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.

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