Cybernews podcast #02. Decoding Black Mirror: Joan is Awful — and Netflix too?

Joan is Awful, the season opener of the new Black Mirror series on Netflix, proves that Charlie Brooker, its creator, is ready to sabotage both the streaming service and his popular anthology.

Brooker didn’t lie when, prior to the long-awaited release of Black Mirror’s season six, he said that the new series was going to be different. It is. The very first episode, Joan is Awful, is quite typical and very unique at the same time.

Typical, because, unlike the other four episodes of the season, it does talk about tech and a possible near future where you can stream a TV series about your own life – almost live. It really is disturbingly plausible. There’s also a mysterious quantum computer.

Unique, because Brooker has, in essence, created an episode that criticizes Netflix and its huge appetite for content while simultaneously streaming…on Netflix. If that’s not biting the hand that feeds him, I don’t know what is. Brooker is paid millions of dollars for his content.

But maybe that’s the point – to troll Netflix so mercilessly that everyone watching, including the decision-makers at the very same streaming giant, has no choice but to assume that this is an extreme act of self-sabotage.

Tune in to "Through a glass darkly: Black Mirror explained," our exclusive podcast where Cybernews writers dissect all of your favorite episodes.

A different kind of biopic

Streamberry, the streaming service inside this Netflix Black Mirror episode (yeah, I know), is a kind of satirical version of the real-life behemoth itself. Or is it?

In the episode, the titular Joan, a pretty average tech manager played by Anne Murphy, discovers her every action is being broadcast to the world in Streamberry – an almighty streaming app that uses AI deepfakes to cheaply produce reality shows based on the lives of unsuspecting viewers.

Salma Hayek – brilliant, by the way – plays Joan in the Streamberry series. But, hey, Hayek also has her life made into a show, and is played by Cate Blanchett.

It’s all because of the user agreement that Streamberry has made these Hollywood stars sign – the streaming app can use a digital version of them anyway it likes. The result is this fascinating cascade of fictive realities.

It’s very creative and yet one instantly remembers all those Netflix biopic series like Inventing Anna (Netflix), Dirty John (Netflix), or The Dropout, inspired by the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the biotech company Theranos.

Brooker himself said the latter series inspired him to write Joan is Awful: “I just thought, God, wouldn’t it be so weird if you were Elizabeth Holmes, who wasn’t on trial at the time, and you switched on the TV and you were being played by a Hollywood actress.”

The difference is that on Black Mirror and Streamberry, you can be the star. You can be awful. You can experience what Holmes probably did – the realization that your life is now a not entirely factual docudrama, the hate, the looks on the street. There’s a website, too!

Netflix people, look away

Is this Brooker lashing out at his paymasters in a petulant fashion? It’s tempting yet a bit naive to think that – I’m pretty sure Netflix was perfectly aware of what’s being done for their money.

On the other hand, Netflix, home to Black Mirror since 2016 after two seasons at the UK’s Channel 4, must be extremely naive not to understand that it’s precisely them Brooker is portraying and trolling in the episode.

Before reaching the heights of fame on Netflix, Charlie ranted his way through the late 90s cursing whichever new trend appeared on British and global television.

As an absolutely partial consumer, I really do believe the Netflix executives to be engagement-obsessed opportunists who only care about metrics and have been cracking down on subscribers who, for the love of God, are committing the crime of using someone else’s password – with their permission.

Meanwhile, let’s all for once admit that the content has become a bit meh. Loads of soap, clone-like true crime documentaries, wishy-washy films have filled our screens lately, and the rare solid piece is usually canceled with little explanation.

Other season six episodes are different – at times, they don’t at all feel like Black Mirror. Joan is Awful is still vintage Brooker in a way. Before reaching the heights of fame on Netflix, Charlie ranted his way through the late 90s cursing whichever new trend appeared on British and global television.

This is, of course, much subtler, but the meta-commentary of modern watching is very much visible. In fact, if Joan is Awful (or Loch Henry, as a matter of fact) is sort of a pilot for a new Streamberry-exclusive project, I’ll definitely be watching that.

Yes, it might still be on Netflix but maybe, just maybe, the execs over there might grasp the critique hidden within the show and just get better.

Fingers crossed, Charlie.

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