Roush Review: Dark Fantasies in ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Exorcist’, ‘Dirk Gently’

Black Mirror - Faye Marsay, Jonas Karlsson, Esther Hall, Kelly Macdonald
Laurie Sparham/Netflix
Black Mirror: Faye Marsay, Jonas Karlsson, Esther Hall, Kelly Macdonald

You can always tell Halloween is imminent when AMC launches a new season of its horror hit The Walking Dead. Unsurprisingly, the network hasn’t made Sunday’s premiere (9/8c) available to critics for preview, given the anticipation over which of the heroes will be on the receiving end of Big Bad villain Negan’s deadly bat, Lucille.

But it’s hardly the only dark fantasy worth watching this weekend. Netflix, seemingly unfamiliar with the concept of “less is more,” doubles our queasy appreciation of Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed Black Mirror with a third season of six new bleakly entertaining stories. (The first two seasons of the British-based series were only three episodes each.) Like the best allegorical anthologies—The Twilight Zone is still the gold standard—Mirror excels in keeping you off balance as it spins exceedingly clever and often creepy cautionary tales about our obsession with technology.

More Roush Reviews: See What Matt Thinks About Other Shows

You never know what tone to expect in any given episode. My favorite of this new six-pack is the closest to pure horror: Dan Trachtenberg’s (10 Cloverfield Lane) “Playtest,” a scary-funny exercise in psychological suspense in which a drifter (Wyatt Russell) agrees to participate in an elaborate virtual-reality game in a haunted house that plays off one’s deepest fears. Guaranteed to make you jump.

There’s also a feature-length ticking-clock thriller, Hated in the Nation, starring Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald as a London detective desperately trying to stop a series of murderous attacks triggered by social media. “There’s no cure for the Internet,” says one of the unlucky protagonists (Game of Thrones’ Jeremy Flynn) in the harrowing “Shut Up and Dance,” about people trapped in a deadly game of blackmail-by-text. Black Mirror regularly sends its characters down rabbit holes of no escape, because everyone’s so addicted to their screens.

RELATED: Black Mirror Featurette Hints at What to Expect in Season 3

That’s especially true in what might be the most polarizing of the episodes, the whimsical “Nosedive” by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), starring Bryce Dallas Howard as an insecure social climber haplessly trying to measure up in a world where everyone judges everyone with instant likes—or not—on their ubiquitous phones. The joke gets old quick, underscoring a root problem that not all of these ideas deserve to be sustained for a full hour. (The best of the Twilight Zone episodes clocked in well under 30 minutes.) While no show of this sort scores only home runs,  Black Mirror’s batting average is better than most.

The Exorcist

Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels in a particularly affecting episode of The Exorcist.

POSSESSED AND OBSESSED: The best, though far from the most popular, of this season’s many TV remakes is Fox’s terrifying new twist on The Exorcist, buried in a Friday time period but delivering the shivery goods with ghoulish regularity. It’s all been building toward this week’s intensely freaky and game-changing episode. A storm rages inside and outside the Rance house in Chicago, where Fathers Marcus (Ben Daniels) and Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) defy church authority by performing a perilous exorcism on the grievously possessed teenage Casey (Hannah Kasulka), while her nervous family frets and tries not to fall apart.

This is a great opportunity for nay-sayers to check in and see how this measures up against the classic 1973 movie. It’s about as unrelenting as network TV gets, and builds to some genuinely jaw-dropping surprises. To say more would be unfair, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who tunes in not being affected. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

NOTHING GENTLE ABOUT DIRK: It takes three entire episodes for the title character of BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to cheerily announce, “Absolutely no one has any idea what’s going on.” Sounds about right. Though fancying itself a fantasy comedy, inspired by the late Douglas Adams’ novels, the aggressive whimsy on display in this dizzying misfire is more grisly than goofy, and what’s meant to be entertaining turns out to be simply exhausting. Possibly even embarrassing.

Played at a fever pitch even before Dirk Gently (a perky Samuel Barnett) enters the scene, breaking into the Seattle apartment of put-upon reluctant observer Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) through his window, the series engages in a style of high-action slapstick that is almost instantly wearying. Dirk is an irrepressible Brit-speaking pipsqueak, dragging Todd along through a series of absurd misadventures that he insists are cosmically connected. (Hence the “holistic” qualifier.) They’re being trailed by a variety of miscreants and authorities, a mishmash that only finds glancing humor in the unhappy pairing of a CIA agent (Miguel Sandoval) with an idiot sidekick (Dustin Milligan).

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Wood seems typecast and forlorn as Todd, a variation on the what’s-happening-here sad sack he played on Wilfred for too long. Hard to blame Todd, though, for continually threatening to bail on all of the madness, which aims for a puckish Doctor Who-vian vibe, but grates with an anything-goes chaotic abandon more reminiscent of AMC’s Preacher. Minus the narrative coherence.

Black Mirror,  Season 3 premiere, Friday, Oct. 21, Netflix

The Exorcist, Fridays, 9/8c, Fox

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,  Series premiere Saturday, Oct. 22, 9/8c, BBC America.