Did Black Mirror’s Hang the DJ warm your heart? Check out the sci-fi rom-com TiMER


What if there was technology that guaranteed us true love? That’s the central question at the heart of both the Black Mirror ep and Jac Schaeffer’s 2009 indie film.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for “Hang the DJ.”

Sometimes dating can be such a nightmare that you just wish a system would tell you point blank who you’re supposed to end up with. That would make everything so much easier — or would it? How much actual decision-making goes into our romantic lives, anyway? These are the ideas behind the best episode of Black Mirror‘s new season, “Hang the DJ,” and the sci-fi infused romantic comedy TiMER. Both projects explore the ramifications of entrusting technology with our hearts, and vice versa.

“Hang the DJ” is set in a world where “the system,” also known as “Coach,” assigns romantic relationships. Each person is set up with another and, if they want, can find out how long the relationship will last. If the couple does find out the expiration date, they’re forced to stick with it: they’re not allowed to break up before or stay together after. Eventually Coach determines each person’s “ultimate match.” “The system gains insight as each participant progresses through numerous relationships,” the viewer learns, “and uses the gathered data to eventually select an ultimate compatible other.”

In TiMER‘s universe, everyone age 14 or older can have a device implanted into their wrist that counts down until they meet their “One.” The TiMER monitors the body’s oxytocin but “it doesn’t tell you who to love,” a character explains. It “confirms … what you already know and the way you already feel in your heart.” The catch is that the TiMER only works if the person’s soulmate — whoever or wherever they are — also has a TiMER implanted.

Breaking with Black Mirror tradition, “Hang the DJ” isn’t a sadistic cautionary tale; TiMER, unlike many rom-coms, isn’t a lighthearted romp that will help turn your brain off. Instead, both philosophically ask whether technology could ever actually play Cupid and, if so, whether we should let it.

The system: Love is sociological and dating is vital

Amy and Frank (Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole), the protagonists of “Hang the DJ,” are each other’s first matches and are given only 12 hours to be together. In spite of the short timeframe, they forge a deep connection. They flirt, laugh, have chemistry, and are instantly comfortable with each other. It’s such a good match that they can’t help comparing it to all their other relationships.

During those fateful 12 hours, the two lament how difficult it must have been for couples in the time before the system. There were dry spells, isolation, rejection, and worst of all, breakups. “It’s so much simpler when it’s all mapped out,” Amy muses.

Well, not really. In exchange for knowing they won’t die alone (the horror!), the couples of “Hang the DJ” cede all their control to Coach. Once they sign up and receive the circular device, all bets are off. Amy, who longs for commitment, is given a bunch of 36-hour flings that make her feel numb. Frank, meanwhile, must spend a year with a woman who dislikes him from the start. Neither is allowed to stray from the path. The system culls the reactions, moods, thoughts, and behaviors of each person’s relationship, and that data determines who the ultimate match will be. Ergo, Frank and Amy need various relationships, experiences, and mistakes. How will the system know what works for them unless it knows what doesn’t?

Miraculously, Amy and Frank are paired up again and they’re both thrilled. This time around they decide to just not look at their expiration date, so they can stay together for as long as feels right. It’s idyllic for awhile — there’s much spooning, baths and meaningful glances — but Coach is Frank’s forbidden fruit. He loves Amy but still wants the confirmation, which is too bad. Once he looks, the couple is forced to part in less than a day.

The TiMER: Love is biological and dating is pointless

In Jac Schaeffer‘s TiMER Oona (Emma Caulfield Ford) is itching to find her One, but her TiMER is dark. Her true love doesn’t have a device implanted yet. While the unknown is driving her crazy, the known is weighing heavily on her 30-year-old stepsister, who won’t meet her true love until she’s 43, and her 14-year-old brother, who has met his soul mate but has never had a girlfriend.

That’s the downside of pinpointing when exactly you’ll find love. You could be counting down all through your prime child-bearing years, or you could have your entire future determined before you’re out of adolescence. Further, the TiMER turns love into a zero sum game. What’s the point of dating anybody unless you know you’ll end up together? In the film’s world loving relationships that run their course just don’t exist.

Tired of dating men, convincing them to get TiMERs, and finding out they’re not in fact her soul mate, Oona decides to have a fling with the younger Mikey (John Patrick Amedori). He has four months left on his TiMER, so Oona intends to only sleep with him once. But she ends up really liking him and questioning whether the TiMER is truly effective or just a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Things get even more confusing when Mikey admits that his TiMER is fake — he found it online and wears it as a kind of social experiment. (Note: That’s so the type of irritating thing a bored post grad would do.)

Suddenly Oona and Mikey find themselves in a similar position to Amy and Frank. Should they keep going as they have been and just enjoy the ride? Or should Mikey get a TiMER and definitively find out whether he and Oona are meant to be? For Mikey it’s the former: he knows he’s in love with Oona and doesn’t need a glorified wristwatch to confirm or deny that. Oona isn’t so sure.

“Hang the DJ” and TiMER ultimately suggest that love can be predicted

What’s truly surprising about the two stories is that they both eventually come down on the side of technology. “Hang the DJ” ends with a twist: the Amy and Frank we know turn out to be simulations in a dating app that’s paired up their real-life counterparts. Whatever that app is, it works. It’s clearly love at first sight when Real Frank and Real Amy meet up at a bar.

TiMER‘s conclusion is much more bittersweet. Just as she decides to get her TiMER removed and stay with Mikey, Oona’s device begins counting down. Yep, her soul mate finally got the implantation — and he’s not Mikey. When Oona meets her One, it’s love at first sight, too. That doesn’t undo her affection for Mikey, but she instantly knows her One is who she’s supposed to be with. The TiMER took its sweet time, but it did find her true love.

It’s not that either story sides with technology over human emotion: instead, they argue that technology can accurately predict human emotion, love included. What’s more, neither “Hang the DJ” nor TiMER categorically asserts that that’s an inherently bad thing. After all, Oona, Amy, and Frank do find what they’re looking for. They face obstacles along the way, but what romance doesn’t?

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We live in a world where we depend on apps like Tinder and OkCupid and Bumble to find us our partners, yet we also idealize the mythic “meet cute.” Most — not all, but I’d say most — of us believe in and desire written-in-the-stars love, but we’re also willing to hedge our bets. That’s a very odd, contradictory truth, but it’s one perfectly encapsulated by both “Hang the DJ” and TiMER. Both narratives acknowledge that humans want the guarantee of love without the possibility of getting hurt. Apparently that’s just a technological breakthrough away from being possible.

TiMER is available on YouTube at the moment. It’s also on DVD.

You can stream “Hang the DJ” and the rest of Black Mirror on Netflix.