Hello, I’m Charlie Brooker and you’re watching Screenwipe a program all about television.
If you’re like me, you suffer from the delusion that UK television is way way better than American television. Well, Charlie Brooker is (or was) here (or there) to help you out of that with his program Screenwipe (2006-09).
In Screenwipe, Brooker uses a half hour to review everything on television, or whatever annoys him most, while peppering in segments that tell you how things get made. What Brooker brings to the table is his brand of very angry comedy. His anger is different from David Mitchell‘s kind of intelligent rants.
Brooker’s brand of anger is more that of the 12 year old bully than the pedantic curmudgeon. But looking at what he’s looking at gives us some sense of why. There are channels devoted to gambling–no, not the World Series of Poker–where there’s an electronic roulette and people text in their bets.
A similarly organized psychic’s hotline–somewhere between Ms. Chloe and the Home Shopping Network–where people text in their questions and the charlatans respond. Brooker texts in “How can I become less gullible?” to which they respond with a steady course of chakra treatments.
That’s not all. They have shows where “mediums” basically manipulate people into sobbing on television for our viewing pleasure. Not into emotional torture? How about physical mutilation by doctors in the name of beauty or just plain revulsion?
No, it’s all as bad (if not worse) than anything the Americans put out.
The irony abounds when Brooker, in Series 2, Episode 5 goes to the United States and talks about how great American television is today while also pointing out how crap it used to be. Well, his talking about American greatness is limited really to The Sopranos (1999-2007) and The Wire (2002-08). He then goes on to heckle our soaps and similarly inane Hollywood production culture.
He also recommended Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 1-12 (2005). Since the clip made me actually sob with laughter, I’ll just pass on the link to Amazon. Good God, that was funny. I’m not usually into the so-stupid-it’s-funny, but this is actually, accidentally hilarious.
Like all reviewers, the best parts are when he comes out with something I agree with or, even better, have actually thought myself. Example. Brooker thinks that sex and nudity aren’t good in TV dramas because your mind immediately switches off (at least a man’s will). Absolutely right.
Brooker also tackles the oddity that is youth-oriented crap television. When asked, the youths in question invariably ask for better programming and find the shoveled material sub-optimal. Paradox! But if Brooker had 100 people watching these programs texting in their responses rather than a focus group, I bet he’d get a wildly different response.
They are interested in educational documentaries and classic comedy, but that’s when you’ve got them and you stick the show up their noses. That’s not how it works, they have to sit down, turn on the television and watch. Will they go out of their way to see the Politics of Fear documentary? Doubtful. But that’s not just the young, now is it?
But it’s the insider aspect of the show that is pretty fantastic. In Series 4, Episode 5, he creates an elimination show (like The Apprentice or Survivor) and gives all the details as they come up. It gets pretty dark and makes me seriously question whether these elimination programs should even be allowed. The contestants are basically tortured emotionally for our viewing entertainment. No amount of thinking that Simon Cowell is a jerk can possibly justify watching the show.
I am basically of the opinion that these shows are morally evil. I don’t typically judge media through an ethical lens, but everyone involved from the production to the audience is engaging in real, premeditated torture and really enjoying it. In a way, the coliseum was ethically preferable because at least the loser wouldn’t have to look in the mirror the next day.
In this episode, Brooker basically walks us through a selective history of games and the craziness that surrounds them. For gamers, there’s nothing really new here. Some games are good, some games are terrible. Some people are psychotics who take the game as an ideas factory while most aren’t psychotic and are just engaging in a fun activity. The graphics are getting so good that the terrible games that have always existed are just getting more clearly terrible.
In Series 4, Episode 3 of Screenwipe, Brooker looks through old news programs and it’s kind of amazing. There are clip shows and there are clip shows, I suppose. This one is vaguely educational in that the comparison with today is, quite obviously, a juxtaposition of news (in the past) and the glittery hellmouth that somehow titles itself “News” without falling prey to false advertising (today). Yes it was boring, but by God it was hard news. Of course, I’m comparing 70’s-80’s British news with American news of today.
Still, he’s not supportive of today’s journalists–did you expect him to be?–but rather points out why he thinks they’re completely useless. In the past, they had easy targets of corruption and ineptitude (like Watergate), then for some reason they gave up their minds and went only for quotes from authority because they the journalists didn’t actually know why things were happening, and now they just have the audience text or film their stories that get on the news. But the audience doesn’t know what’s going on because the news isn’t telling them what’s going on. Vicious.
But then he started up the program Newswipe (2009-10), which served as a digest of the news like a prompter for people who just woke up to find the world around them. After all, the actual news isn’t of any bloody use. The best they can do is use childish metaphors without actually giving you the cipher to put that metaphor to actual use. These things are complicated and trying to simplify it into a 30 second bit on the news only makes things overwhelming.
I don’t think anyone is unaware of the problems. The news fosters entertainment over substance, emphasizes the negative and disastrous over the good or bland, and they don’t really even know what they’re talking about. One might ask that when we’ve got shows like Newswipe or The Daily Show why are things getting worse rather than better? Answer: Dunno.
I’m not sure if Brooker and I would get along. We’ve got loads in common in outlook and interests, but are rather different in our approach. He being very angry and my not being very angry. He’s also not as constructive as I’d like him to be. Instead of pointing out improvements, he basically just moans about the current state of affairs.
Perhaps the improvements are obvious–be less sensationalist–but that’s not always the case. One example is getting into the terrible world of television which is thankless and turns everyone bitter and ruins what had been good, original ideas. How can these things be changed? There are compromises that can be made and they’re better identified by the people who know the process than by the viewers who just got a two-minute comic rundown.
Perhaps one day there will be a review of my review of Brooker’s review and then we’ll get on a panel to talk about each other. It’ll be like we’re real-life critics.