Television ate itself a long time ago now. Monty Python were already monkeying around with accepted formats at the end of the 1960s: inserting phony voice-over links, rolling the end credits immediately after the opening ones, writing sketches that satirised sketches. Forty years of ‘progress’ later and we have Charlie Brooker: the TV obsessive who hates TV. His mission is to expose television’s many hackneyed tropes and manipulative tricks, and his method is the brutal, snarky, slightly self-consciously surreal diatribe, illustrated with expertly-selected archive footage. If Monty Python was an example of television eating itself, you might say that Brooker’s shows are television throwing itself up.
Given this, I suppose it is to the BBC’s credit that they give him a slot at all – the latest of which is How TV Ruined Your Life (BBC 2 Tuesdays 10pm). But he has been doing this shtick for a while now, starting with the online Radio Times pastiche TVGoHome and then hitting the biggish time and establishing his format with Screenwipe. Ironically (or not – who can tell what’s ironic or post-ironic or post-post-etc these days? I’ve long given up), it has made him a meedja star, landed him a Guardian column and will, presumably, make him in turn a target for future angry young satirists.
At his best he rivals Chris Morris, with whom he worked on Nathan Barley (which sent up Guardian-reading meedja types, funnily enough) and the notorious Brass Eye paedophile episode. Brooker’s Newswipe, which showed the workings of television news with unerring and relentless satirical accuracy, was like an updated version of Morris’ The Day Today – and if anything proved that in the 24-hour age, TV news is even more ridiculous than was suggested in that superb spoof.
The familiar themes reappeared in the opening episode of How TV Ruined Your Life, which presented Brooker’s thesis that television has conditioned us to be disproportionately fearful of what is in reality an unprecedentedly safe world. Crime and the threat of violence have decreased while fear of them has increased, thanks to our addiction to TV and the endless stream of extreme scenarios and images it gives us – in documentaries, dramas and news programmes. Brooker’s insights range from the acute (the disconcerting silence in the house after you’ve turned off Crimewatch), to the dubious (was the Green Cross Code pedestrian safety campaign really an example of The Man trying to control our kids, or a reasonable reaction to a more motorised world?).
Other, more recent nanny state ads are more successfully skewered, and there’s a good sequence about the way that detective dramas have become ever more gruesome (something that’s also bothered me: Agatha Christie was content for her victims to simply be whacked on the head or drink poisoned sherry because someone wanted their inheritance; nowadays all gogglebox killers are sadistic geniuses who have to subject their prey to fiendishly elaborate and perverted tortures).
At times I couldn’t help feeling that there was a strong serious programme about TV’s poisonous mendacity wanting to be made here, and in some sections Brooker’s gag-heavy style and to-camera rants rather got in the way, undermining the points he was trying to make. But he’s always thought-provoking: during the programme it occurred to me that getting your idea of reality through television is like getting your idea of modern Britain entirely though Daily Mail scare stories, only more so. And as ever the use of arcane archive footage is impressive. Keen Dabblers should look out for the appearance of a familiar, terrifying figure at around the 8-minute mark… nowhere, it seems, is safe from Noseybonk…