Continuing his weekly breakdowns of Black Mirror and Inside No. 9, Christy Smyth compares Arkangel and Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. Spoiler alert.

Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 are two of the best shows on television right now, and they are more alike than different.

They are both anthology series’ and its safe say they’re both inspired by shows such as Rod Serling’s classing Twilight Zone. They’re both from the minds of British writers who found their names in comedy and both frequently contain twist endings. They are both incredibly dark for the most part, but can be incredibly heartfelt at times.

All of this is not to say that they are not very different in some key areas. Black Mirror episodes are twice as long and, since it’s more recent success across the pond, seem to have a higher production value. The theme that ties the show together is one of ‘technology’. You could say it has more of a ‘moral message’, and you could definitely say that it takes itself more seriously.

Inside No. 9, on the other hand, has a dark, comedic slant. As opposed to the technological theme of Black Mirror, episodes of Inside No. 9 are united by a common narrative device, each episode being set within a ‘number 9’. All the stories take place within one room, though sometimes the ‘number 9’ is an object, like a shoe (Diddle Diddle Dumpling) or, in the case of this episode, a basket (though it still sticks to the one-room rule).

The more you get to know these shows, the more you notice how much they differ. But that’s just the nature of the anthology series. The shows themselves change dramatically episode-to-episode. Still, they are so alike in quality that it makes for an interesting experiment to put them side by side and see how each tackles the anthology genre. Can both series remain fresh, four series in?

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Arkangel

Arkangel focuses on the relationship between single mother Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her daughter Sara.

As a child, Sara is implanted with an ‘Arkangel’ chip, allowing her mother to keep track of her location and an eye on her medical state. She can even use her device to see what Sara sees, and if what she sees is deemed as inappropriate or frightening, use it to censor certain things. Initially we see the problems this causes for the young Sara, prompting Marie to stop using ‘Arkangel’ (though the chip remains in the daughters head).

Later, as Sara turns into a (naturally) troublesome teen, Marie finds herself unable to resist taking it out once more.

I don’t want to spend too much time comparing this with USS Callister, but whereas the first episode of this series put a lot of emphasis on escape, this story brings us firmly into the real world. It does a great job of it too. In the director’s chair, Jodie Foster lends a sense of realism that puts this up there with some of the most true-to-life episodes of the show.

There are, as usual, great choices in casting. Brenna Harding is particularly good as teenage Sara (Sara aged 3 is a bit annoying, but I think that’s more down to daft dialogue than the kid). ‘Arkangel’ is a very true depiction of single-parent, working class families. More broadly, it’s a very true depiction of mother-daughter relationships in general.

The only real problem with this episode is in its ending. It isn’t a bad ending at all, but it does go on longer than it should. It seems, at first, to end with Sara killing Marie, then Marie regains consciousness, and it seems to end with her screaming for her daughter in the street, then we see Sara walking off, hitchhiking away from home.

That’s when it finally does end, but that’s a bit much, innit? Inside No. 9, on the other hand, doesn’t have time to waste time.

Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room

Northern comic double act Cheese & Crackers (a.k.a Tommy and Len, a.k.a, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) haven’t seen each other in 30 years, but tonight they meet in an otherwise unoccupied Church Hall, to go through the routine one more time.

Tommy is Thomas Drake, these days, and works in digital marketing. Len, on the other hand, is washed up and homeless. The tense meeting between the two ends with a heartbreaking twist.

After hanging back in last week’s episode, it’s great to see Shearsmith and Pemberton take front stage again. Both actors’ performances are excellent and at this point in their real-life comedy partnership they complement each other brilliantly.

The limitations the writers set for themselves never seem to get in the way, and they are still confidently churning out great ideas. The writing is as good as it’s ever been and it’s great to see them re-introduce the twist ending. It’s something we didn’t see in last week’s episode, and something we have yet to see in Black Mirror’s fourth series, in spite of how well known both shows are for pulling them off.

If I had to pick any fault with Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room, it would be in one particular scene. One where we realise Len has passed, and his sister (played by Sian Gibson) comes to speak to Thomas and says, “Like I said earlier, just imagine he’s here with you… in the room.” Almost a sly wink to the camera, a slightly heavy-handed nudge to say out loud what has already been made obvious.

I’m reaching a bit there, which I don’t like to do. I’ve got to keep it balanced, is all. This small moment doesn’t detract from the episode all that much. It’s just noticeable. All things considered, it’s a fantastic story, in a similar vein to The 12 Days Of Christine and Tom & Gerri.

Result

Whereas the first two episodes acted as fantastic ensemble pieces, these two examine one-on-one relationships, both with excellent results. The small problems I did have with both didn’t take away from the experience that much at all, and they’re both episodes I imagine I’ll return to again and again in the future.

I’d really struggle to pick one over the other, so I’m not going to. They’re similar in some ways, and effective in similar ways, and, ultimately, are similarly enjoyable. So I guess it’s a straight up draw. Is that one point each or no points for either? Who knows?

Next week: Crocodile vs. Once Removed