Writer: Charlie Brooker
Director: Yann Demange
Dead Set destroyed its own reality in seconds, with the presence of Kevin Eldon as a fictional Big Brother contestant. While never a household name, Eldon's a familiar face to the demographic who'll be watching this "reality-horror" special in the run-up to Halloween. From that moment, it didn't matter how closely they aped Big Brother (filming on actual sets, a role for Davina McCall, brief narration by Marcus Bentley), the potential for a gritty, horror-tinged spoof was squandered.
The premise is high-concept obviousness at its best: what if an outbreak of zombies coincided with the annual Big Brother reality show circus? It's the kind of one-sentence pitch that fizzes the imagination like Alka-Seltzer dropped into water. Unfortunately (unless the remaining episodes prove me very wrong), writer Charlie Brooker seems to have ignored the satirical possibilities zombie maestro George Romero would have immediately jumped on. Zombies halting their blood-letting to watch the show? The Big Brother compound containing the only dimwits unaware of a worldwide apocalypse? Nope, sorry; the BB House just became a modern version of Evil Dead's cabin in the woods.
I was also surprised by the lack of comedy, as Brooker's day job is as an opinionated, rant-prone Guardian columnist who's had success with black comedy (TVGoHome, Nathan Barley) and spewing bile at British TV in his entertaining Screen Wipe series. For someone so funny and knowledgeable, why make Dead Set a straight-forward zombie horror with a unique backdrop? There was the odd wry line and exaggerated performance (mainly from Andy Nyman's handlebar-moustached boss), but the naturally funny idea of Big Brother-meets-Night Of The Living Dead wasn't played for any laughs. To its detriment.
On the positive side, despite the fact its shaky-cam style grew wearisome, director Yann Demange managed to reproduce low-budget cinematic horror on the small-screen very well. The Danny Boyle-style running zombies (again, a bad decision) were every bit as ferocious as those from 28 Days Later and Dawn Of The Dead's remake.
The overall aesthetic was bleak and dirty, which worked brilliantly once the zombie outbreak reached the Big Brother eviction night, but worked against a sense of reality beforehand. Viewers have seen behind the scenes of Big Brother many times, and it's not reflected in the murky, depressive atmosphere of Dead Set. The in-house sequences were also unconvincing, which was surprising given the cooperation of Channel 4 and Endemol in making Dead Set.
For an episode running 70-minutes (including adverts), the level of characterization was also painfully meager. Understandably, the show wanted to introduce the zombies quickly and get them attacking the Big Brother audience and crew, but it was difficult to care about our production runner heroine Kelly (Jaime Winstone), her boyfriend, or the sketchily-drawn BB housemates who immediately guess something's wrong when the cameras stop moving and the Diary Room stays locked.
Still, amongst the many disappointments were a few good moments and ideas -- the mere presence of Zombie Davina (giving her catchphrase "I'm coming to get you!" a different connotation) was a real highlight, and the amount of blood and violence should please gorehounds. I remain hopeful that things will improve now the exposition's over -- if only because there are four more episodes, and it would be disastrous if Dead Set's blown its load already.
Overall, Dead Set left me decidedly cold and unsatisfied. Even cameo's by genuine BB housemates weren't used well: Makosi owns a book on Kaballah, we're reminded that Imogen Thomas has big boobs, and Aisleyne trots around in a skimpy dress -- how toothless. If Charlie Brooker can't skewer the Big Brother phenomena in a fast-paced 70-minute opener, what hope is there now Dead Set's turned into a humdrum horror set inside a TV studio not even broadcasting events?
27 October 2008
Cast: Jaime Winstone (Kelly), Andy Nyman (Patrick), Kathleen McDermott (Pippa), Kevin Eldon (Joplin), Riz Ahmed (Riq), LizMay Brice (Alex), Warren Brown (Marky), Shelley Conn (Claire), Beth Cordingly (Veronica), Chizzy Akudolu (Angel), Raj Ghatak (Grayson), Adam Deacon (Space), Davina McCall (Herself), Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace (Herself), Brian Belo (Himself), Imogen Thomas (Herself), Helen Adams (Herself), Paul "Bubble" Ferguson (Himself), Kinga Karolczak (Herself), Eugene Sully (Himself), Makosi Musambasi (Herself) & Ziggy Lichman (Himself)