 12-inch floor stompers such as “Addicted to Love," Robbie Love’s “C’est La Vie” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths, whose titles and key phrases are all carefully chosen to echo the story’s thematics. It begins as a fun nostalgia tour, and the pop music takes on a truly heartbreaking, melancholy timbre as the nature of this world become clear. It’s not pastiche for pastiche’s sake (as in Stranger Things). It’s a comment on how we remember and why we go back into our inner palace of loci, where we can store memories in our mind for comfort or healing or whatever it is we do when we try to remember “the good times." It’s about the wooden beauty of what our minds can convince ourselves of and, ultimately, about the folly of life riddled with infinite choice and pleasure. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” — in addition to being a perfect pop song — is the best anthem 2016 could possibly ask for.
But it’s not just the source music. Clint Mansell’s original score was released earlier this month and features spacey ambient passages, empowering rave stabs and a beautifully melancholic theme that could cut you in pieces. It’s like a lost KLF album or something else uniquely U.K.-inspired and really helps sell moments without forcing them. The sound design — typically one of the least discussed aspects in TV criticism — marries perfectly with the story and the music to create this unique sort of emotionally complex fugue state, from the sounds of a character’s weak breath to the bleeps of a life-support machine to the waves slapping the fake shores of San Junipero. Sonically, it’s a masterpiece.
The editing — especially before the first major reveal — creates a sense of wobbly unsureness, as if viewers also are walking around this place for the first time ourselves. It helps draw us into Yorkie’s perspective, even though that perspective later flips to Kelly as she drives (no pun intended) the rest of the episode. The denouement is so unexpected and lands so well that if it doesn’t move you, you might want to doublecheck that you’re not one of the Quagmire’s desensitized robotic souls or “permanent residents."
The writing is classic Brooker: nothing wasted or taken for granted. Everything onscreen is there for multiple purposes. Each single awkward or seemingly stiff moment of the show’s first half later makes sense and pays off entirely. From the video game car crash to the fact that Bubble Bobble has two different endings (Brooker is a gamer, after all), the detail in this script is remarkable and a master class in economy.
Under the direction of Owen Harris, Mackenzie Davis (Yorkie) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Kelly) are able to communicate a character’s entire life in a mere hour. There’s lots of exposition to get through, of course (it is fairly hard sci-fi, after all), but it doesn’t get in the way of the emotional throughline of the piece. The acting in season three of Black Mirror is stellar across the board, but this piece soars because the casting is just right.
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The visual design is the stuff of dreams, an oversaturated world too good to be true. Shot in South Africa, San Junipero is beautifully hollow, like what Ibiza has come to feel like. A wonderful weekend beach town for mindless fun and candy-coated neon dreams, it’s beautifully fake, like the promise of Shell Beach. But it’s not just glamour photography for its own sake. It uses a sunset as a human archetype, something we can all agree is beautiful, part of our collective brain. It is not trying to illustrate the actual 1980s but rather an idealized, mythical version of the ’80s where there was no AIDS crisis or crack epidemic or Iran-Contra. So, basically, fantasy. And how — like Rasselas — getting everything you want without companionship or love or struggle is basically meaningless.
Charlie Brooker has set the bar extremely high for everyone else and now, of course, himself. Since the turn of this past century, British television has led the way, and America is scrambling to catch up with it, even though Hollywood has billions of more dollars to throw around than the Brits, and America of course has a much larger pool of talent from which to draw. It boils down to writing and voice. Pound for pound, the British TV system is just developing better writers and giving them chances to shine. Brooker’s first show, Nathan Barley, is still funnier and more relevant than most single-camera American comedies in 2016.
"San Junipero" does nothing to solve the real world's problems, but it offers a more flexible view of mortality: Life can go on as long — or as short — as you want (or as long as the servers are still running). Or, more broadly, that hope and love are possible in the least likely of places, even in an artificial world.
Either way, we all live in San Junipero now. Pop culture’s endless diversions and trivialities are waiting for us whenever we want to check out from the pain or banality of reality. Whether we can make something meaningful of our time in this cheap digital existence is on us.