Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking Bad 5-11: The Confession

If Community is, as I argued earlier, an attempt to address the difficulties of making a sitcom in the age of postmodern irony, Breaking Bad is at least partially trying to solve the problem of making a serious drama in a world which is so predominantly absurd. Walter White wants to be Scarface, but he is always hamstrung by the ridiculous accouterments of late capitalism – purple coffee machines, Roombas, cars that bounce, etc. Nowhere is this more in focus than the scene in “The Confession” where Walt and Skyler meet Hank and Marie in a cheesy Mexican family diner. The conversation is the stuff of high drama, with terse insults, implicit threats, questions of morality, and the hefty weight of a shattered family. And then there's the hapless waiter who keeps poking his head in asking if the mortal enemies would like some guacamole (they make it at tableside, you know). And there's the general atmosphere of the restaurant, as silly as the conversation is serious. Breaking Bad creates humour through these juxtapositions, but it also highlights both the everyday inanity of the world around us and the over-the-top seriousness of Walter's personal drama. Walter is a man who could never honestly laugh at himself, but for as much as Breaking Bad draws us into the drama of his situation, it also makes him laughable.

This is highlighted in not just the Mexican restaurant scene but through the show's visual style. Breaking Bad is constantly shot at weird, almost distracting angles, as if to jar us and remove us from the action. Towards the start of this episode, we get a birds-eye view of the Whites' bathroom. This angle reduces the everyday beauty and grooming products to abstract geometric shapes, thus turning an ordinary bathroom into something absurd. The preponderance of these circles highlights the ridiculousness of our consumption-oriented lives – who really needs all of those kinds of face cream, much less Walter and Skyler White? Walter is the central spoke of Breaking Bad's critique of capitalism, showing how the desire to be an entrepreneur and a self-made man leads inevitably to monstrousness, but shots like this add a more subtle layer of criticism.

In the scene above, Walter is desperately looking for some way to disguise the cut he received collapsing in the bathroom. “The Confession” as a whole is about this type of illusion, most notably the ever-increasing web of fictions that Walter conjures up in order to hide and excuse his actions. Even when he isn't actively lying and trying to cover up his criminal activities, Walter is always playing a role, always trying to game someone, whether it be convincing his son that he's an affable family man or convincing his array of partners that he is a respectable businessman. At this point there's very little of Walter's life that isn't some kind of lie

So it's no surprise that, when threatened by Hank, Walter conjures up another elaborate story. This is the titular confession (or one of them), a videotape that implicates Hank as the mastermind of the whole meth operation. This is perhaps the apex of Walter's performances: he seems more honest sniveling about how he hates being under Hank's thumb than he does when portraying something close to the truth. Perhaps recording this tape allows Walter to take on his favourite role, that of the victim buoyed along at the whims of circumstance. Or maybe he's getting out some real, repressed guilt and sadness over what he's done. Or maybe he's just become a consummate liar.

The Confession” also shows us Walter at his worst. In one scene he comes into the car wash, looking for a gun hidden in the ice tray of a pop machine. He mumbles something about having to check the latch on the machine, and makes a lame excuse to leave. Walter is not convincing to anyone here, and he seems at his wits' end, his storytelling prowess completely exhausted. What's striking is how these lies are just unnecessary. Walter owns the car wash – he can poke around there wherever he wants, without needing permission, and it isn't as though he needs to lie to Skyler any longer about his criminal activity. But Walter is almost addicted to spinning stories, needing to come up with a benign reason for everything he does. He keeps things from people just out of habit, or just to revel in his power over others.

This is something Breaking Bad takes from The Shield: the endless web of lies and schemes that eventually build up a momentum all their own. Walter White, like Vic Mackey before him, believes that he is in control of the violence and deceit that surrounds him, but in reality he is simply being carried along by the tide of events. In “The Confession” we get to see Walter cool and in control, but we also get to see him in a panicked rage, traumatized by the ability of other humans to act in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. If the fifth season has revealed anything, it's that Walter is ultimately a pawn to much larger forces than him, which refuse to let him stop what he has started. The Madgrigal conglomerate is one of these forces, and you can maybe count the neo-Nazis among them too, but there also seems to be a kind of entropic force that is propelling all of these individuals to a violent collision.

