Skip to main content

Apocalypse Now: How Television’s Boldest Sci-Fi Shows Are Tackling Contemporary Injustice

By taking place in present-day America, The Leftovers, Black Mirror, and Mr. Robot underscore the country’s most pressing dystopian realities.

By Mike Mariani


Black Mirror, whose third season premieres today, depicts ominous the ominous consequences of technology that’s only a generation or so away. (Photo: Netflix)

No one would ever mistake the film Blade Runner for being realistic; the 1982 movie, which imagines Los Angeles in 2019, features flying cars, anthropomorphized androids, and an L.A. skyline predominated by skyscrapers. And yet, thematically, the film is grounded in the bonafide contemporary conundrum of whether androids can have humanity—a subject considered by Philip K. Dick in the 1968 novel on which the film was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and studied to this day in books like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. This theme culminates in the villain’s famous monologue — in which a robot mulls that, after death, his memories will be lost “like tears in rain.”

While 20th-century dystopian science fiction tends to take place in sinister, spectacular futures, sci-fi movies from the ’80s, ’90s, and the early part of the 21st century noticeably reflect contemporary society. The Fifth Element, Children of Men, and Snowpiercer feature underlying themes of political hegemony, resource rapacity, and civil strife; Blade Runner tackles fear of outsiders and bioengineered robots. These movies package real worries in otherworldly production values: As Byron Camacho wrote inFilmmaker Magazine in 2012, the genre “presents a nightmare vision of the future which depicts humanity’s struggle against societal and technological change.”

But as the dominant visual storytelling platform has shifted from film to television in the last decade, dystopian fiction is becoming even less escapist. By some estimates, 2016 is on pace to be the worst year for the film industry since the 1920s, while the “Golden Age” of TV continues — “there are more great shows in production now than ever before,” Josef Adalian and Marian Elena Fernandez wrote in New York magazine in May. Three of these great shows, The Leftovers, Black Mirror, and Mr. Robot, contain genre-specific dystopian elements — andyetposition themselves as very near futures or pasts, or lightly fictionalized versions of today. In choosing to inhabit this space of what might be called “dystopian realism,” these shows address current civil disorder, widespread apprehension for augmented-reality technology, and capitalism in the post-Occupy, post-recession era. On TV, dystopia isn’t quixotic fantasy; it’s contemporary reality.

Though not what we’ve come to expect from dystopian fiction, by appropriating the trappings of the genre and leveraging them for substantive social commentary, The Leftovers, Black Mirror, and Mr. Robot remind viewers of contemporary injustice — produced by both futuristic technology and the trappings of American society.

Black Mirror, whose third season debuts today on Netflix, takes place in the future; nevertheless, the technologies it depicts — “grain” implants, artificial intelligence changelings of deceased loved ones, and smart houses — envision advancements only a generation or so away from today’s virtual reality technology and human microchipping.

By appropriating the trappings of the genre and leveraging them for substantive social commentary, these shows remind viewers of contemporary injustice and iniquity.

In clever stand-alone scenarios that reinforce the show’s proximity to today, Black Mirror cautions viewers to be particularly wary of the toll that trendy “augmented reality” technologies can take on their personal lives. These innovations, popularized in the real world by Pokémon Go, and rolling out in bicycle-helmet and in “enhanced shopping experience” application forms this year, manifest in the season-one finale, “The Entire History of You,” in “grain” implants that record people’s entire lives. When a man becomes suspicious that his wife is cheating after her behavior at a dinner party, he forces her to replay her infidelity via her grain implant; following that episode, he cuts his own out, in one gruesome scene, with a razor.

The show doubles down on questioning “augmented reality” in the 2014 Christmas special “White Christmas.” In the episode, a technology called Z-Eyes — optical implants that, like surgical upgrades to Google Glass, can stream encounters in real-time and even “block” people in real life — walls people from one another. Couples bicker over recorded liaisons, while erstwhile loved ones “block” one another with the Z-Eye. When one man, Harry, goes on a date with a mentally ill woman with Z-Eyes on, a large audience of Internet trolls gathers to watch while she poisons him.

Coinciding with contemporaneous news reports in the New York Times, the Guardian, andthe Washington Post about United States government surveillance programs, the show suggests that it’s not necessarily government spying Americans should fear; rather, they might fret about how citizens voluntarily corrode their privacy through their increasingly large digital footprints.

Though HBO’s The Leftovers isoften interpretedas a post-9/11 allegory (the series follows the mysterious, unexplained disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population), the show takes place in what writers have noted looks like the modern day. Moreover, it depicts spiritual confusion and splintering faith that is unique to America in 2016: The show’s “Guilty Remnant” group, a cult whose members wear white and chain smoke, recalls the increasing population of unaffiliated “nones” (those who identify as atheistic or agnostic), which rose in America by 7 percent between 2007 and 2015, according to Pew. The show’s backwoods psychopomp Virgil (Steven Williams), recalls traditional voodoo still in practice in the American South (last May, a Donald Trump voodoo doll made headlines).


