Many of you may love Charlie Brooker.
This article thinks he is a colossal arse. We are, of course, about to enter contentious waters here; Brooker has gained mainstream credibility with his excursions into comedy, current affairs, drama and that one he’s on with Jimmy Carr. He’s even moved from BBC4 to BBC2. It must only be a matter of time until he’s on BBC1 like that other colossal bollock of satire, Ian Hislop.
but we don’t have
to get old
But here’s the thing. There are two Charlie Brookers. One ceased to be some time in 2007 and the other emerged from its skin like the chrysalis of a gigantic douche-moth. The original Charlie Brooker was the streak of brilliance behind weep-with-laughter reviews in PC Zone, as well as obscene yet inspired cartoons both within and without his comic, Superkaylo.
TVGoHome was probably the point where he should have died and not ended up like Jefferson Airplane, though the early days of Screenwipe and even Newswipe remained inspired.
Those days are now gone. Say what you like about Nathan Barley (the eponymous ‘C*nt’ of TVGoHome fame) – he might have been a boho hipster twat, redundant though that may be, but there was always the sense that he was to the douchebag born. Brooker’s nosedive into Planet Shite was neither inevitable nor certain. We all get older, but we don’t have to get old.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that things had changed, beyond his chickening out in the face of pro-Bush trolls, was the inevitable article where, following the birth of his son, Charlie Brooker turned into yet another anodyne middlebrow columnist cooing over his own banalities. “You’re buffeted by a range of feelings so intense, your face doesn’t know how to deal with them, and keeps leaking fluid from somewhere round the eyeholes” he drools in a fashion that makes the process sound a bit like early stage ebola.
Now, having children is a joy, and being happy is no cause for concern – these are (or at least should be) truisms. But they are often used as excuses for once sharp and critical minds to turn into mush and start spewing out comatose tabloid platitudes.
It is, of course, unfair to put this down to Brooker’s marriage to former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. Being married to what you take the piss out of doesn’t mean having to choose between one or the other. It is possible to remain a good satirist and a good husband, as long as you are honest and fearless in both cases.
Rather, British society has a remarkable talent for co-opting once vital voices and turning them into luvvies. Look at the sell-outs, phonies and advert narrators who were once the UK alternative comedy scene for example.
that you do at least hate
your enemy enough to be
able to stick the bayonet in
Brooker’s co-option could be seen at its worst in his otherwise impressive zombie drama, Dead Set. As a satire and takedown of reality TV, it was and is superficially incisive. But peel away the layers and you find that Endemol, makers of Big Brother, are also the producers of Dead Set. (Makers Zeppotron are both Brooker’s own production company and an Endemol property.) They had, cleverly, co-opted criticism of their cash cow into another product – whether you loved the show or hated it, there was spin-off media for you, all owned by the same company.
No wonder we had the otherwise hilarious spectacle of Zombie Davina and Zombie Brian: They weren’t really subverting themselves. Any satirical intent was undermined by the innate and incestuous clubbiness of the exercise. For satire, like war, requires that you do at least hate your enemy enough to be able to stick the bayonet in. Brooker’s declining bloodlust in this regard is less down to a sudden outburst of humanity and more the cozy laziness that comes of choosing an easy life over a good one.
Juvenal would shit his toga.
Underpinning it all was a deep vein of intellectual dishonesty. When called out for using ‘zoombies’ (like zombies, but faster and crapper), Brooker’s response was to write a not-at-all self-serving article for The Guardian. Here he cherry-picked an example in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead where two child ‘zombies’ didn’t do what they were told by the director and ran instead of shuffled. It says little for someone who so readily hides behind fallacies.
This has taken place alongside a clear shift towards conservatism in Brooker’s work. His 2009 one-off, Gameswipe, featured a rant about video game violence, which sounds increasingly like a Mary Whitehouse jeremiad the more you listen to it. (This was the same man, remember, who in 1995 ‘spooged’ over the ultra-violent glories of Quake and penned the hideously offensive – and indeed piss-funny – Cruelty Zoo.)
Rehashing of existing material
While, metaphorically speaking, Brooker has morphed into the sort of grump who jabs the ceiling with a broomstick every time upstairs puts its music on, his conservatism also correlates with a rehashing of existing material rather than anything new. 2011’s How TV Ruined Your Life was simply a re-editing and re-mixing of previous Screenwipes, dumbed down and repeated with weary resignation.
There is a faintly tired ‘Greatest Hits’ quality to Brooker’s output nowadays, such as the recent Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe, like he’s just tired of writing Helter Skelter and has proceeded directly to his Frog Song phase. If rehab is what kills music, then nostalgia is what utterly does for comedy.
Another strain of conservatism has taken root in Brooker’s work. In his much overrated TV series Black Mirror, there is an on-going theme – technology is bad, the mob is both stupid and dangerous, modern times are awful and the future will be even worse. Naturally, being a miserable, fatalistic git is a sadly on-going tradition in sci-fi, dating back to Frankenstein itself, and perfectly skewered by the Caveman Science Fiction web comic.
For Brooker, however, the future is doomed because we simply can’t be trusted. The wonders of the internet, technology, progress – it all ends in prime ministers fucking pigs, baying crowds delighting in the never-ending torture of a child murderer and suicidal dissidents getting suckered into submission with the offer of their own TV show, which is probably the closest Brooker has ever come to a mea culpa.
It’s easier, of course, than trying to change anything.
Underpinning this is an ultimate fatalism. In Brooker’s dramas, the individual always loses and is always crushed. The greatest sin is hope and the worst crime is wanting anything more. In Dead Set, everyone ends up a zombie; in Black Mirror, there is only degradation and despair.
In the most recent episode, The Waldo Moment, the message is blatantly conservative. Rejecting the system or challenging it is portrayed as a very bad thing. We mustn’t grumble, mustn’t fuss – just accept things the way they are and keep voting for the same arseholes. Otherwise, we might end up with something worse, in this case an authoritarian corporate hegemony (of the kind that produces Black Mirror, naturally).
Perhaps fittingly, it is a Tory wannabe MP who sums up – with banality masquerading as profundity – the real message of the show. “The whole system looks absurd, which it may well be – but it built these roads,” he says, no doubt clutching his pearls.
There Is No Alternative, in other words, for it takes a particular kind of intellectual cowardice to see the possibilities of the future as a nightmare, and change a challenge into a threat. The status quo is a terrifying thing for millions of people in this country, though it may well be very comfortable for Brooker. No wonder he makes apologies for it.
Indeed, all Brooker has to offer us in 2014 and beyond, ultimately, is either a homily or despair. Perhaps it’s our fault for putting him on a pedestal to begin with – perhaps inevitably, we will get pissed on. Or perhaps there is a deeper lesson. Brooker is a success, his mouth stuffed with gold – maybe the price of integrity is to always remain on the periphery and be marginalised. Or maybe, just maybe, we should never give up, never compromise and always have hope.
The alternative is being an old git who’s not even in his mid 40s, and who beats Nathan Barley at his own game.
Alexander Hay is a writer and polemicist based online and in print.