Setting is crucial to Breaking Bad. The city of Albequerque, already rendered a little ridiculous by its name (or maybe just the associated Weird Al song), is depicted as the epitome of late capitalist grandeur and absurdity. It is a plastic city of suburbs and tenements built in the desert, a futile attempt to impose civilization on the natural forces of chaos represented by the desert[1]. The desert haunts every street of Albequerque, and this is reflected in the show's cinematography. In several interior scenes it seems as though the desert is right outside, about to burst through the windows of the complacent civilians.

The desert is also the setting for a crucial scene in this episode, in which Jesse finally confronts Walt and begs him to “Stop playing me for once”. Over the course of the series there have been many rendezvous in the middle of the desert, and they're generally the site of business dealings between Walter and the various gangs he is involved with. The desert is where all of Walter's stories dissipate and raw power reveals itself. It is, so to speak, the desert of the real.

But Walter is blind to the encircling forces of chaos. He sees the desert as just another tool to be used: a convenient space to cook meth undisturbed or to bury a couple barrels full of cash. Even this late in the series, with his double life unfolding all around him, Walter still believes he can put everything in order through his intellect alone. And so when Jesse offers him a possibility to speak honestly – downright pleads for him to do so – Walter just continues with the sales pitch, telling Jesse that assuming a new identity far away is what's best for him.

Walter adopts his fatherly aspect for the talk with Jesse, which is the same persona he takes on in his rare chats with Walt Junior. This is the good-natured “Mr. Chibs” family man Mr. White that we saw at the beginning of Breaking Bad. The scene is shot like a family drama, the adult and wayward child leaning against the bumper of the car, sun gleaming warmly off Walter's forehead.

This is just an illusion, a mask that Walter puts on when it is convenient, but the same could be said for the growly, threatening Heisenberg. At this point Walter White is an identity without an authentic self beneath it. We know that he does care for Jesse – he's done too much to save him over the course of the series for it to simply be a relationship of convenience – but Walter couldn't be honest towards Jesse if he tried. Bryan Cranston's acting is skillful enough that every side of Walt (the sitcom dad, the growling antihero) seems equally real and unreal, up to and including the patently false repentant Walter of the “confession” he makes to Hank.

Perhaps there is something genuine in Walter's speech to Jesse. Getting away from Albequerque and in particular away from Walter White might ultimately be best for Jesse, even if it would tear him away from what's left of his meaningful relationships (Andrea, Brock, maybe Badger and Skinny Pete). But what really comes through in the speech is Walter's own longing for the new life that he promises Jesse. When Walt says “Maybe it's time for a change”, it appears for just a moment to be the realization that has been eluding him for the entirety of the series. When he talks about “finding a job you're good at”, there are echoes of Walter's lost potential as a chemist, which has become the original tragedy in the way Walter narrates his life. Walter imagines adopting a new identity as the ultimate act of masculine industry that would prove his creative mastery more than any pure meth would.

But ultimately Walter fails to convince either Jesse or himself. To take the option of disappearance would mean destroying the suburban domestic life that Walter has tried so hard to maintain. Even if he took his children with him, there would be no way to maintain the lie of a normal family. Walter does assume a new identity later in the season, when there is no possibility of his domestic life surviving, but even then he finds it unsatisfying. He can never really begin a new life, whatever his documents say: his existing attachments and experiences stay with him.

Similarly, even if Jesse got in that nondescript car, his traumatic losses would still be with him, as would his lack of education or skill in anything but meth-cooking. But even when Jesse calls him out, Walter clings to his fantasy of self-reinvention. This is a reflection of his broader need to believe in his power to determine his own universe through hard work and masculine self-assertion. It's telling that Jesse describes Walter's speech as labour, specifically “working me”. If you want to go even broader, this reflects the American capitalist desire to refuse to believe in impossibility. There is always a frontier, always a new place to expand (Mexico! The Czech Republic!), and you can do anything if you put your mind to it [2]. In some ways Walter proves this last maxim right: he has achieved a great deal, apparently dragging himself away from death at the same time he becomes an improbable success in his chosen business. But he cannot reinvent the world, nor can he reinvent himself. Walter's speech to Jesse appears first as candid advice, then as a manipulative ploy, then as an inadvertent confession. But as a confession, it ultimately gives us only another lie – the one that Walter

