Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tuned In To the "Dead Set"

It's hard to believe that there have been twelve seasons of the reality show, "Big Brother," with a thirteenth on the way in the US this summer. I watched the first season, way back in 2000, and didn't get much out of it. I understand that the UK version is more popular and has become a bigger part of the culture than it has in the US. And that's probably why one of the most interesting pieces of media to comment on reality show culture that has come out of British television centers around it – Charlie Booker's "Dead Set."

In 2008, shortly after the ninth series of "Big Brother" finished airing in the UK, "Dead Set" premiered on the same channel. It ran as a five episode miniseries, aired over five consecutive nights, chronicling what happens to a group of "Big Brother" contestants and various crew members when a zombie apocalypse breaks out. "Dead Set" extensively incorporates the "Big Brother" format, including the show's host, Davina McCall, playing herself, and former contestants making cameos. All the rest of the crew and the fictional season's "houseguests" are played by actors. We follow several characters, including Kelly (Jaime Winstone), a runner on the show, her boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed), an abrasive producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), and a full house of constantly quarreling contestants.

"Dead Set" has one of those concepts that anyone could think up – zombies attack "Big Brother" – but the execution was surely much trickier. Like any good zombie media, it has to have a high degree of camp, but it also needs to develop a few strong, sympathetic characters for the audience to care about, in order to sell the thrills and the horror. The tone has to be light enough for the satire, but also heavy enough to feel like there are actual stakes to the story. "Dead Set" manages to balance all of these things. For the bulk of the time it it's a morbidly funny horror program that just happens to take place in and around the "Big Brother" set. It follows all the rules of a zombie movie, and would be a decent feature without the reality TV trappings. It's only toward the end, when all the storylines converge, that the group dynamics that are at the center of the reality show come into play, and the commentary and metaphor become more pointed. I didn't think it went quite as far as it could have with the satire, but taken as a whole, "Dead Set" is still much smarter than most recent zombie movies I could name.

The central irony is that we only see the reality behind the reality show through the intervention of the fantastic. Facing a real crisis, affected personas are dropped, profanities are plentiful, and the contestants get the chance to show what they're really made of. Or more often, to reveal the weaknesses inherent in their fame-seeking, self-centered personalities and the damage done by the poisonous, artificial game show atmosphere. "Dead Set" is rough on the houseguests, but it saves its worst barbs for Patrick, the obnoxious control-freak producer who reflexively insults everyone within earshot, and spends most of the story trapped in the show's green room with Pippa (Kathleen McDermott), the dimmest of the contestants.

The five episode length of "Dead Set" means the pace has to be brisk, and there is no shortage of blood and guts and gore. Every thirty minute episode features some kind of attack or escape, culminating in a massive action sequence in the last episode that is everything a horror fan could wish for. No slow-moving "The Walking Dead" style storylines here. And no squeamish heroines either. Kelly dispatches her first zombie with a pair of scissors right through the cranium, and subsequent kills get even more graphic. And yet, I think the usual audience for "Big Brother" would enjoy "Dead Set" just fine, assuming they're not too sensitive. There's still plenty of romance and gossip and backstabbing – just with real world, life-or-death consequences this time around.

Like it or not, reality television has become part of the culture, and while I'm not too thrilled with most of the reality shows themselves, I've enjoyed how they've been incorporated into or addressed by other media. "Slumdog Millionaire," and "Mon Meilleur Ami" wouldn't have been quite the same without "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "Dead Set" wouldn't exist without "Big Brother," and so I'm actually glad I saw what little of the show I did, in order to be able to better enjoy Charlie Brooker's vicious pop culture parable all the more.

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