Television is a “flickering fibbing machine”, according to uber-critic Charlie Brooker in How TV Ruined Your Life (BBC2). Using a snappily-edited mix of archive clips, flippant sketches and scalpel-sharp observations, his six-part polemic describes how manipulating and distorted television has become.
Brooker bases his argument on ‘Cultivation Theory’. This claims that if we spend too much time gawping at the goggle-box, then our expectations, morals and fears are more likely to be influenced by what we see on screen than what we experience in real life. For example, television has conditioned us to be frightened of dark city streets because this is the setting for so much televised violence. And, he argues, production companies have got away with this by presenting violence in a glossy, titillating way through public information films (“government-approved mini horror movies designed to fear you into not going all dead”) and scare-fests like Crimewatch and Wire In The Blood.
In his second episode, Brooker focuses on how different demographic groups are portrayed on television. Young adults are “mindless jigging gits”, dads are “tragic shuffling pitiful individuals”, and older people are “hilarious irrelevances”. TV encourages us to perpetually look youthful – and makes us feel inadequate if we don’t – through dross like the “devastatingly mean makeover show” Ten Years Younger. This trend manifests itself as ‘aspirational television’, where Brooker’s bile is focused in episode three. The theory behind aspirational programming is that “if you watch beautiful fun-loving people on TV you’ll somehow feel like they’re your friends, whereas in reality of course you’re essentially just a tramp staring at them from the other side of the room”. Some of his examples are jaw-droppingly unedifying, like My Super Sweet 16 UK. This docu-soap follows slappably-spoilt brats, including one who stages an X-Factor-style audition to judge which of his sparkly-eyed acquaintances are fit enough to attend his birthday party. How our relationships are influenced by television is the target of Brooker’s next episode. With hilarious bitterness, he shows us how television perpetuates the myth of ‘the perfect relationship’ through adverts that turn toothpaste into an aphrodisiac.
On first impression, it’s easy to dismiss Charlie Brooker as misanthropic and sneering. But his acerbic tone is really just a way of filtering out those viewers he would consider too shallow to appreciate his arguments. Buy into his style, and Brooker’s work is refreshingly perceptive, even exhilarating.