It is perhaps this final inability to be genuine, more than Huell's sticky fingers, that ends Jesse's faith in Walter and allows him to finally realize how cruelly he has been manipulated over the course of the series. Jesse is perhaps most notable for his inability to lie or dissemble: he really is what he appears to be, and all of his vulnerabilities and doubts are immediately on the surface. This is what makes Walter and Jesse such a dynamic combination of characters, but also what makes their relationship so toxic: Jesse, in his strange naivete, cannot imagine the extent to which Walter is manipulating him, while Walter looks down on Jesse for precisely the vulnerabilities that make him so easy to use. And Jesse's openness colours his reaction to the sudden, bolt-from-the-blue revelation of Walter's betrayal. Jesse doesn't plot an elaborate revenge scheme, as Walter might. He doesn't get in the car and thank his lucky stars, as Saul Goodman undoubtedly would. Instead, he grabs a tank of gas and goes after the one thing that matters to Walt more than money: his idealized domestic life.

The scene in which Jesse comes to this decision is shot in a quite interesting manner. This scene needs to do something very difficult in conveying a character's internal thoughts visually. (A lesser show would resort to a voice-over or a contrived conversation to do the same work). The scene begins with a long shot, in which most of the frame is taken up by the setting. Jesse is an almost-insignificant blot on the larger, desolate plain. This surely mirrors his frame of mind: he is powerless in the grand scheme of things, controlled by forces larger than himself.

I'm not sure what part of Albequerque this is[3]. The large objects hanging above Jesse look like a mass of cement dividers, but they also resemble gravestones, which would seem much more natural to be sitting in a row on a hill. The deaths of those close to Jesse (Jane, Mike, almost Brock) literally hang above Jesse's head. Or maybe these are the deaths he has caused: Gale, but also the countless ones who have died because of the meth Jesse so expertly cooked, their only remains an unmarked grave.

The scene cuts between these long shots and media-length shots in which Jesse is more prominent, but still not completely free of his environment (as he would be in a close-up). Jesse is at first ruminative and uncertain, his expression matched by the slow and uneven drumbeats on the soundtrack. He begins searching for his cigarettes. This is both a symbolic motion and a literal one: he is searching for a solution to his problems, but his literal inability to find even his pot will cause a major revelation. Drugs have always been a coping mechanism for Jesse, albeit an unhealthy one, but here at his lowest point they have abandoned him.

What's striking here is that Jesse's first reaction to the missing cigarette is not anger or confusion but panic. Jesse desperately wants the cigarette to be there – not just to take the edge off, but to assure him that he understands the world around him, and that Walter wasn't actually behind Brock's poisoning. Despite his strong distrust of Walter, Jesse still wants at some level to believe in him. The camera plays in to Jesse's panic, swooping around him, examining every possible angle for hope that his suspicions aren't true.

But eventually Jesse's expression becomes resolute, and he walks away from the offer of asylum. Once again, the petty detritus of modern life stands in uncomfortable co-existence. “The guy”, for all he represents a new life and the impossible promise of reinvention, and carries a larger-than-life underworld aura, is ultimately a middle-aged man driving a boring red car that is nearly identical to the one that follows behind him. Jesse's momentous decision involves rolling a wheelie suitcase past a pile of concrete dividers. If there is drama to be had in the modern world, this is it, both tragic and ridiculous – a dynamic Breaking Bad embraces wholeheartedly. This scene is a credit to both Aaron Paul and episode director Michael Slovis, who convey wordlessly one of the series's most important moments, the final break between Walter and Jesse.

As I've said, many of the characters Walter meets in the drug underworld act as alternate versions of himself. Jesse is the complete opposite, a photo negative, but many characters function as ways of teasing out Walter's philosophy, the introduction of white-collar middle-class morality and work ethic to criminal enterprise. Characters like Gus, Mike, and Lydia, are alternate versions of Walter, and their failures suggest that making meth a respectable business requires more than a lab coat and pale skin. On the other hand, you have Todd and his Nazi clan.

The cold open concerning said group of neo-Nazis is perhaps the starkest contrast to Walt's constant deceit of himself and others. This is another scene that draws on the contrast between the rawness of the criminal world depicted in Breaking Bad and the fakeness of everyday life. Todd loudly recounts the story of the train heist (a moderately edited story, it should be noted) in a public area, not stopping when the waitress stops by to gawk at Uncle Jack's swastika tattoo. Walter, while prone to bragging in the right circumstances, would never do so in such a public environment. But Todd and Uncle Jack have no illusions about what they are, nor do they have any illusions that they present to the world. Their boisterous repartee is almost endearingly open – there's no sign of the layers of mind games that characterize Walt's relationship with Jesse, or the endless denial and estrangement between Walt and Walt Jr. Fitting with Breaking Bad's dark humour, the only example of a fully functional family we have on the show is a bunch of white supremacists.

