BY ADAM FOX
1987’s The Running Man was one of my favorite movies growing up. While I likely appreciated the bravado of one Arnold Schwarzenegger and the video game-like levels of its plot as a kid, it wasn’t until later that I finally grasped what the hell was really going on. The Running Man was quintessential ’80s action at its cheesiest, to be sure, but it did ask a pretty good question: How far are we willing to go for entertainment?
I bring up Paul Michael Glaser’s magnum opus because its story is not dissimilar to the second episode of Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits.” “Fifteen” introduces us to a futuristic environment in which presumably working class citizens—never changing from their dull-gray jogging attire—spend their days accumulating a collection of points, or “merits,” on stationary bicycles. To help prevent this process from getting too tedious, a selection of video games are offered as an overlay to the exercise, including scenic backdrops or risqué sex scenes.
The merits are permanently saved to inhabitants’ profiles and can be used to purchase things like food, entertainment, or entry fees to any of the enormously popular game shows that play throughout the day. One of them even involves unleashing high-pressure hoses on the morbidly obese.
Unlike Running Man, these spinners/SoulCyclers aren’t hardened criminals, whether real or imagined. They’re certainly prisoners in their screen-covered cells, but most lack the self-awareness to grasp their predicament—except for Bingham “Bing” Madsen (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya, who American audiences might recognize from Kick Ass 2).
Bing is disillusioned with this dystopia of rampant materialism and unfulfilling labor and refuses to buy into it, becoming the Winston Smith of his era. He begrudgingly starts the grind anew each day until he meets the beautiful Abi (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay). His crush develops into an impassioned affair when he stumbles upon Abi quietly and masterfully singing to herself in the bathroom.
Bing encourages Abi to compete on the American Idol-style talent show “Hot Shots,” believing she possesses the talent to harness her singing and earn a one-way ticket out. The Hot Shots entry fee is a steep 15 million merits, and since Abi is new to the bikes, she has a minimal number saved. Bing, in a selfless act, volunteers his own merits to gift Abi an entry ticket, draining his entire account in the process.
What ensues creates for easily one of the more tragic and unsettling editions of Black Mirror. Initially appearing to be a somewhat typical revenge story a la Mad Max, “Fifteen” transforms into a bold, hard-to-stomach statement on everyone having a price. The acting is particularly outstanding in this episode on the part of the two leads (Kaluuya and Findlay) who portray a seamlessly organic love story sans Nicholas Sparks sap. The emotional poignancy of the middle part of the episode proves that good writing isn’t just confined to lengthy Oscar-bait—although the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up should’ve put that notion to bed a long time ago.
This episode is one of the least “dark” of Black Mirror’s library, but its message is certainly still consistent with the rest of its titles. Viewers expecting a shock-value follow up to the swine-sexing antics of “The National Anthem” will be a little disappointed, but the bulk of “Fifteen” is so goddamned interesting that it manages to provide one hell of a scintillating ride.
“Fifteen” is also the longest episode of the first season, clocking in at just over an hour and giving it the feel of an actual film with its deeper set-up and lengthier scenes. Black Mirror is also a decidedly British show, so while the American Idol-type format of “Fifteen” might feel like a dated reference to an American audience, X Factor is very much a thing overseas much like Idol was in its heyday. Everyone who watches should be able to agree, however, that the ramifications of elevating the modern game show can go far beyond just Richard Dawson slipping your girlfriend the tongue.