“What is TV, anyway?”
Television’s infectious horrors in Charlie Brooker’s
Brontë Schiltz essays Charlie Brooker’s Channel 4 zombie outbreak series, Dead Set, which exposes the very real horror at the heart of reality television programming…
In Britain, it’s 27th October 2008, 10pm – but on E4, it’s ‘day 64, 2:36pm.’ In the Big Brother house, ‘Space is in the Biodome. Marky and Veronica are by the pool. Joplin and Pippa are at the sofas.’ It’s to those sofas that Big Brother’s watchful eye takes us first. ‘I mean, you know, what is TV, anyway?’ Joplin asks, rhetorically – Pippa is clearly not on the intellectual level at which he perceives himself. ‘It’s just a big fat arrow pointing away from the problem. Especially shows like this. It’s like the lead in the water pipes that sent the Romans mad,’ he continues, to a noncommittal ‘hmm’ from his addressee. ‘I thought to myself, “Okay, I can ignore it, or I can engage with and alter it from within,” you know, and if just one person hears me and thinks, “Wow. l never saw it like that. This guy’s really opened my head,” then I’ve justified doing it, you know?’ Pippa, it seems, does not know, and replies: ‘Do toes have bones in them?’ Big Brother, as resigned as Joplin, cuts to the diary room.
Thus begins Dead Set (E4, Yann Demange, 2008), a five-part ‘satire of consumption’  by Charlie Brooker, now notorious as the creator of hit horror anthology series Black Mirror. During the 40-minute long first episode (the rest are all 20 minutes long), we are introduced to the other housemates, along with boorish producer Patrick, runner Kelly, Kelly’s boyfriend Riq (towards whom she behaves coldly during interactions over the phone, not least because she is engaging in an illicit romance with colleague Danny), and presenter Davina McCall. While the studio frantically prepares for eviction night, the audience gradually learns that there is far greater tumult unfolding beyond its walls: the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse.
By the time the end credits roll, the entire live audience have been turned into the undead, as has Davina, whose new appetites compel Patrick and evictee Pippa to lock themselves into the green room; Danny and most of the rest of the crew are dead; and Kelly has taken refuge inside the Big Brother house, where she struggles to persuade the housemates of the situation until Marky opens a fire exit and admits a zombie who was lurking in a camera run. In the final minutes, the zombie bites fellow housemate Angel before Kelly has time to cave its skull in. The fortress of the Big Brother house both established and disturbed, the drama truly begins.
Unlike many horror programmes, Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott argue that ‘Dead Set does not … present TV as supernatural. On the contrary, it uses TV as a symbol of normal life, now swept away by the zombie apocalypse’ . We see this first in the failure of news broadcasts, for which Big Brother is taken off air in the first episode, much to Patrick’s chagrin, in a scene that evokes George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (ITV, Piers Haggard, 1979), which both begin in television studios that offer (some) refuge from apocalypses outside. As well as sharing vital information about the outbreak before broadcasters lose signal, television also serves several other protective functions. The structure of the Big Brother set keeps Kelly and the housemates (relatively) safe, and the programme’s ongoing broadcast (against the odds, Big Brother survives!) informs Riq of Kelly’s survival and sparks his quest to reunite and make amends with her.
Yet even in these moments of fleeting hope, television signifies an atomised nation – millions of people might watch the same programme at the same time, but their first interaction with their next-door neighbour might be devouring their brain. When two police officers catch Space standing guard while Kelly and Marky take life-saving food and medical supplies from a supermarket, now staffed solely by the undead, they take delight in wielding power over him, questioning him at gunpoint on suspicion of the now utterly meaningless offence of shoplifting. ‘Isn’t there somewhere we should be trying to head for?’ Space asks, fruitlessly attempting to make sense of the situation. ‘Like where?’ an officer asks, to which he replies, ‘I don’t know. Who’s in charge?’ The officers exchange a glance, and onr replies, ‘You haven’t heard, have you?’ At that moment, Kelly and Marky burst from the shop, pursued by zombies that the older officer guns down – but not before one can bite his colleague, who he then shoots in the head, explaining that he ‘had to do that’ as his fellow survivors look on in horror. ‘The advice was: stay indoors,’ he adds, furiously. ‘Or don’t you watch telly?’ This is what television viewership signifies in this world: not the community of millions of people coming together, but the horror of having to kill a friend in cold blood.
