Have you ever pondered the relationship between how we are entertained and who we are? “Fifteen Million Merits”, an episode of the British TV drama Black Mirror, poses an elusive question: how do we perceive our existence when we are immersed in a world characterized by mass entertainment? In “Fifteen Million Merits”, the story takes place in a dystopian world. Entertainment is exaggerated to the point where people perform only three activities: watching entertaining TV shows, participating in reality shows and riding bikes to earn currency for entertainment. At first everyone seems to take their entertainment for granted, where Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is the only sober character. He refuses to be defined by entertainment and he rejects pornography. But this is a hopeless, silent rejection as he cannot escape this society.
Things change after he meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), an innocent girl with a beautiful voice. She evokes a sense of realness in him for the first time. He buys her a ticket to sing in Hot Shot—a talent show offering people the chance to escape from the endless physical labour of cycling and lead a decent life as a celebrity. However, Abi ends up being persuaded into becoming a pornography actress, which pains Bing. The incident motivates him to work harder to obtain a ticket for himself to taunt the whole system at the show. Ironically, Bing himself is eventually devoured by the social enterprise of entertainment. He complies with the system and becomes the host for a TV show on satire.
The story offers two major lessons. Firstly, the individual self is liable to be merged into a mass celebration of entertainment. The most direct compromise of individuality is represented on the Hot Shot stage. Besides her compliance with the system, it is her being forced into becoming a pornography actress by the judges and the audience that is more problematic. When the judges tell her to “forget about all the shame’ for it can be “medicated against”, when all the audience shout “‘[d]o it!’” to her, she is faced with a situation reflective of today’s entertainment—to put on a good show, performers today are required to compromise themselves to an extreme degree. Entertainment is increasingly becoming a reckless celebration of pleasure, merging performance and audience into a universality oriented toward pure sensation.
Following the question of self versus entertainment is a quest for truth. The notion of truth is constantly being mocked in “Fifteen Million Merits”. Firstly, by entertaining themselves with pornography and violent video games, people in this society imagine their satisfaction of sexual and violent desires. Hence, physical pleasure as real experience is being undermined—imaginary and virtual experiences can replace sensual ones. Secondly, truth is related to hypocrisy. While the judges of Hot Shot are named Hope, Charity and Wraith, two of them do not match the implication of their names. They represent not hope and charity, but a group of dictators that compel candidates to merge into the mass celebration of entertainment. Even inside the reality show, the word “truth” is being mocked. After hearing Bing criticizing the system for lacking reality and truth, Charity affirms that “authenticity is in woefully short supply.” Charity then attempts to remedy this lack of truth by making Bing host a TV show that sneers at the mendacity of the social system. Thus, truth is never seriously confronted in the society immersed in entertainment. Or, is entertainment equivalent to truth?
The TV drama Black Mirror is often regarded as science fiction that aims to reexamine the role of technology in our society. However, I see this episode differently. It is more like an attack on the phenomena of (overly) widespread, immoderate and reckless entertainment than a denunciation of technology. In other words, it is the way human beings present and perceive themselves via entertainment that is being mocked, and technology is the accomplice in this five-act tragedy.
Edited by Dexter Yim.
About Yan Li:
I am currently a postgraduate student in University of Edinburgh studying Literature and Modernity: 1900 to the Present. My particular interest lies in the representation of subjectivity in the modern period, topics of which include gender, cultural identity and experience of mass culture.