Season 3, Episode 2 – Playtest
I must reiterate an observation I made when reviewing the previous episode “Nosedive.” Black Mirror’s strengths lie not in its storylines, but in pushing its concepts to the limit and being memorable. “Playtest” isn’t remotely original, nor is it even creative in what it does with the concept. This in itself isn’t a problem because practically all Black Mirror episodes suffer from this. Unfortunately, whereas previous episodes managed to be compelling and watchable, “Playtest” utterly fails at being both.
The main problem lies in the fact that the main character, Cooper, is uninteresting and unlikable. It’s easy to overlook some of the previous episodes’ weaknesses because they all tend to have interesting characters that guide the audience through a strange, sometimes terrifying journey. We view the world from their perspective and sympathize with them in the process. Cooper, unfortunately, isn’t remotely interesting, and by the time the episode ends, I genuinely couldn’t care less about how he comes out of his situation.
The episode introduces Cooper in the most by-the-numbers way imaginable as we learn about the recent death of his father, which he’s still reeling from, hence the reason for his extended travels all over the world. Despite its conventional nature, the dead parent trope isn’t a bad idea in and of itself to gain sympathy points for a character, but the episode fails to do much of anything about this fact. It has little relevance in Cooper’s journey because this piece of information feels more expository than a natural part of the episode. More importantly, this fact isn’t enough to make us care about Cooper. It’s as if the filmmakers assumed that simply giving the character a dead parent would be enough to make him interesting, but it isn’t. Apart from his dead father and strained relationship with his mother, we don’t know anything else about Cooper nor do we find out much of anything else about him throughout the episode.
Moreover, Cooper isn’t even a likeable character. He is neither charming nor engaging. He babbles constantly and is generally insufferable. It can be argued that this was done on purpose so that the audience will be actively cheering for something horrible to happen to him, but that makes little sense because Cooper isn’t a villainous character. He’s not unlikable because he’s cruel or malicious. He’s unlikable because the way the character is written and performed by Wyatt Russell is unbearable to watch. Watching Cooper spout gibberish throughout the episode is akin to enduring a cramped five-hour flight seated next to someone who won’t stop speaking when all you want to do is take a nap. It’s utterly grating and gets on your nerves, which overshadows everything else that happens in the episode. Bad enough that the filmmakers give you next to no reason to care about Cooper, but did he have to be so obnoxious as well?
But even if “Playtest” had a likeable character, it still wouldn’t be enough to overcome its predictable plot. Again, plot isn’t exactly one of Black Mirror’s strengths, but previous episodes at least managed to explore its concepts in a way that pushes itself to the limit and keeps you hooked all throughout. Whether it’s about the moral consequences of technology or how it can be abused and oppress others, Black Mirror presents each conflict in a gripping and exciting way that makes you want to find out what happens next, even if you know exactly what is about to transpire. “Playtest,” again, does none of the above. It’s a shallow experience that doesn’t raise any questions or explore its own potential. Throughout the episode I kept wondering what exactly is the point of it all because it doesn’t even seem to be interested in being at least entertaining.
There’s a spark of interest when the gaming company decides to have Cooper try out its virtual reality technology in a haunted house setting. This was a fun concept that made me excited for the possibilities, but once Cooper sets foot in the haunted house, the episode devolves into numerous scenes of Cooper getting scared by something and then excessively talking to himself so that he can calm down. Scenes in the haunted house become repetitive and tedious, which is ironic since they contain the most action in the whole episode. Neither Charlie Brooker nor director Dan Trachtenberg take advantage of this plot development and instead presents us with cheap jump scares that are devoid of imagination or creativity.
This development is also quite jarring because the episode isn’t really set-up as being in the horror genre. Suddenly adding a horror aspect to the episode so late in the game feels disjointed because everything before the haunted house was a mysterious sci- fi drama, all of which is poorly executed. When the virtual reality chip embedded in Cooper’s brain predictably malfunctions and drives him insane, we are treated to a fake-out twist and a final plot-twist that is neither clever nor surprising.
Ultimately “Playtest” feels half-baked in its conception and execution. It’s like a first draft of a script that wanted to explore the possibilities of virtual reality gaming but was never revised or reviewed before finally being shot. Some people were concerned that Netflix overshot a bit when they ordered a whopping twelve episodes of a new season of Black Mirror (This was ultimately split into two seasons with six episodes each). Before coming to Netflix, only seven episodes of Black Mirror have been produced in the span of three years. The infrequency of producing the episodes probably helped flesh out the concepts a bit more, but I don’t want to assume such things. It’s unreasonable to expect the filmmakers to come out with a winning episode all the time, but “Playtest” is a particularly low point of a series that has become pretty reliable in its consistency.