I saw the first one just now. I liked it a lot. Like all the best Black Mirror episodes, the premise was simultaneously ridiculous and oddly plausible. It’s basically about a world where people can (and do) ‘rate’ every social interaction on a 5 star scale. The barista gave you a little cookie with your cappuccino? Aww, how nice. Give him 5 stars. That douchebag in Accounts Payable didn’t hold the door open for you? Fuck him. Give him a 1. That kind of thing.
Anyway, the more positive ratings you get, the higher your average rating. The higher your average rating, the more ‘influential’ you are considered to be. The more influential you are, the more cool stuff you can afford to have as you leverage your high average rating for discounts on cars, houses, computers, kitchen-ware appliances, and pretty much everything else you can think of, until your entire life is basically just one giant product placement smorgasbord. Clothes become fashionable because “That’s what all the 4.8s are wearing” etc…
Anyway, the episode is about Lacey, a 4.2, who wants an apartment she can’t afford. However, 4.5s get a 20% discount so she sets about increasing her rating. Luckily, Naomi, one of her old High school friends is a 4.9. She’s getting married, and she wants Lacey to be her maid of honour. Lacey’s popularity advisor (basically a PR guy with ratings tips) thinks this is great, because if she gives a good speech at a wedding filled with 4.9s, her average will easily beat 4.5 and she’ll be able to afford the apartment.
Predictably, things don’t go according to plan. In the space of a day, Lacey experiences a string of total catastrophes (none of which are her fault, and including the cancellation of her flight) that sees her rating drop from 4.2 to 2.8. At this point, after spending the whole night doing battle with her shitty rent-a-car (you need a 3.5 or above to get the decent models), hitch-hiking with a cynical trucker with a 1.4 (which is basically one step above serial killer in this universe) and then bullshitting her way into an RV filled with sci-fi obsessives road-tripping to an anime convention, Naomi calls up to rudely disinvite her from the wedding. Turns out that Naomi only wanted Lacey there because her popularity advisor said a maid of honour speech from a 4.2 would make her seem more genuine (as in “OMG! She got a 4.2 to be her maid of honour? Wow, Naomi isn’t all about the numbers. Friendship matters. We could learn a lot from her” - that kind of thing) and thus boost her popularity.
At this point, Lacey goes nuts and decides she’s going to give that fucking speech if it kills her. She turns up at the wedding dinner utterly disheveled and gives her speech. Her rating plummets to zero and she is arrested and thrown in a jail cell (though whether she’s arrested for disturbing the peace or merely for having a zero rating isn’t make clear). There, she meets another prisoner and the episode finishes with them joyously throwing ever more crude and hilariously baroque insults at one another (“Which cartoon character did your mom have to fuck to squeeze you out?” that kind of thing) until, laughing hysterically, Lacey is genuinely happy for the first time in the entire episode and, we suspect, for a great many years.
It’s a fucking terrific episode. The message is heavy-handed, but it works for two reasons. Firstly, the acting is brilliant. Everyone involved really commits to the premise and they sell it beautifully, especially Bryce Dallas Howard and Alice Eve as Lacey and Naomi respectively. They really make you believe that this is something that can happen if we’re not careful.
The second reason it works is that the premise (far-fetched as it may be) adheres mercilessly to its own internal logic. You soon viscerally understand how crucial it is that Lacey’s every interaction goes as smoothly as possible. In one scene, she meets a distant acquaintance by chance in an elevator and I actually found myself thinking “Come on, Lacey. Say something funny. You need at least a 4 star from this random to keep your average up!” In another scene, she realises just slightly too late that one of her co-workers has been ostracised by the rest of the team after a bad break-up and, because she’s accidentally ben nice to him, their interaction receives several anonymous down votes - that’s another thing, btw. You can vote on interactions you’re not even involved in - and I realised it’s just like Twitter. How many times has someone tweeted something perfectly innocuous only to be assailed by anonymous troll-eggs just because they didn’t like the tweet?
Every aspect of this madness is reflected in Lacey’s extraordinary wedding speech. She hates the system, she hates the fakery of it, but she needs it too. Your rating is currency, and dropping too low is, in effect, exactly like dropping below the poverty line. She hates Naomi, who was often a pretty shitty friend, and, it transpires, hasn’t spared her a second’s thought since high school. But she loves Naomi at the same time, because she’s spent her whole life aspiring to be Naomi and the ratings culture they’re trapped in has only amplified that need.
But the most striking thing about the episode is how relatable it is. Before I realised it was a piece of shit, and the worst communications medium ever devised, I used to use twitter. One time, I was retweeted by an author I particularly like and I got a genuine thrill out of it. An old workmate once got retweeted by Ricky Gervais. He was genuinely proud. He took a screenshot to show us all! Approval is like a drug, and with so many social media platforms using approval as a kind of unofficial currency, it’s easy to empathise with Lacey. And in the end, you’re forced to admit that if you were picked up and dumped in this world and left to fend for yourself, you’d probably play the game too, and the chances are you’d probably enjoy it.