Dystopian British series Black Mirror returns to twist the knife

Last year, writer and satirist Charlie Brooker awed us and basically ripped our guts out with the first season of Black Mirror, a three-episode series of short stories set in troubling, media-saturated futures. Now he's back with season two, whose first episode, "Be Right Back," aired last night on Channel 4. It was a strong, moody start, though not quite as devastatingly misanthropic as anything in season one.

Spoilers ahead.

Perhaps the best element of "Be Right Back," set five minutes into the future, is its extremely well-observed commentary on the difference between our social media online personas and who we really are. Ash and Martha are a young couple who have just moved into Ash's family home in the country. While Martha creates digital art with her futuristic Mac setup, Ash is a social media addict. He's constantly tweeting, facebooking, or whatever-ing little quips and pictures. He can barely pay attention to Martha because he's so intent on showing people something cool. At one point, he uploads a snapshot of a childhood photograph of himself that his mother left behind, remarking that "it's funny." But once Martha starts asking where the picture came from, Ash confesses that it was taken on one of the saddest days of his life, after his brother died, and that his smile was completely "fake." Here, and in several other subtle scenes, we see the membrane between online Ash and the real man whom Martha loves.

Before we have a chance to get to know Ash, however, he's killed in a car accident. Most of the story is about how Martha copes with his loss, especially once her friend signs her up for a new web service that creates an Ash avatar for her out of all the social media detritus he left behind. Over time, Martha becomes addicted to the fake Ash, feeding more and more of Ash's private messages, photos and videos to the service so that the Ash avatar's responses become more lifelike. They graduate from IM correspondence to synthesized phone calls, to something much weirder. There are dark notes here, never pursued, about how social media preys on our emotional fragility to suck private data out of us.

One direction Brooker might have taken this story would have been to have the Ash avatar begin to feed advertisements to Martha, like gmail personified. Instead, Ash gently urges her to upgrade her account until she's forced to confront a nearly perfect double of Ash who is cobbled together entirely out of witty quips and her own broken emotions. Though this Ash avatar is clearly not the same as her lost lover, Martha is unable to move on — too much of Ash remains behind, aggregated by an internet startup into something sadder than a ghost.

Finally, "Be Right Back" becomes simply a meditation on the experience of unresolved human grief. This is a story that could be told entirely without the trappings of web technology, though Brooker wants to suggest that social media is preventing Martha from healing. There's nothing wrong with using science fiction to tell a universal story about emotion, and indeed Black Mirror has always succeeded in doing that. What's missing here, though, is the media critique that gave the first season such a multi-layered effect.