In the bathroom of the diner, Jack makes a comment about how the inability to smoke on airplanes is a sign of how far downhill he country has gone. This foreshadows the moment later in the episode where Saul's own no-smoking rule indirectly causes Jesse to realize how Walter has betrayed him. There's a strange kind of logic in connecting Jesse to the neo-Nazis, as they're probably the two most honest forces left standing on Breaking Bad. They're also both forces that Walter White believes he can control with rhetoric, but whose raw and violent emotions prove to be ultimately beyond his harnessing.

The Confession” is a tricky title, as there are several long speeches which present themselves as confessions but are all in some way deceitful – Walter admitting he has cancer to Junior (truthful but not honest), Walter blackmailing Hank with a just-true-enough account of his misdeeds, and Walter's manipulative speech to Jesse which presents itself as a genuine longing for freedom. At this point, it would be hard to dub any of these confessions true or false, as that would suggest there is an “authentic” Walter White deep down somewhere. On the other hand, Todd's bragging tale, while withholding some crucial facts, is perhaps the most genuine confession of the lot. It is also, of course, totally sociopathic. And this is perhaps the most troubling, and the most brilliant, part of “The Confession”: it suggests that the truth may be even uglier than the lies.

[1] Albequerque is also located in New Mexico, near the border, and Breaking Bad problematically uses Mexico and Mexicans to represent this untameable chaos.

[2] It's become increasingly difficult over the show's run to view Breaking Bad as primarily a commentary on capitalism. Walter White seems like such a singular character that it is difficult to generalize his personality or see his actions as representative of a larger group. Maybe this makes him a comedic figure in the medieval sense: a larger-than-life figure that embodies the smaller vices and delusions within us all.

[3] Surely you don't expect me to do research for this thing. This is close reading, man.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Weekly Wipe 1-01

The Weekly Wipe is ostensibly a new series, but it really isn't. Charlie Brooker has been doing his sardonic examination of television, the news, and the weird spectacle that results when they intersect for four series of Screenwipe, two series of Newswipe and various one-off specials, as well as his columns. The Weekly Wipe name seems to mostly signify that the show has moved to BBC2. The theme song is the same as previous Wipe series, and the opening graphics are in the same vein as Brooker's previous shows. As such there is little to nothing in the way of introductory material, and really noting to tell a new viewer what the show's all about. There's a reassuring aspect to this, especially for a long-time fan. Brooker has probably made enough programs that he no longer counts as a jaded outsider to the world of television, but he still acts like one. It's a routine that might have grown old if it weren't for the continued amount of material that the inane world produces.

Brooker's role is to be a kind of surrogate TV watcher: while he is ostensibly the object of our attention, he is really a kind of ally on our side of the screen, helping us react to the true objects of the program. This is the same kind of relationship between viewer/subject and object that is present in shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000. We are literally watching someone watching TV, but they are watching TV better than we ever could, never lacking a witty remark or a cogent analysis.

This triangulated viewing is sort of insidious and sort of disruptive. It is insidious because it makes us forget that we are watching a product of the entertainment industry and, in the case of the BBC, the state: by making Charlie Brooker an ally in our cynical viewing of television, The Weekly Wipe allows us to forget to apply the same cynical lens to Brooker himself. The Weekly Wipe, a product of the media as much as anything else, masquerades as the anti-TV show. Like AdBusters, it literally sells us the idea of not buying.

But this is perhaps too cynical. There is a generally disruptive edge to Brooker's point of view. What he calls attention to is not the worst of television (although the egregiously bad usually does make an appearance) but the sheer banality of most of what the medium broadcasts, endless hours of C-list celebrities doing trivial tasks, news presenters waiting around for something to happen, and go-nowhere discussion of minor political scandals. Call it the vast wasteland argument redux: with thousands of hours of television produced every day, most of them are not so much offensive as oppressively meaningless.

