Fifteen Million Merits (S1 Ep2)

I haven’t got a speech. I didn’t plan words, I didn’t even try to. I just knew I had to enter the Fifteen Million Merits episode of Black Mirror series one into our 100 Greatest TV Episodes list!

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

fifteen million merits 2 Despite churning out a tidal wave of daytime TV shows, borderline freak-show “documentaries” and surprisingly off-kilter comedy shows, Channel 4 have a knack for occasionally producing intelligent, entertaining and edgy TV dramas. For example, Babylon began this week after a successful pilot / one-off episode (directed by Danny Boyle) back in February. In the past few years, they’ve also been responsible for shows like Charlie Brooker’s zombie-satire Dead Set, the comedy-drama Misfits and more recently the really quite excellent Utopia.

However, I want to focus on a mini-series they produced almost three years ago; the Twilight Zone-meets-Tales of the Unexpected anthology series, Black Mirror. Each episode of Black Mirror was different; entirely new cast, different story set in different realities, with different writers and directors even. The one thing that linked the series was creator Charlie Brooker’s influence on the absurdly twisted humour and satire of the “Twitter generation”.

Whilst the series as a whole (and last year’s second series) was fantastic, one episode in particular that stood out was the second episode from the first season starring the vastly underrated Daniel Kaluuya & Jessica Brown Findlay in a futuristic anti-utopian society. Living in stacked glass rooms no bigger than a prison cell, the occupants of this shiny facility are constantly bombarded with adverts, propaganda and strict rules flashing uncontrollably on the screens around them. Imagine living inside a Facebook news feed that simultaneously has constant porn-pop-ups. It’s that. Inescapable promotions, videos and nonsense.

To survive costs the characters in the story money – or, rather, it costs them merits. Whether for a squirt of toothpaste or a piece of fruit from a vending machine, it all costs varying amounts of credit. Merits can be mainly earned by watching certain shows or by pedalling on exercise bikes to produce enough energy to keep the self-fulfilling lifestyle going. Which is exactly what Kaluuya’s character does in order to earn enough merits to send Abi, the girl he’s fallen for, to a talent show. If her singing impresses the judges and she’s successful, she could be saved from this worker-drone life. But if not….

Looking at the entire six episodes of Black Mirror, this episode, written by Brooker’s wife Konnie Huq and directed by Euros Lyn, it might seem like the least subtle of the lot. Obviously the satire is focussed on the need to constantly be instantaneously satisfied, of the social media culture that has developed and the supposed Generation Y. But it’s so exceptionally well executed that any lack of subtlety it may be accused of can easily be forgiven.

I remember finding out that Konnie Huq – primarily known as a presenter of Blue Peter – had penned Fifteen Million Merits and being utterly flabbergasted. Not because I didn’t think Konnie was intelligent! But the writing here was so vastly superior to a million other Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopian knock-off films and TV shows that I half expected it to be been written by a seasoned veteran film writer, not a children’s TV presenter. It deals with social class, of the workers and them, with an awareness and sophistication often lacking in similar narratives.

On top of all that, the story is heart-stopping, emotional and completely absorbing. Consumerism is given a kicking alright, just as you might expect, but the despair-driven tension surmounts any obstacles presented by the relatively short run time of 60 minutes or the desire to get a message across to the viewer. Certain scenes are overwhelmingly moving and left me open mouthed, gasping at what I’d just witnessed. It also features one of the best conclusions to any TV episode aired in the UK. Call to arms speeches are so passé these days but this is something else! The delivery and performance by Daniel Kaluuya is exceptional.

It’s bleak, it’s relentless but it’s an incredible hour of modern TV. So many films released in the last few years have tried to tackle a similar scenario. The penultimate film in the Hunger Games franchise is due out this time next week, but this one little episode of TV says so much more – and way more eloquently – in a snippet of the combined run time of the Hunger Games movies.

I’ll end it here in true sixth-form rebellious nature with a quote from a punk song called The Decline by NOFX. It somehow seems strangely apt. “And so we go on with our lives. We know the truth but prefer lies”. Well said, Fat Mike. Well said.

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.

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