There are odd times in pop culture history when a piece of content speaks to a moment in time more than a creator may have expected. “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman” and many other films this year were conceived in a world very different than the entertainment landscape today. Yet their ties to the zeitgeist have elevated their status, and have allowed them to put a mirror up to society in a special way. The British series “Black Mirror” attempts to this upon every release, with varying levels of success. The anthology series remains one of the most visionary shows on television, and with the first episode of Season 4, “USS Callister” has found its way to speak to the moment better than any episode in the modern pop culture landscape.
The series is a spiritual cousin to “The Twilight Zone,” taking an episodic anthology route to examine the modern world. The series is more focused on the ways in which we utilize technology, but the insights it delivers can tell us so much more about what it means to be human. “USS Callister” follows the story of two tech developers. One is Robert Daly (Jesse Plemmons) the underappreciated CTO of Callister Inc., a tech company that’s responsible for the creation of a Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) called Infinity. The true protagonist of the episode is Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), a new programmer at Callister. As the two circle each other, dark secrets are revealed, and the episode begins to shadow the sex scandals that have rocked Hollywood since early October.
The episode was not written in the last few months. In fact, the original script was written back in October 2016. The first images of the episode released in September, a whole month before the revelations rocked Hollywood. Despite this, the episode is at once timeless, yet timely, making it one of the best episodes of the show to this point. The episode is rooted in nostalgia for “Star Trek,” and exudes passion, love, and reverence. Two of the greater achievements in the episode come from director Toby Hayes, as well as writers Charlie Booker and William Bridges. All three work together to weave together a world that both celebrates “Star Trek,” while having an undeniable “Black Mirror” aesthetic.
The performances in this episode are some of the best in the series as well. Milioti finally gets a role worthy of her talents. She crafts a character that engenders sympathy and makes you stand and cheer when she’s at her best. It’s her best performance to date, even surpassing her brilliantly subtle work in “Fargo’s” second season. Speaking of which, Plemmons absolutely shines, taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase his charisma and range. Again, this could be some career-best work from the young actor, who has quickly gained a profile as one of the stronger performers of his age.
Jimmi Simpson proves that his travels through the Old West in Sweetwater were far from a fluke. The role here allows him to be smarmy, emotional, and deliver incredible dialogue. Simpson is one of the TV’s best-kept secrets. It will only be a matter of time until he hoists gold for his stellar work. Another strong performance comes from Michaela Coel, who remains as charming as ever. Coel’s been a recent breakout with her popular series “Chewing Gum,” and the episode allows her to avoid typecasting. Again, Coel seems to be far more talented than we’ve been led on.
Last, the episode is undeniably the most technically proficient episode in the series history. The cinematography from Stephan Pehrsson is distinctive and changes drastically depending on narrative need. It’s an incredibly effective tool and delivers one of the best shot episodes of TV this year. Blockbuster costume designer Maja Meschede delivers some career-best work. The bright color palette that plays on homage, and feels warm with nostalgia. Editor Selina Macarthur delivers tension and stress as the narrative bounces between the game world and the real world. Finally, the score from Daniel Pemberton is one of his best achievements in a breakout year.
Overall, “USS Callister” is a triumph of both “Black Mirror” and TV in 2017. This episode is every bit as grandiose as “San Junipero” from 2016. Toby Hayes and Charlie Booker are raconteurs that consistently expand the frontier for television. The fact that their tales blend so close to our world only further illustrates how essential their narratives have become. With “USS Callister,” they have crafted the essential triumph in television for 2017.