Brooker makes the unusual decision to start this episode with a barrage of actually significant news stories. He begins with strife in North Africa, about which he can barely manage a joke, then moves on to Iran's space program, followed by a ruckus about a Jimmy Saville caricature appearing on a British kid's show. All of these are quick, twenty-second bits, but already in them there's a kind of trajectory from serious, real-world issues which Brooker's snark-infused, pop-culture-saturated view can barely address, to issues of media representation which are more awkward than anything else. These items are never brought up again in the episode, but their presence suggests the possibility of a different Weekly Wipe, a perhaps more serious show that focused more on what's soberly termed “current affairs”. Maybe something more along the lines of Newswipe. By opening Mali and then immediately jumping into The Tweenies and Lance Armstrong, Brooker almost seems to be engaging in a moment of self-critique: “Sure, we could have a serious discussion about a bloody war that you don't know anything about, but that's not what either of us are here for”. Brooker both gestures towards the higher aims of a program like Newswipe and dismisses them in one motion.

The actual opening bit is an analysis of Lance Armstrong's public “fall from grace” and how it was a media spectacle from beginning to end. Whereas sports media played Armstrong's steroid trials as a tragedy, Brooker pictures it as a comedy, where a man continually denies what everyone knows and then finally makes a tearful confession, expecting all to be surprised. The truth of the matter is that Armstrong has very little to apologize for, especially when most of his opponents in the Tour de France were also doping, but Armstrong plays the whole thing with such awkward self-seriousness that it's hard not to laugh. The clip where he responds to accusations by saying “I'm sorry you can't believe in miracles” is particularly hilarious.

As such Brooker has very little work to do. The attraction of The Weekly Wipe and its predecessors is how they put together these news stories, which one has undoubtedly heard told several different ways through our diffuse but strangely repetitive media, in a way that is both concise and captures the story's inherent ridiculousness. This episode uses the ad clips that try to sell Armstrong's tell-all with Oprah like a pay-per-view boxing match, which would have otherwise been instantly lost to the archives, to reveal how Armstrong's confession was a media-generated spectacle from start to finish. Brooker makes a good crack about Armstrong visibly turning into Tony Blair, but his commentary is really superfluous.

The conclusion to the segment focuses on Channel 4's coverage of the news, which featured a long series of man-on-the-street interviews of “people sitting on or near bicycles”. This is exactly the kind of banal, material I discussed above, which is meant to be instantly forgotten as the dead air of 24-hour news networks. But this is the material that the news is turning to more and more, as budgets are slashed and social media starts breaking stories: instead of figuring out what's going on, news anchors are content to ask you what you think is going on. This is democratic and even in some ways admirable, but it does make one wonder what the point of watching the TV news is when you can just read Twitter directly. By going into the memory hole and retrieving this unremarkable segment of television, The Weekly Wipe highlights the mental bankruptcy of the contemporary news media. Instead of spending ten minutes interviewing strangers on bikes, which probably took up the better part of some poor anchor's day and a lot of film, they could be trying to figure out what's going on in, oh I don't know, Mali – there's that bit at the beginning again.

The next segment moves into even further inanity with a segment on Splash!, which might as well be titled Diving with the Stars, except that might have actually been another show (my memory is hazy on this). Brooker describes the show as trying to cash in on the feel-good moments of the Olympics, but ending up as just another reality show with C-list celebrities doing inane tasks like falling into water. What The Weekly Wipe is so good at is focusing on the parts of TV we're not supposed to think about, and are barely supposed to remember: advertisements, for one, but also filler shots like the ones of Olympian Tom Daly wandering around poolside in his suit, meant to be self-serious window dressing but highlighted as absurd when isolated from context and given a pithy description by Brooker.

Notably, the surprisingly extensive dissection of Splash! focuses not on what Splash! wants the viewer to take away from it – the identity of the “celebrities”, the athletic prowess of Daly, funny moments and inspiring moments – but rather the overall structure of the program, and how hollow it is. In this it's not too different from the work I've been doing on this blog, although with pithy jokes instead of extensive theoretical tangents. For instance, Brooker calls attention to how, since diving only takes about five seconds, there's a lot of filler, that TV white space I was describing above. Reading a text against the grain doesn't always mean proclaiming it terrible or revealing all of its hidden reactionary agendas. Sometimes it means looking at the contradictions and suppressed contexts. Other times it just means paying attention to the 67 minutes of a NFL game that consist of standing around, instead of the 11 minutes of play you're supposed to remember.

