Enlarge / Anthony Mackie is a husband and father who finds himself caught up in a virtual reality game in "Striking Vipers," one of three new Black Mirror episodes.YouTube/Netflix

Netflix debuted the much-anticipated fifth season of its sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror last week, and while the show remains inventive and thought provoking, it's possible that, five seasons in, it might just be running out of fresh ideas.

(Some spoilers below.)

Black Mirror is the creation of Charlie Brooker, co-showrunner with Annabel Jones, and he writes almost every episode. The series explores the darker side of technology, and it's very much in the spirit of classic anthology series like The Twilight Zone. Brooker developed Black Mirror to highlight topics related to humanity's relationship with technology, creating stories that feature "the way we live now—and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy." The series debuted on the British Channel 4 in December 2011, followed by a second season. Noting its popularity, Netflix took over production for seasons 3 and 4 in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Season 5's release was delayed by the experimental "choose your own adventure" standalone one-off Black Mirror "event," dubbed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Set in 1984, Bandersnatch follows the travails of a young programmer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), intent on making an interactive video game based on a fictional choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) novel, Bandersnatch, from a tragic writer named Jerome F. Davies. (Check out our spoiler-y Choose-Your-Own-Opinion review from earlier this year. Or you could check out our CYOA "Tentacular, tentacular!" from 2011.)

Now season 5 is finally here, boasting an impressive cast that includes Anthony Mackie, Miley Cyrus, Topher Grace, Andrew Scott, Nichole Beharie, Damson Idris, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, among others. It's just three episodes, a return to its British roots (the first two seasons only had three episodes each). Personally, I'm in favor of fewer, better episodes on TV in general if that's what the storytelling requires. Unfortunately, in this case, only one of the three new episodes fully succeeds in capturing that old Black Mirror magic.

The weakest of the three is "Smithereens," in which a ride-share driver named Chris (Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock series) takes Jaden (Damson Idris), an employee of a social media company called Smithereen, hostage at gunpoint. As police surround the car, Chris demands to speak to Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace); tensions predictably mount from there. Both Scott and Idris are terrific, particularly as we get a better understanding of what's behind Chris's actions. It's a shame the episode as a whole feels muddled and unfocused as to what its central theme is meant to be. Is it that we all spend too much time glued to our smartphones? Or that our unprecedented connectivity via social media makes us especially vulnerable to privacy breaches? The episode briefly touches on both, but it doesn't really have anything novel or meaningful to say about either.

  • Andrew Scott plays Chris, a distraught taxi driver in the episode "Smithereens." YouTube/Netflix
  • The ubiquitous smartphones documenting our every moment are one of the things driving Chris to desperation. YouTube/Netflix
  • Topher Grace plays a Silicon Valley entrepreneur on a meditation retreat. YouTube/Netflix
  • Miley Cyrus plays pop star Ashley O., who isn't nearly as upbeat as her pubic image would suggest. YouTube/Netflix
  • Ashley O. in peak performance mode. YouTube/Netflix
  • Ashley's manager is keen to ensure those gold records keep on coming. YouTube/Netflix
  • An Alexa-like doll, Ashley II, is programmed to provide affirmations to the pop star's many fans. YouTube/Netflix
  • Lonely teenager Rachel (Angourie Rice) finds solace in her Ashley Too virtual doll. YouTube/Netflix
  • Rachel's older sister Jack (Madison Davenport) disapproves of her sibling's hero worship. YouTube/Netflix
  • Best buddies Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Danny (Anthony Mackie) bond over beers and video games in "Striking Vipers." YouTube/Netflix
  • Mortal combat in virtual reality. YouTube/Netflix
  • Danny's wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) senses the growing rift in their marriage. YouTube/Netflix
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