'Black Mirror' season 3: "Playtest" was inspired by writer Mallory Ortberg's criticism
Since its inception, Twitter has influenced TV in more than a few ways. Viewers' live-tweeting habits have sped up the pace of shows like Scandal and Empire. Fans' connection to creators gives them the power to influence storylines. Then, of course, there were the joke Twitter feed-inspired shows like $#*! My Dad Says, though those have died out.
But Black Mirror season three's second episode, "Playtest," may be the first inspired by a viral piece of TV criticism on Twitter. Knowing the episode's origin makes what is otherwise a frustrating installment quite a bit more intriguing.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the second episode of Black Mirror season three.)
In January 2015, then-editor of The Toast Mallory Ortberg tweeted a 10-word critique of Black Mirror. She was parodying the promos for the series in its first two seasons that offered up a glimpse of the next episode. "Next on Black Mirror: what if phones but too much," she tweeted.
It's the kind of scathing criticism that doesn't need much context. Black Mirror and its creator, Charlie Brooker, are notoriously dubious about technology's place in our world. Taken to its most simplistic (admittedly somewhat reductive) level, the dilemma of any Black Mirror is "We have too much technology." Thus, "what if phones but too much" serves as a perfect, pithy shot at the show.
Ortberg expanded the tweet into a full post on The Toast — and Brooker caught wind. For the Netflix-exclusive third season, he wrote "Playtest," an episode about a young American man, Cooper (Wyatt Russell), who becomes a beta tester for a video game company. His goal is to get a photo of some of the company's technology to sell to news outlets, and during an opportunity when the test administrator (Wunmi Mosaku) leaves, Cooper turns on his phone and snaps a picture. But Cooper gets far more than he bargained for as the test begins.
Cooper gets a virtual reality device that augments his own vision and perception inserted into his body. His phone goes off in the middle of the upload, but the test proceeds as normal. Cooper sees a whack-a-mole game that isn't really there, then gets invited to test a more immersive game in an old mansion. The game goes wrong, and Cooper loses his mind — until it's revealed that it's all just part of the virtual reality. Everything that happened was part of the greater game; he never left the game company's offices.
But then, Cooper gets all the way home before he realizes he's still in the game. He's shocked out of it, and is sent all the way back to before the whack-a-mole game even began. In fact, Cooper's phone going off did cause a problem with the test, and because of the interfering signal, his brain is fried, killing him nearly instantly.
Yet that wasn't how the episode was supposed to end. In a spoiler-filled interview with Entertainment Weekly, Brooker said Ortberg's criticism inspired the final "Playtest" twist. "When I read the first treatment, there was the first twist but not the second," Brooker said. "[Then] we were like, 'Hold on, what if we add in another thing? What if we add a phone call at the end?' I was partly amusing myself, because there's a funny criticism of Black Mirror from Mallory Ortberg who wrote, "Next on Black Mirror: What if phones, but too much?" And I thought: 'Right, that's what I'm going to do. Let's do that episode!'"
It's not the only reference to "what if phones but too much," either. The quote shows up in another episode, as flagged by writer Pilot Viruet on Twitter. And "Nosedive," the season's first episode, could also be boiled down to the pithy phrase, though it's more about social media than phones specifically.
Still, the fact that Ortberg's criticism is the inspiration for the finale of "Playtest" is the most impressive. On one hand, it's a sign that a funny joke can actually change something. On the other, it's a good look for Brooker to be such a good sport about a sharp critique of his show.
Most of all, however, knowing that Ortberg's tweet inspired the episode makes it slightly more worth talking about. To be frank, "Playtest" is up there with "The Waldo Moment" in the echelon of worst Black Mirror episodes. The double-twist is exhausting and not particularly shocking. The fact that Cooper dies in an instant, long before any of the things in his head can actually happen, makes the episode feel like an exercise in futility.
Yet there's something cheeky and smart about a tweet being what changed the course of the episode. Ten words Ortberg sent in January 2015 led to a twist ending to a TV installment in October 2016. That's a more profound statement about the world we live in than anything in "Playtest."
Does that meta element make "Playtest" significantly better? Not really. But it does make it worth talking about — and for an episode of Black Mirror, that's the key.