Black Mirror Season 6 episode 1 review: ‘Joan Is Awful’ proves you can’t satirise Netflix from inside it
Black Mirror sets its sights on its own contradictions in 'Joan Is Awful', a fun if directionless season opener from Charlie Brooker
and live on Freeview channel 276
This review contains detailed and immediate spoilers for Black Mirror Season 6 episode 1, ‘Joan is Awful’.
“We don't use the internet; it uses us,” Charlie Brooker once wrote. “The more personalised any online service appears to be, the less it thinks of you as a person.” He was criticising the “sinister mass manipulation” of data by big tech companies – companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix. He was writing in 2014, as negotiations between production company Banijay and Channel 4 for a new series of Black Mirror were starting to break down. Eventually, Black Mirror found a new home at Netflix, with each new episode of Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the digital age debuting on a platform its creator once called “evil”.
There’s always been an odd sort of tension there: even setting aside the ongoing question as to whether Black Mirror’s Netflix era or its Channel 4 era was better, it does feel a bit strange that Black Mirror has gone from something that might satirise online data gathering to quietly facilitating it. After four series over seven years – Black Mirror has been a Netflix show now for longer than it was ever a Channel 4 show – Brooker has finally turned his eye to the streaming service with Season 6’s first episode, ‘Joan is Awful’.
After a difficult day at work, an unhelpful conversation with her therapist, and an uncomfortable meeting with an ex-boyfriend, Joan (a brilliant Annie Murphy) sits down with her fiancé Krish to watch television. They open Streamberry and mull their options: they’ve heard Sea of Tranquility isn’t very good, they’re not in the mood for true crime documentary Loch Henry, and few of the other suggestions catch their interest. Except there’s a new show with Salma Hayek called Joan is Awful – and, oddly enough, she’s got the same haircut as Joan too, and the first scene has Hayek waking up in a bedroom that looks a lot like theirs…
Somehow, Netflix Streamberry have turned Joan’s difficult day at work into a brand-new prestige drama, and Joan and Krish watch – him laughing, her aghast – as Salma Hayek performs a heightened and exaggerated version of Joan’s last few hours. There’s humour to that, absolutely (“that’s not my hair”, says Joan, looking at Salma Hayek’s visibly identical hair) but a horror as well. Suddenly a public figure, her worst moments not just exposed but televised and streamed instantly to everyone she knows, Joan’s life is transformed immediately… which then provides the plot for episode two, of course.
As an episode of television, Joan is Awful is well-made and impressive – amongst the best of Black Mirror’s sixth season, and likely to prove one of the more memorable. It shares the refreshed, re-energised feeling of the rest of Season 6 – the four-year break clearly did Brooker some good, with none of these episodes feeling borne of an exhausted production the way Season 5 sometimes did – but also feels of a piece with his earlier work with Screenwipe and his TV review columns. Joan is Awful is television written by someone who watches a lot of television, and thinks a lot about television, and (seemingly) has something to say about lives lived in and through media.
It's worth noting, as an aside, quite how overtly Streamberry is based on Netflix. Its logo shares those distinctive arched red letters, its user interface is identical, it even has the same tudum sound effect when Joan logs on (though in this universe, presumably, it’s the sound of Chris Noth knocking on a desk in Streamberry’s remake of A Very British Coup). But it’s not just aesthetic similarities, though, as it turns out that the reason Streamberry is able to produce new episodes of Joan is Awful so quickly is through using generative AI – something that’s been at the heart of recent labour strikes across film and television, and something Netflix is in reality already working on.
But Joan is Awful pulls back, in the end, and its engagement with AI is glancing rather than piercing – it’ll be hailed as prescient, celebrated for its relevance to contemporary debates, but in the end Brooker gets distracted by favoured themes of determinism and consciousness, with little to say about how generative AI might impact creative industries. To borrow an old way of thinking about science fiction, Joan is Awful manages to predict the car, but has nothing to say about the traffic jam – but then, equally, what would you expect from someone who works in a car factory?
It is a lot of fun, undeniably. Salma Hayek is visibly having a ball throughout, and it’s a real feat of casting in even the smallest roles – Himesh Patel delivers the line of the episode in his sole scene, and Joan’s lawyer’s televised counterpart is just perfect. For as much fun as it is, though, Joan is Awful really only demonstrates one thing: not even Black Mirror can take on Netflix and win.