Last year, Black Mirror — the sci-fi anthology series created by Charlie Brooker that’s like a Twilight Zone for the smartphone age — debuted its first season produced expressly for Netflix, which had previously held the streaming rights to episodes made in the UK. It was a glitchy transition, with the unlimited creative freedom of the streaming world mainly leading to episodes that were too long and/or shapeless to properly get their satiric points across. (There was still one genuinely great episode, the ’80s-flavored metaphysical romance “San Junipero.”)

The second Netflix season debuted earlier today, and it’s significantly better across the board. Brooker and company have a firmer handle on the proper architecture for each story (only one, “Crocodile,” really drags), and if the show is starting to repeat itself a bit (the last episode of this batch, “Black Museum,” is basically Black Mirror’s Greatest Hits), the execution tends to compensate for the spottiness or familiarity of the ideas.

Because so many of the episodes lean on surprises, in the premise and/or twists at the end, I didn’t write an advance review. Instead, I’m going to go episode-by-episode — with full spoilers for each — coming up just as soon as I steal back that lollipop…

“USS Callister”

Where last season’s “Hated in the Nation” felt too long almost from the moment it started, “USS Callister” moves so briskly, and has such a strong central idea, that I didn’t even realize it was supersized until after it was over. Easily one of the best and most entertaining episodes the show has done.

What seems at first like it could be a wallow in nostalgia for the original ’60s Star Trek instead turns into a blistering screed against the whiny entitlement of fanboys and other beta males, a satire on the excesses and attitudes of the James Tiberius Kirk brand of space opera, and a rollicking thriller about the poor co-workers — or, at least, poor sentient digital copies of co-workers — trapped in Bob’s sick virtual fantasy.

To a degree, it’s a rehash of ideas Brooker used in “White Christmas” — specifically, the pure hell of being an artificial copy of a real person, forced to bend to the whims of whoever’s in charge of the system you’ve been installed in — but the Star Trek spoofing, the performances (by Jesse Plemons, Jimmi Simpson, and, especially, Cristin Milioti), and the prison break that “Lt. Cole” inspires the others to stage with her ultimately make it feel like its own thing. At times, it’s horrifying in its portrayal of toxic masculinity given godhood, at others incredibly fun, and in many moments, both at once. (Cole: “Okay, stealing my pussy is a red fucking line!”)

Brooker and William Bridges’ script is a bit fuzzy on the details of how Bob’s mind gets trapped in the game, leaving his body a useless husk back in the real world. (This also renders the lollipop-stealing gambit with the real Cole moot, not that the digital version knew it at the time she blackmailed herself.) The energy of the caper is so strong that the happy ending for everyone else — an anomaly in past Black Mirror seasons, but a slightly more frequent occurrence here (perhaps because Brooker felt the real world is now so dark, he needs to take it easier on us) — felt earned, and almost necessary. Plus, Cole and the others becoming immortal space travelers in the real version of the game allowed for a nifty voice cameo from Aaron Paul. (“Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, video games!”)

 

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