Too soon to tell whether ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ changed the way we watch television


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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Our everyday lives are saturated with buttons that do nothing when we press them. Crosswalk buttons, “close door” buttons on elevators, thermostats in hotel rooms — they’re deliberately built to be nonfunctional. They give the illusion of control to the person pressing them, a small action infinitely more soothing than dawdling in the idle pockets of time.

The latest installation of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” series, titled “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” is an interactive film that endeavors to launch us into a choose-your-own-adventure television experience with trillions of potential permutations that, ranging from 40 to 90 minutes, depending on your choices, lead to one of five endings. It can be difficult to separate the fads of society from the future of it — and this demonstration in interactive storytelling is but the first attempt to answer that question. But, what is clear is that “Bandersnatch” is full of nonfunctional buttons.

“Bandersnatch” follows young video game programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he transforms an interactive novel with a tragic backstory into an intricate video game. The viewer makes choices on the protagonist’s behalf — some seemingly trivial, such as which cereal to enjoy for breakfast, others far more challenging (and gruesome).

It’s easy to feel guilty when you watch Stefan suffer for the choices you made on his behalf. But once you settle into the rhythm of the film and its structure, you can start to get the sense that the choices aren’t yours any more than they are Stefan’s. The viewer is constantly nudged and redirected back to previous moments when they had the chance to put Stefan on a different path. You might make one choice but are forced into making another, or both choices might lead to essentially the same conclusion. But having the choice in the first place instills in you the same illusion of control as incessantly pressing on the crosswalk button does.

An illusion of control is not the episode’s only achievement in game-changing television. The transitions between when you select a choice and the continuation of the scene are seamless — there’s no buffering or resetting. In one way, it’s immensely satisfying; in another, it’s unsettling because it manages to make you feel that Netflix knew which option you would choose before you ever chose it.

“Bandersnatch” also toys with complex nonlinear timelines, leaving viewers to ponder the significance of why certain moments change between timelines and others are left intact. Similarly, it’s worth interrogating not only why certain choices are meaningless, but also why other parts of the narrative are inflexible, with no option for the audience to control the decision Stefan makes. Only in repeated viewings might insight be revealed — a level of intricacy some might appreciate, but others might find frustrating. But the complexity of “Bandersnatch” is a testament to the idea that interactive storytelling can be much more than just a parlor trick.

The episode does, however, reach peak gimmick with its most meta ending, when it’s revealed to Stefan that he’s all part of an interactive Netflix episode. It’s a conclusion that’s as charming as it is disruptive. The story struggles in other areas as well — characters have a tendency to announce the episode’s numerous philosophies in dramatic monologues, rather than reveal these musings through patient storytelling.

“Bandersnatch” is set in the year 1984, and its retro aesthetics and clunky video games give us cause to reflect on just how far entertainment and television have come. Baby boomers might recall their TV-watching days as ones defined by a limited selection of television channels, and, as a result, the majority of folks who showed up to school or work the next day had all watched the same special the night before. In only a few decades, everyone in your office might have taken “Bandersnatch” for a spin the night before, but each person watched a radically different show. It’s too soon to tell whether “Bandersnatch” is a blip on the television timeline or whether it marks a revolution in the viewing experience — but the best guess is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].