Brooker's figure is not, however, that of the critic, and he would probably never use phrases like “reading a text against the grain”. His persona is that of the everyman sitting on the couch and yelling at the TV – the everyman-turned-critic. If Brooker does not give us virtuoso close readings of a given television show, it is perhaps by design. The boorish shouts and one-liners that intersperse TV clips suggest to the viewer that critical viewing is ultimately not difficult and arcane but is within all of our mental grasps. Seeing criticism like this can be empowering in a way that academic discourse is not. However, there are risks to this egalitarian promise. The first is that we might come to believe that shouting at the TV is enough, and that being able to joke about the crap we watch makes us immune to its effects. The second risk is that we might instead just choose to watch cultural figures like Brooker or Joel McHale on The Soup digest our culture for us, turning their criticism into just another product to be consumed.

Brooker experiments later in the episode with adding additional voices to The Weekly Wipe, suggesting alternative models of criticism. This is something that Brooker has done throughout his run, with the most notable other voices being the short films of Adam Curtis, which practice more wide-ranging cultural criticism, and the monologues by Doug Stanhope. Curtis is unfortunately nowhere to be found, but Stanhope does have a segment situated around his perspective as an American.

This Stanhope segment is a bit different from earlier ones, as it cuts between Stanhope giving a monologue to the camera, sitting on a couch in the middle of the road (the natural dwelling place of Americans). The two speeches seem absolutely identical, with a perfect flow between them, and this highlights the artificiality of Stanhope's schtick. Stand-up comedy is meant to sound spontaneous and effortless, like someone speaking off the cuff or going on a rant about something that's been bugging them, but of course in reality it is carefully prepared, practiced, and memorized down to the last word. The way this segment is edited suggests that ultimately, while Stanhope may pretend to be the libidinal voice of the common man, his comedy is ultimately a produced routine like anything else.

The content of Stanhope's routine is interesting because it seems to go against the , and not just because it argues that, as Brooker sarcastically summarizes, “America is great”. Stanhope argues, with some degree of irony, that all of America's base entertainments and trashy products are something to be celebrated. He describes a hypothetical British person's amazement at the options on a breakfast menu and the bizarre way in which Americans pour drinks. Stanhope's premise is faulty here, as it's doubtful that any Briton would be surprised by American culture, which has infested the rest of the world. Still, there is something to his argument. All other things being equal, it is better to have ten different ways to do your eggs, or frozen hotdog-on-a-sticks. These things may be trashy and in bad taste, but they make people happy. We have to pay attention to the insidious underside of this abundance – “the wars and the torture” that Stanhope refers to – but that doesn't make the abundance itself bad, as the AdBusters clan would have it, but the ways in which the abundance is produced. Even when it comes to the junk television that Brooker likes to lampoon, surely it's better to have 500 channels of junk like we do today than to have 3 channels of junk like in the 60s.

This kind of crass hedonism, whatever its merits, goes distinctly against the ethos of Brooker's critical practice. It is the editorial reply designed to give balance. Stanhope's segment also acts, like the opening clip from Mali, as a way of suggesting the limits to Brooker's work. By cross-cutting between separate but identical routines, The Weekly Wipes suggests how ironic and humorous approaches to popular culture can be entirely complicit with the culture industry. Stanhope believes that he is in on the joke, but the real joke is that it doesn't matter whether or not you're in on the joke, because you're still eating at Denny's just like the unironic slob next to you[1]. Brooker at his best aims to elevate his criticism beyond a mere ironic knowing, and Stanhope's segment shows why.

There are two new segments for the new series which attempt to add more voices to play off Brooker's. One is “Points Off You”, which mostly consists of Brooker reading the vilest and most inane social media comments on the events he's been discussing. He does dredge up some bad comments, but so could anyone with a working Internet connection, and Brooker's comments just seem like obvious chiding. One could accuse this segment of the same “let's see what on Twitter” approach as much of the contemporary news media. The other is something of a panel discussion on Django Unchained with two nervous British comedians, which never really goes anywhere, mostly because it requires Brooker to be the straight man against the not particularly outrageous guests. In these two segments the series is attempting to engage with different voices, even in a purely confrontational way, and introduce some different-looking material from previous Wipe shows. But thus far The Weekly Wipe is not really sure about how to execute these segments, and it shows.

