'Playtest' helps new viewers settle into the world of Black Mirror, but may leave returning fans hungry for something closer to the grittier show they have grown accustomed to.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, the up and coming cinematic talent who helmed this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Black Mirror’s second episode, entitled ‘Playtest’, reflects the “upgrade” provided by Netflix’s purchase of the series. The budget is clearly significantly higher than previous series (note several uses of CGI, as well as more elaborate location), as well as our protagonist being Americanised for its new audience. This arguably works both in its favour and to its detriment. In the show’s Americanisation it has become more accessible to a more general audience, attracting more established actors, and equally notable figures behind the camera, but it could be said that the show has lost the raw and visceral tones of previous series.
The episode follows Cooper (Wyatt Russell), a charismatic twenty-something travelling the globe to avoid personal traumas left behind. Finding himself in London and in desperate need of money, Cooper volunteers to test an upcoming piece of innovative virtual-reality gaming technology. From this point onwards, keen viewers of the Black Mirror series will know, as with many a Black Mirror episode of the past, that not all will be as simple as it might appear. Particularly considering the game involves enduring the horrors of a haunted mansion, which feed on the underlying fears of the gamer’s subconscious.
Russell brilliantly encapsulates the stereotypical American backpacker too far from home but oblivious to its dangers. He is instantly likeable, despite his sometimes overwhelming enthusiasm. His character’s tragic backstory truly hits home, and plays a constant tune on the heartstrings of viewers, much to the episodes benefit. His likeable character makes ‘Playtest’ all the more heart-breaking, as Cooper’s nightmares begin to manifest on screen.
Along with the first episode of the new series, ‘Playtest’ introduces unfamiliar audiences into the dark world of the show, trapping them in its charm not dissimilarly to Cooper in his psychologically powered virtual prison. However, for returning fans of Black Mirror, the episode is disputably one of the show’s least powerful. Though Cooper provides ‘Playtest’ with emotional depth, and the ending intelligently toys with expectation to hit hard with a final impact, it seems less in touch with reality than other episodes and as a result is significantly less thought-provoking.
Unlike prior concepts, the virtual reality gaming perspective, despite being imminent in reality, is not something which will eat away at the back of viewer’s minds post-viewing, leaving them to contemplate on their existing fears of new technology. The episode simply comes and goes as a strong example of Black Mirror’s entertainment value, which will entice new audiences to persevere with the series – a toe in the water in preparation for the third episode’s full body head dive into the dark, sadistic universe that is Black Mirror.
All six episodes of Series 3 of Black Mirror can be found on Netflix. You can also catch up on the first two series, which originally aired on Channel 4.