The Guilty Remnant cult in HBO’s The Leftovers. (Photo: HBO)

But in The Leftovers, it’s the near-apocalyptic images of social unrest that hit closest to home. The showanchors viewers in a post-Departure world characterized by eerily contemporary protests and clashes with police. In the season two finale “I Live Here Now,” the Guilty Remnant’s new recruits misdirect the authorities by threatening to blow up a bomb, therefore allowing a throng of hippies, waifs, and wanton drifters to infiltrate the town of Jarden, Texas. The season’s closing images — stray dogs milling about underneath towering flames, hippies making bonfires out of public property — seem especially prescient after a summer that saw Black Lives Matters protests turn violent in St. Paul and Milwaukee, and ugly clashes at Trump rallies between crowds and protesters. Even as it keeps one foot in its alternate history, the apocalyptic fate of Jarden taps into the contemporary strain of civic unrest and social unraveling in America fueled not by a mysterious disappearance, but by contemporary racial and socioeconomic tensions.

While in setting Black Mirror and The Leftovers remain a decade — or a supernatural rapture — away from the present day, Mr. Robot offers no such breathing room: The show mirrors Occupy Wall Street and its aftermath. Protagonist Elliot Anderson’s New York — which looks exactly the same as it does in 2016, and is only fractionally ahead in terms of its technology — is distinguished by the existence of E Corp, the “strongest conglomerate in the history of civilization.” A hybrid technology and banking and consumer credit company, E Corp is so big, if it failed it would throw society into chaos— recalling how the Federal Reserve deemed major banks like AIG, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley crucial to America’s economic well-being in 2008, and subsequently bailed them out with billions of taxpayer dollars.

Like the Occupy movement, Anonymous hacktivists, and more radical wings of Black Lives Matter, Elliot, a hacker by trade, wants to overthrow an American capitalist system. He perceives it to be near-oligarchic, “rigged,” in his words, to benefit only the top earners, while consigning the rest to wage-stagnation and financial precariousness. Elliot breaks into Steel Mountain, the corporation’s data storage facility, to hack it, subsequently wiping out the world’s debt and throwing global capitalism into anarchic chaos; in internal monologues that the show often plays on voiceover, he rails both against the “invisible hand,” “corporate overlords,” the whole “kingdom of bullshit” propelled by money, and seemingly tame examples of everyday capitalism including Starbucks and the gym. His behavior’s extreme, but it proves a point: Every day, Americans live in a dystopia they take for granted, enabled by overlapping finance, technology, and leisure industries.

In a handful of clever devices, including therapy sessions, church groups, and Elliot’s fourth-wall-breaking voice-overs, the show highlights real phenomena. One year before the show premiered, the Guardian reported that the top 0.1 percent of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; the same month the show debuted, the Economic Policy Institute published a report that indicated CEO pay has skyrocketed in proportion to the wages of employees. Financially speaking, dystopia is the current modus operandi of American society — which Mr. Robot, through its contemporary lens, underscores.

Every day, Americans live in a dystopia they take for granted, enabled by overlapping finance, technology, and leisure industries.

TV isn’t the only storytelling medium that’s setting science fiction in the present day; many of the genre’s creators are grappling with the notion that, as technology improves at a perpetual, even frightening, state of acceleration, projecting far into the future now seems unnecessary. As Neuromancer author William Gibson put it in a 2007 interview with Reuters, “I have to figure out what it means to try and write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least a half a dozen wildly science-fiction scenarios.”

Nevertheless, in the midst of its so-called “Golden Age,” TV is perhaps the single most powerful medium for stories that mirror contemporary society. This year, for the first time, more than half of all Americans will watch streaming TV, up 8 percent from one year earlier. That massive viewership has come to expect challenging, idiosyncratic, and visionary fare from streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon: Today, TV showrunners such as Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, The Leftovers’ Damon Lindelof, and Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker are called “auteurs” by TV critics, a term that suggests that they wield artistic control over the finished products. That appearance of control stands in stark contrast to the situation for directors of today’s mainstream sci-fi movies: While Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Guardians of the Galaxy were all helmed by respected directors, their stories follow formulaic franchise formats intended to improve the bottom lines for studios that only put out so many films a year.

In 1982, it was still a tad futuristic for Blade Runner’s android character Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) to speak of his memories fading away after death in poetic terms. Today, however, Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute Internationalis producing humanoids that look and sound realistic (one even appeared in a 2015 film from director Koji Fukada) and the Weird Hotel in Nagasaki has been almost entirely staffed by robots. Questions of whether robots have humanity, of whether particular technological advances warp society, and how societies move forward when they are populated by fewer humans, are now pressing — a reality that TV’s dystopian shows reflect and refract.