Over the last 12 years, Black Mirror has offered up episodes that see its typically ill-fated characters interact with risqué VR sessions, apps that publicly rank your social status, AI devices that can step in as your deceased loved ones, and more. With that, it's not hard to see how it's become known as an ever-evolving critique of the darker sides of technology.
With season 6, though, creator Charlie Brooker deliberately set out to prove that its themes are more broad and complex, adding humor, horror, and one episode that doesn't feature any elaborate electronic gadgets at all to the line-up.
"It was definitely a conscious decision to slightly upend what the show is," the creator tells GamesRadar+, ahead of the new chapter's release. "On Netflix, they're in reverse order to the way they were written, because 'Demon 79', which I co-wrote with [Ms. Marvel creator] Bisha K. Ali – who I think is fantastic – we wrote that as a 'Red Mirror'. I was almost thinking, 'Okay, let's imagine it's a companion piece to Black Mirror'.
"It was interesting to kind of reset things in that way. It was a palate cleanser, and it means that you're then approaching all the other episodes from a slightly different perspective," Brooker continues.
Starring Anjana Vasan and Paapa Essiedu, 'Demon 79' centers on Nida, a young shoe shop clerk whose quiet life is turned upside down when she accidentally frees the demon trapped inside an ancient talisman, and is instructed to kill three people by midnight or else the world will end in a fiery apocalyptic event. Set in the late 1970s, the only gizmo on display is the TV she binge watches every night, which prompts Gaap, the demon, to model himself on her onscreen crush, Bobby Farrell from Boney M.
It's not the only installment to be set in the past, either, dispelling the idea that Black Mirror is predominantly concerned with presenting a damning look at our not-so-distant futures. 'Beyond the Sea', fronted by Josh Hartnett, Kate Mara, and a never-better Aaron Paul, takes place in the '60s, as two astronauts try to move past an unspeakable tragedy.
"I was super aware..." he begins, before readjusting his thoughts: "There was a slight danger... that people were bracketing [the series] as the 'tech is bad' show – and I found that a bit frustrating partly because I always felt like, 'Well the show isn't saying tech is bad, the show is saying people are fucked up'. So, you know, 'Get it right!'" (Given that Black Mirror is called Black Mirror as a nod to the reflection we see of ourselves when our phone or laptop screens go blank, it's not exactly a secret that it's really about us).
As with past seasons, Brooker is quick to clarify that there's still "a lot of sort of media commentary and satire in it, and that's inevitably going to have something to do with your image and the way you're perceived. I guess parts of it are [about] the pain of a real-life thing becoming a sort of true crime documentary, like 'Loch Henry', or something more playful, like 'Joan is Awful', which is an existential nightmare, but it's also to do with identity and control and all that beeswax."
While 'Demon 79', the first episode written, concludes the new season on Netflix, 'Joan is Awful', the last, kicks things off. Described as the "most timely" by Brooker, it follows Annie Murphy's Joan as she learns why you should always read the small print the hard way. In short, she discovers that her life is being turned into a comedy-drama, available for everyone in her life to watch on popular platform, Streamberry – and the fallout is not pretty. For starters, her boyfriend discovers she's still hung up on her ex, and her work find out that she breached company policy during a private meeting...
"Netflix has been so supportive," executive producer Jessica Rhoades explains, when asked how the streamer reacted to essentially seeing itself poked fun at in the script. "Originally, we were a little bit more, I would say, streamer agnostic. But we had the idea of leaning into Netflix's ribbon graphic and 'tudum' sound, and once they said yes to that, we really went for broke and had a lot of fun and started pulling it across the other episodes as well. It was a fun world builder."
"I'm kicking myself that we didn't put all the episodes on the Streamberry front page," Brooker chimes in. "That's the thing I've always wanted to see on the Netflix homepage! I always wanted you to switch it on and be like, 'Oh, look there's 'Joan is Awful' and there's 'San Junipero'...' We could have done that... we should have done that."
"We still can," Rhoades adds with a mischievous grin.
At this point, anything seems possible when it comes to the anthology series. Each of the five episodes that make up season 6 feel refreshingly unique, with a couple even embracing Twilight Zone-levels of the supernatural – something that the show has typically steered clear of up until now. 'Mazey Day' is a 40-minute twist-heavy thrill ride, while 'Loch Henry' and 'Beyond the Sea' are more slow-burning somber affairs. On the flip side, the laugh-out-loud screwball-esque 'Joan is Awful' is undoubtedly Black Mirror's funniest episode to date.
"We brought in a US comedy casting director, Jeanie Bacharach, who I've worked with before, and paired her with [Black Mirror casting director] Jina Jay," Rhoades says of the prep for said episode. "Between them, they just brought together this a murderers' row of comedy talent and I think everything just got funnier and funnier the more we worked on it."
"It was just so much fun to write. Annie Murphy is just hilarious," gushes Brooker. I think, like everyone else, I binge-watched Schitt's Creek during the pandemic and her Alexis was so funny and she stood out, amongst this cast of people who are all brilliant. She's just so funny and likeable and goofy."
"Salma also has incredibly naturally funny bones and was actually encouraging us to make her character more outrageous," he remembers. "Then we had a brilliant director, Ally Pankiw, who has also got a background in comedy writing and, again, is just brilliant. And so, with all of those things coming together, it was just fun to do an out-and-out comedy episode, which is almost one of the more dystopian in a weird way, because it feels so close to real life... That could definitely happen, and quite quickly, too." Black Mirror might be distancing itself from tech, but it's never too far from an ominous morality tale.
Black Mirror season 6 is streaming now. For more viewing inspiration, check out our list of the best Netflix shows.