Black Mirror Season 6 Episode 1 Review: Joan Is Awful

Black Mirror season 6 kicks off with a meta takedown of our streaming-saturated era.

Black Mirror. Annie Murphy as Joan in Black Mirror.
Photo: Nick Wall | Netflix

This article contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “Joan Is Awful.”

Black Mirror Season 6 Episode 1

Can a work of art criticize capital while still contributing to its bottom line? That question has become increasingly relevant in the streaming era as uncomfortably huge conglomerates gobble up the entertainment landscape.

Succession follows the saga of Logan Roy’s dumbass children as they compete for the right to run their father’s media empire into the ground … on HBO where current Warner Bros. Discovery management is fumbling the beloved TV brand. The Boys imagines a world where a mega corporation exploits the dark underbelly of superhero fandom to create fascist stew … on Prime Video, the streaming platform of a mega corporation. Now, Black Mirror season 6‘s first episode “Joan Is Awful” depicts a streaming service’s unacceptable intrusion into one woman’s private life … on Netflix.

We’re not the arbiters of all media (as fun as it sounds to be) so we can’t judge the effectiveness of a Black Mirror episode that criticizes Netflix’s insatiable appetite for content while simultaneously streaming on Netflix. What we can say, however, is that Black Mirror creator and this episode’s writer Charlie Brooker isn’t so much biting the hand that feeds so much as he is firmly planting a stick of dynamite in it.

Ad – content continues below

In many ways, “Joan Is Awful” is the platonic ideal of an opening episode for a season of Black Mirror – especially one that we’ve waited through four years and a pandemic to watch. It’s cynical, caustic, and even charming. Unlike some of the discursions in the latter four episodes of this season, the set-up here is vintage Black Mirror: What if you were scrolling through Netflix titles and found a TV series about your own life?

That’s the experience that Joan (Annie Murphy) endures after one particularly busy day. A 24-hour period in which you were forced to notify an employee of their termination, had an unproductive meeting with your therapist, and then kissed your ex is probably not one you’d immediately want to relive. Unfortunately, Joan must do exactly that as she settles in to scroll through her “Streamberry” account (which just happens to feature Netflix’s exact font, user interface, and even iconic “tudum” sound) that evening with her nice, but unremarkable current boyfriend, Krish (Avi Nash).

On Strawberry’s homepage, alongside some tasty Black Mirror Easter eggs, is a series called Joan Is Awful starring famous real life actress Salma Hayek Pinault. Joan can only watch in horror as she, her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, and the world at large watch Salma engage in a disturbingly accurate dramatization of the day she just lived. Joan Is Awful recreates Joan’s life with such fidelity that the episode even features the Hayek Pinault Joan discovering her life has been made into a Streamberry series called Joan Is Awful, starring Cate Blanchett. Additionally, the people in Joan’s life get their own Hollywood counterparts, with Himesh Patel (Station Eleven) playing Krish, Ben Barnes (Shadow & Bone) playing her ex Mac (Rob Delaney), and Jaboukie Young-White playing her co-worker, Eric.

Directed by Ally Pankiw (Schitt’s Creek), Joan Is Awful curiously has a lot in common with Black Mirror‘s controversial first-ever episode, “The National Anthem.” Like that prime-minister-fucks-a-pig spectacle, this hour is set in a near future that feels more disturbingly plausible and real than some of the anthology’s more fantastical entries. In both episodes, Brooker is able to address viewers’ inevitable questions in a timely fashion.

Just as Prime Minister Michael Callow was presented with compelling paperwork as to why this whole thing was happening in The National Anthem (his approval rating might go up, actually), so too is Joan. When Joan understandably contacts her lawyer to have the series bearing her name, image, and likeness struck down, she’s informed that the user agreement Streamberry had her sign (and that none of us ever read) is quite ironclad. They can use Joan’s life story just like they can use a digital approximation of fellow Streamberry subscribers Hayek Pinault, Blanchett, and later even Michael Cera.

The episode also convincingly handwaves away some of the other potential technological complications. Netfl … I mean Streamberry has invented a quantum computer, or quantputer, that can handle dramatizing the lives of of its many subscribers with supreme ease. It’s the kind of thing that would seem outlandish, if Hollywood’s writers weren’t currently on strike in part due to studios like Netflix’s desire to use artificial intelligence to create new TV shows.

Ad – content continues below

It’s all creative sci-fi wonkery, but none of it would work if Joan Is Awful didn’t have a compelling lead and story at its center. Thankfully, this episode has both. The “twist” here (as if Netflix adapting your life isn’t a big enough twist) is that the Joan we meet isn’t “prime” Joan but rather the first fictive layer of her played by Schitt’s Creek‘s own Annie Murphy. This strange inception-like scenario of shows within shows has created cascading fictive realities, as Michael Cera eventually explains.

This means that Salma Hayek Pinault is technically playing a copy of a copy of her own digital likeness while Murphy is merely playing her own digital likeness. And somehow that works! Though rightfully acclaimed for her comedic acting work on Schitt’s Creek and Kevin Can Go F**k Himself, Murphy has been even more engaging of late when essentially portraying herself. Witness her endlessly fun and giggly turn on Netflix improv series Murderville or even her stint on Russian Doll season 2 (also Netflix) where she injects more than a bit of herself into the role of Ruth. Similarly, Hayek Pinault excels at playing a fictional version of herself, twice removed. Undoubtedly that level of ironic attachment helps when delivering a line like “Whose anus is doing the shitting?” and having to hear “Salma Hayek’s anus” in response.

Speaking of the shitting, Joan Is Awful’s one major flaw is its inability to play within the bonds of its premise a little bit longer. There really should be a few more steps between “Joan sees her life as a TV show” and “Joan takes a massive laxative-aided dump on a church floor during a stranger’s wedding to embarrass her digital avatar.” Still, it’s hard to blame the episode for wanting to rush to the end because it’s a good one.

Lord knows Brooker and Black Mirror love a cynical ending but it’s endings like Joan Is Awful’s that tend to work best. Joan, who we actually eventually get to meet, achieves an unambiguous victory here. She clobbers Streamberry’s quantputer, saving the rest of us from having to watch our own “Insert Your Name Here Is Awful” shows. She even gets to fulfill her dream of opening up a coffee shop where her new best friend, Schitt’s Creek‘s Annie Murphy ,periodically visits her for a cup of Joe.

A little twee? Perhaps. But this is the rare Black Mirror installment that really doesn’t call for the tragic ending because in many ways we’re already living it. Joan Is Awful isn’t a commentary on how reality in our modern era resembles an episode of Black Mirror. It’s more of a commentary on how reality has always resembled an episode of Black Mirror but now none of us can shut up about it because the algorithms have reduced us to the same SEO-friendly talking points over and over again.

Streamers are perusing through your data right now, trying to create the algorithm that will finally deliver the one TV show you’ll never click off of. You know that and yet you continue to binge anyway because what else are you gonna do – not watch TV?

Ad – content continues below

All five episodes of Black Mirror season 6 are available to stream on Netflix now.


4 out of 5