Right now in Hollywood, the screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America are on strike. And one reason they’re on strike is the fear that AI will take their jobs, churning out mediocre content quickly and cheaply that helps streamers’ bottom lines even if it doesn’t contribute much culturally speaking. (Disclosure: The Verge’s editorial staff is represented by the Writers Guild of America East.) Actors have also announced an intent to strike, and one reason is their desire to preserve the rights to their own likenesses, so streamers can’t build digital facsimiles that do all the work with none of the pay. Directors are voting on their own contract, with some, like The Matrix’s Lilly Wachowski and Spartacus’ Steven DeKnight, vocally expressing concern over the contract’s language concerning AI.
They all are worried that in Hollywood’s bid to provide cheap infinite content to snap up all our subscription dollars, they’ll be replaced by computers and see their own industries devastated. And in the sixth season of Black Mirror, creator Charlie Booker envisions a world where it’s not just actors, writers, and directors that get wrecked by AI — but the people watching at home, too.
“Joan is Awful” stars Annie Murphy as Joan, a very normal woman who kind of misses her ex, finds her fiancé a little boring, and is a middle manager at a tech company, doing the board’s dirty work while feeling pretty shitty about herself. One night she and her fiancé kick back on the couch, turn on Streamberry (a thinly veiled copy of Netflix) and settle in to watch the buzzy new show Joan is Awful. Joan, naturally, is horrified to realize the show is just about her, as played by Salma Hayek. Her life quickly spins out of control as her secrets are revealed against her will, and she embarks on a quest to wrest control of her life back from Streamberry (and Salma Hayek).
“Joan is Awful” is frequently funny in what feels like a gentler way than I’m used to from a Black Mirror episode. The comedy in Black Mirror can often feel dark and a little cruel — a callous satire of our world uninterested in our own feelings. But “Joan is Awful” feels almost screwball. Annie Murphy is a very good screwball comedy actress, and the episode gleefully leans into her talents. Though it occasionally gets filthy, too. There’s a whole stream of scatological jokes that felt more at home on the Adam Sandler side of Netflix than the Black Mirror one. (I still laughed.)
The comedic energy Murphy and Hayek bring is just different enough to make them brilliant foils to one another as Joan seeks a confrontation with Hayek, and Hayek starts to regret giving Streamberry the rights to her digital likeness. Brooker’s script allows them to be extremely funny, even as he piles on absurdity after absurdity and indignity after indignity. But the combination of satire, absurdism, and near-screwball humor leaves the episode’s ending feels a little twee — things feel like they wrap up just a little too neatly.
It also feels counter to the world we currently inhabit, where writers and actors and some directors are fighting to save us all from the future Brooker has written, and we don’t know how any of that could turn out. Brooker is clearly on the side of the artists (he recently marched in solidarity with the American writers on strike), and the episode feels like his attempt to get the rest of us on their side too. But Black Mirror is often known for the cynicism with which it explores humanity, and here, in an episode that so clearly mimics a near future that’s being actively fought against, Brooker crafts a world where some people recognize that the absurdity of all-powerful Big Tech and fight back. It’s a very nice sentiment — but only if people pay attention.
Black Mirror is currently available on Netflix.