If Black Mirror is the Twilight Zone of our time, it’s natural to expect that the show’s portrait of app-based dating in the not-so-distant future would be fairly bleak: Something familiar but with a dystopian twist that offers a disturbing critique of the dark impulses that emerge when we swipe or click or message or whatever. (Everyone have a successful cuffing season? Good. Great. Me too.)
Warning: There are major episode spoilers ahead.
“Hang the DJ,” from Black Mirror’s fourth season (on Netflix now), introduces Spiro Date, an app that promises to lead you to your perfect match. It’s like an optimized Tinder: Instead of relying on humans to select matches, Spiro does it for them. In a calm, Alexa-like voice, Spiro analyzes users’ preferences and sets them up on blind dates. Spiro determines who meets, where they meet, what they order for dinner, and how long the relationship will last (12 hours, one year, a lifetime, etc.). We see how it works for the episode’s two protagonists, Amy (Georgina Cambell) and Frank (Joe Cole).
Honestly, it seems ideal: a technology that eliminates human error, and promises, after a series of dates, that you will find your one true match and live happily ever after. What a nice (and seemingly untrustworthy) guarantee! Naturally, Spiro quickly begins to seem both a little bit sinister — notice the guards that oversee dates? — and pretty inaccurate. Frank and Amy forge an instant connection but are only allotted 12 hours together. After they part ways, we get to see how the system continues to unfold. Amy dates a handsome guy for a few months, and then has a string of one-night stands while still thinking of Frank. (Okay, just like real life.) Frank enters into a long-term relationship with a woman who hates him and he still thinks about Amy. (How is this different?) Both of them are apparently stuck trusting a dating algorithm that mostly seems to be fucking with them. (Again, ARE WE ALREADY LIVING A BLACK MIRROR NIGHTMARE?)
Finally, though, the two are reunited and decide to rebel against the system: They run away together, Spiro be damned, and the viewer feels sure that the show is about to make good on that creeping sense of doom. What will happen to them? Will they be killed? Maimed? Turned into animals (à la The Lobster)? Will it finally get worse than real life?
Surprise! It turns out the Frank and Amy’s entire scenario was actually a simulation — a gauntlet their simulated selves were repeating a thousand times in a millisecond to determine compatibility. (If you “rebel” against the app, you belong together; if not, you don’t.) It’s not about taste in music, diet, career, shoes, or pithy taglines — just a simple test to see if your human connection can prevail over the dictates of technology.
In a “San Junipero”-ian twist (last season’s most optimistic and best episode in which love prevailed over technology and an interracial queer couple found everlasting happiness in an ’80s pop world), the Black Mirror universe offers a dating app that works better than anything we have in the real world. (Tinder, Raya, OkCupid, Bumble, Amish Match, J-Date … maybe take a lesson from Spiro Date.) The real nightmare is the fact that we don’t have Spiro Date available now.