The best voices here are made-up ones, the everyman duo of Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk. Brooker uses these characters as a kind of counterexample to the cynical but informed viewing he practices in the bulk of the episode. Barry and Philomena suggest not so much that TV viewers are stupid, but that an uncritical viewing of television gets you to believe some very stupid things.

In this episode we get their reactions to the serious nature doc series Africa. This segment produces the funniest lines of the episode, with descriptions of animals such as “hairy men monsters, tall horse monsters that run around like deck chairs would if deck chairs ran, and these kind of vagina head monsters that fight in ponds” or “looks like they filmed Rocky in two giraffes by mistake”. There's a kind of childish, almost endearing quality to Barry Shitpeas's ignorance that makes him the most strictly humorous character on any of Brooker's programs.

But in their own way Barry and Philomena reveal as much through their commentary as Charlie Brooker does. The ignorance of their characters allows them to be convinced that there are no people in Africa, which reveals how Africa erases millions of suffering people and millennia of African culture in order to make a nice animals how. The Weekly Wipe uses willful stupidity as another way of reading against the grain. It applies intelligence to a dumb show like Splash! and applies stupidity to a supposedly intelligent and highbrow show like Africa, and both approaches work well. There's a kind of power to brazenly ignoring the cultural codes that we all take as a given, which is why TV characters from Homer Simpson to Tony Soprano captivate us as much as they repel us.

The segment that follows is Brooker's attempt at a serious political riff, this time on the gun control debates in the USA. The overall argument is that America is a country gone mad, and not mad in an entertaining, goofy way like Stanhope argues. The music drops down into a deeper register that suggests a mounting doom underneath the silly distractions of television. There are a few great bits in this segment, such as footage from an office training video that suggests employees run and hide in the event of a shooting, but for the most part it doesn't feel that different from something that would air on MSNBC. Brooker is not saying anything controversial or even original, and by locating the problem strictly in America he allows himself and his primary audience to take a distanced perspective that doesn't require any self-reflection or really any action more than a tut-tutting about the barbarians across the pond.

This risk is always present throughout Brooker's work, as well as in similar series such as The Daily Show and The Soup. It's easy for a viewer to come away from these programs thinking they are superior to the shows that Brooker mocks, that they are sitting at the cool kids' table and all that is needed to fix the world is for other people to stop being such idiots. An effective politics, to say nothing of a meaningful life, requires both self-examination and a capacity for empathy with others despite their problematic traits. If we start believing that we are better than other people because of the products we buy or the TV shows we watch then we are falling into capitalism's lies no matter how much irony we may do it with.

I would argue that Brooker falls into this trap much less than, say, Jon Stewart. While The Daily Show presents a cheering crowd and a supporting cast that lionize Stewart as a heroic truth-teller. Brooker, on the other hand, almost always appears alone, sitting on his couch in a dimly-lit room. If he is a target for viewer identification, he is also a sad image, a withdrawn and bitter loser who takes his rage out on harmless TV spectacles. To align ourselves with Brooker through the act of viewing is also to call into question what we're doing watching TV in the first place.

Political issues come up again in the episode's final segment, in which Brooker gives a sarcastic commentary to a fawning BBC interview with Prince Harry, who is currently bombing Afghan civilians. Brooker mocks the banality of the report, as well as Harry's remarks comparing the war to a video game, but he really doesn't touch on the ideological underpinning of the report, which tries to make a brutal war of occupation into a soft human interest story using the image of the Royal Family as a bizarre synecdoche of modern Britain. Brooker presents this interview as banal fluff, putting it in the same category as something like Splash!, but that doesn't really capture the sickness of a news media that would air something like this.

Brooker is at risk of becoming a cuddly curmudgeon, the type of figure that gets paid to come out and do his misanthropic schtick to a cheering audience. Or he could use his program as the opportunity to do genuine criticism in the public sphere, showing viewers a new way to look at not just TV but the world around them. This episode has more of the former, but it has enough of the latter to keep me interested. If there's anyone that can validate the meta TV show as more than just a simulacrum, it would be Brooker.

[1]Did The Weekly Wipe set Stanhope up to look bad? I don't know, and intent really doesn't matter. I wouldn't put it past Brooker and his crew to intentionally use Stanhope as a foil for Brooker's cynicism. But the style that makes this segment so exposing could just stem from an attempt to promote Stanhope's stand-up show, or from a director who's been watching too much Louie.