Black Mirror’s “Joan Is Awful” Is The Most Prescient TV of the Year

As AI becomes a part of daily conversation, the episode is the most frightening and relevant of the entire season

June 28, 2023 6:41 am
black mirror joan is awful annie murphy
Annie Murphy plays Joan in the "Black Mirror" episode "Joan Is Awful"
Nick Wall/Netflix

Joan (Annie Murphy) is having a bad day. She’s been forced to let go of a friend at work while stuck in a job she’s unsatisfied with. She’s engaged, but her ex has suddenly reappeared, looking to rekindle things. It’s the kind of day you wish you could forget about. Joan, however, is not so lucky. When looking for something to watch that evening, she finds “Joan is Awful” on Netflix lookalike Streamberry. The show stars Salma Hayek as Joan, who has the real Joan’s exact hairstyle. Surely it’s all a bizarre coincidence? Except it isn’t — “Joan is Awful” is an eerily accurate portrayal of Joan’s entire day, right down to the minute detail of what toothpaste Joan brushes her teeth with. It’s an embarrassing, terrifying proposal: what would happen if your life was suddenly on television for the world to see? 

The only predictable part of “Joan is Awful,” the first episode of the sixth season of the sci-fi anthology Black Mirror, is that Joan’s life begins to completely unravel when the show starts airing. With her life and secrets available for perusal, she loses her fiancé and job in a matter of hours. People accost her on the street, and she’s gone from being a perfectly normal member of society to a total outcast. She only has one choice: to try and takedown Streamberry and get the show wiped out.

That won’t be as easy as she hopes. Thanks to the airtight terms and conditions Joan agreed to while signing up for Streamberry, she has no legal recourse. She then sets her targets on Salma Hayek herself, but Joan’s lawyer informs her that Hayek doesn’t actually appear in the show — instead, she’s merely signed away her digital likeness. Feeling hopeless, Joan gets a twisted spike of inspiration. If she can do something completely depraved, perhaps she can draw the ire of the real Salma Hayek, who’ll take issue with her likeness being used in such a disgusting manner. That’s a gamble that pays off, and Joan works with Hayek to take Streamberry down.   

“Joan is Awful” isn’t just the perfect blend of amusing and disturbing that comes from many of the best Black Mirror episodes, it’s also eerily prescient of our current times. Sure, plenty of media captures modern day in compelling ways, but “Joan is Awful,” like the concept of the episode itself, feels as if it was practically written in real-time. Series co-creator Charlie Brooker (who wrote the episode) recently revealed to Vanity Fair that the episode wrapped about a month before the introduction of ChatGPT to the general public. Truly uncanny, considering the show deals so heavily with the rise of artificial intelligence and its role in creating art. 

That isn’t to suggest that the episode is in any way assisted by the advent of artificial intelligence — it feels far too intelligent and original to warrant such a claim. The way Black Mirror has succeeded in getting people talking and getting under the audience’s skin is because so many of the anthology’s concepts feel like they could happen but seem distant enough that they never actually would happen, at least not in our lifetimes. But the concept of “Joan is Awful” doesn’t just feel like it might happen in the future, it feels like it’s already starting to happen. The idea of terrors lurking within bulky terms and conditions has been lampooned before (to an especially disgusting/hysterical degree in South Park‘s “HumancentiPad,” for example), but the idea of using artificial intelligence to create art feels like the kind of thing The Simpsons might have joked about 20 years ago. But it’s no longer just a joke.

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In the last two weeks alone, two major projects have come under fire for doing the very things “Joan is Awful” is mocking. The latest Marvel Disney+ project Secret Invasion has an opening credits sequence created with artificial intelligence (which explains why it’s so ugly). There’s another superhero in the crosshairs: The Flash, the latest DC comics blockbuster, has a CGI version of Christopher Reeve reprising his role as Superman, even though the actor died nearly 19 years ago.

Both of these examples are easy to make fun of. Ugly? You bet. Creepy? Absolutely. Shameful and exploitative? Undoubtedly. Underneath the disbelief, however, is a very real anxiety as to where mainstream media is heading. Perhaps we’ll look back at these examples and laugh, gently shaking our heads at Hollywood’s silly attempts to not pay artists what they’re worth and their weird attempts at shoving nostalgia down our throats. But it certainly feels a lot more damning than a couple of misjudged moments. When the theoretical becomes reality, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s time to smash the (proverbial) panic button.

“Joan is Awful” is a look at what the world would be if writers no longer existed, replaced entirely by computers. But it doesn’t just eliminate the writer — it eliminates everyone else from the equation. The show within the episode is generated entirely by AI. The actors themselves aren’t really there; they too are simply the digital likenesses of people who have signed away their image for a fee. The appeal here is the astonishing turnaround time: what happens to the “real” Joan one day is shown on television the very next day. No longer are pesky actors or writers needed because technology has come far enough that it can just copy everything you do in real life and dramatize it enough to make the kind of program anyone can watch. A late twist reveals that “Joan is Awful” is just the beginning of Streamberry’s plan for AI to do all the work while executives sit back and line their pockets. 

This is all made the more prescient by the fact that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is currently on strike. Actors and directors could very well join them on the picket lines. The WGA is striking for a lot of different reasons, but one of the primary concerns is the rise of AI and studio interest in milking the new technology for all its worth. A constant drudge of AI-generated “art” has shown us over and over again that the tech has no discernable ability to create original ideas, instead mashing together already existing IP with all the grace of a toddler learning to finger paint. “Joan is Awful” shows the power of people standing together in the face of injustice, fighting for the right to control their own lives and tell their own stories. And you don’t have to be, as Joan puts it, “Salma Fucking Hayek” to do so. 

This Black Mirror episode feels the most like a nightmare — an impressive distinction because a number of this season’s stories rely heavily on horror, while “Joan is Awful” is very much a comedy. But if any episode of the series threatens to become a reality, it’s this one. It’s a very funny piece of television, with fantastic performances from both Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek. But because of its unexpected timeliness, it’s also a ferocious rallying cry; a bleak look into a future without stories. However, “Joan is Awful” offers something genuinely hopeful — a thrilling, tremendously unique idea that the likes of AI could never hope to replicate. 

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