If you love clever, you must love Charlie Brooker. He is clearly one of the most clever men in the whole wide world—I think this has been scientifically proven, somewhere. You might know him from a viral clip called “How to Report the News” (below). In two short minutes, Brooker managed to expose television news for the formulaic falsity it is, and it struck a chord with cynics everywhere.
Those who leave it at that, though, have missed him at his best. His first rip into the medium was through his website TVGoHome, which was designed to look like a television guide, the highlight of which was the show Cunt.
A book then came which was followed by a sketch show. They were good. Yes, they were. Good for us cynics, and good for Brooker, who began writing a column called “Screen Burn” for The Guardian. Now he had a mainstream audience, but he was (mostly) allowed to stay a harsh critic. He also contributed to the Brass Eye episode on paedophilia, which for many is considered a turning point in television history, and with Chris Morris, he turned Nathan Barley (from the aforementioned Cunt) into a real television show. In 2006, he debuted Screenwipe, a tele-visual version of his Guardian column.
Screenwipe should be required viewing for everyone who has ever watched television. Brooker successfully deconstructs the medium (through use of clips which he then comments on from his sofa) in a way that manages to be vicious and hilarious. This is when I fell in love with the man. Screenwipe’s success led to a one-off Gameswipe (he was a video game reviewer in the ‘90s) and Newswipe. In each of these programs, his focus was primarily on the way the media manipulates us. He was not unwilling to cover the (one or two) things the media does well, but mostly he blew off the lid—taking on reality television, talent shows, panel shows, documentaries, children’s shows.
Everything the media told us, we now had to question, because Charlie showed us the truth. Around this time, I began practising my Mrs. Christine Brooker signature. I watched every episode, read every column, and sucked up every word that came out of his less-than-beautiful-yet-strangely-seductive face.
Luckily for borderline-obsessive admirers like me, there seemed to be more and more Brooker to enjoy. He wrote a television thriller based on a reality show. He was a guest on a number of panel shows and then he had his own panel show, You Have Been Watching. I watched it, and I loved it. Because I love Charlie Brooker. Remember, he is clever.
Which is why it made sense that Channel 4 featured him as one of four hosts of the channel’s Alternative Election Night coverage in May 2010. This live program wasn’t quite up to his usual standards, but, given the weirdness of the election, it was great to see him react to the results (though the results didn’t actually come in until the following days). I wasn’t looking to him to decide what I should think, but I knew that, as someone outside the mainstream media, he could be trusted to cut through the bullshit.
Except here’s the thing: he wasn’t outside the mainstream media, anymore. With all his columns, appearances and shows, Brooker was right smack dab in the middle of it.
And then all of a sudden he was even in the tabloid press. He had fallen in love with Konnie Huq, who had just gotten the job of presenting the Xtra Factor, a behind-the-scenes spin-off of one of Simon Cowell’s talent shows. No one could believe that grumpy, square-headed Brooker could have won (and then married) the beautiful, sexy former children’s show presenter.
I couldn’t believe it, either.
How could he have done this to me? I thought he hated children’s television and talent shows and the vacuous people who made them? I thought he admired those people who could see through it all (say, someone like me). Wasn’t his panel show actually making a mockery of panel shows? Was this marriage going to be his next trick—going inside the celebrity machine to expose it like he had other aspects of the mainstream media?
No. In October 2010, he ended his “Screen Burn” column with an (almost) sick-inducing apology for being so harsh over the years:
Once or twice I found myself in conversation with someone I’d been awful about in print, and discovered to my horror that the ruder I’d been, the warmer and more pleasant they appeared to be in the flesh. A black eel of guilt writhed in my skull. Why was I so nasty? These were TV presenters, not war criminals. Well, most of them. Sometimes they weren’t even presenters. The rise of reality shows led to a ceaseless parade of instant hate figures, plucked from obscurity and flung onscreen for us all to sneer and point at. And I fell for it, endlessly picking holes in fellow human beings simply because they happened to be on TV.
But he wasn’t going away. He promised a new column soon (he still writes for The Guardian), the election night show led to 10 O’Clock Live, which was touted as Britain’s own Daily Show. He also had a series called How TV Ruined Your Life, which I watched and (begrudgingly) loved and (recognised as some of it felt pretty much rehashed from his earlier shows).
Plus, his hair was now floppy. Floppy in a way that he couldn’t have decided upon himself. He sported floppy hair that someone must have told him would “work” for him. Would “work” on television.
Remember the first time you realized your parents weren’t infallible? Or when your first love kissed your best friend? Or when your hero stumbled—you found out about Pete Rose’s gambling or Michael Jackson’s Jesus Juice? It was crushing, you know it was, even my mentioning it right now has made a little bit of your heart ache. That’s how I feel about Charlie Brooker. If you’ve imagined tears falling onto my keyboard as I write this, you wouldn’t be wrong.
Television may have ruined my life, but it’s worse: TV ruined Charlie Brooker. He showed me that it was all a game. Brooker’s playing (and winning) the game. And my heart is just collateral damage.
If you don’t know Charlie Brooker, find out more about him. Read, watch and listen to him. What he’s said and done is still clever; I’m not sure anything can change that. In fact, he is still the best thing on (the despicable, evil) television. But don’t fall in love. He’s still just a man. A man on television.
// Channel Surfing
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