The generic distinctions between reality and horror television thus begin to collapse. Jowett and Abbott contend that ‘[t]he pathologization of reality TV audiences’ for transgressing standards of respectability ‘is not too far away from the way horror audiences have historically been described. Dead Set’s juxtaposition of the two demonstrates that they are not incompatible’ . However, Brooker evokes them to entirely different ends. In the first episode, Patrick fights to keep his programme on air even as his audience are brutally devoured, just as, in 2022, the TV screens of those who can still afford to turn them on amid the skyrocketing cost of energy are filled with colourful trailers for new reality dating shows. In Dead Set, he exposes the very real horror at the heart of such programming, which treats human suffering as little more than a means to boost ratings and thereby earnings while serving the conservative forces that wish to draw attention away from the devastating impacts decisions made by those with power have on the lives of those without.
In 2008, Brooker could little have imagined just how pertinent this exploration of the dark side of reality programming would become when, in 2019, The Jeremy Kyle Show was axed following the suicide of participant Steve Dymond, and ‘details [later] emerged of five other suicide attempts linked to the programme’ . Channel 4’s own Dispatches also noted that ‘two contestants from ITV’s glamorous and risqué Love Island have taken their own lives’ . Notably, an anonymous camera operator who came forth following Dymond’s death described the programme in distinctly Gothic terms. In another Channel 4 documentary, he likened the set to a haunted house – ‘the horrors that were being committed in the bowels of that building … can never be scrubbed from those walls, ever’ – and the programme’s production and consumption to cannibalism – ‘this is a production line, this is a factory … You feed emotionally vulnerable people in the one end… it’s just like a meat-processing plant’ .
Viewed though this lens, reality television starkly embodies what Henry A. Giroux terms ‘casino capitalism’ – a form of ‘zombie politics that views competition as a form of social combat … and legitimises a ruthless Social Darwinism in which particular individuals and groups are considered simply redundant, disposable – nothing more than human waste left to stew in their own misfortune’ . Brooker’s genre-meshing is not so incongruous, after all, and the early shift in scenes within the camera runs ‘from being a behind the scenes exposé to functioning as the claustrophobic site of horror’  appears not so much a clever twist as a revelation of genuine atrocity.
Marshall McLuhan’s now infamous assertion that ‘the medium is the message’ has rarely felt so apt . Jowett and Abbott suggest that ‘Dead Set’s closing image shows a grimly dystopian zombie future, as Kelly’s blood and vacant face fills the live feed screens with no one to watch’, but this is not quite true . After this shot, we go to a shopping centre where, through the window of a technology shop, another zombie looks back at Kelly through numerous screens, head tilted in an approximation of interest. Brooker here again recalls Dawn of the Dead, in which humans shelter from the zombie apocalypse in a shopping centre until it comes under attack, human-zombie distinctions collapsing around the revelation that the undead, like Dead Set’s zombies amassing at the Big Brother studio gates, ‘remember the mall’ . In the final image, we see the undead ambling through the studio grounds before the camera tilts up to rest on a pair of CCTV cameras.
Linnie Blake’s argument that, in neoliberal societies, ‘in the same way as a person infected with the zombie virus becomes … a zombie so have we all mutated into “consumer-subjects” – fundamentally changed by our infection’ has rarely been so explicitly illustrated . The audience does not constitute no one, but everyone, and everyone is watched in turn. Stripped of life, (once-) human identity now exists solely in relation to cameras and screens. Within this new world order, ‘the sole and supreme ruler is the television screen itself – or perhaps the camera, which keeps running, long after its human operators have ceased to be able to use it in any kind of creative way. Instead, they (or what is left of them) can only stare blankly at one another – and, by extension, at us staring blankly back at them – probably forever’ .
Like its diegetic animated corpses, throughout the course of the programme, ‘the audience of Dead Set watches the interactions of characters and the fragmentation of the group’ just as millions watch Big Brother . Annette Hill argues that a ‘focus on [negative] emotions has become a trademark for many [reality] programmes, where the premise is to observe or put people in emotionally difficult situations … feelings of humiliation, anger, superiority [and] jealousy become part of our expectations for the genre’ . As in Big Brother, Brooker’s audience are encouraged to take a gleeful interest in the chaos that swiftly breeds within the house, built for the express purpose of facilitating such social disintegration. Herein lies the programme’s genius. As Ruth Beinstock Anolik argues, ‘the essential fear of the Gothic is that there are actually no categories of Otherness’, and Gothic texts generate horror by evoking ‘the anxiety not of difference but of sameness’ . It may be more comfortable to view monsters as utterly unlike ourselves, but Brooker refuses to permit such a reassuring reading. Like us, the zombies flock towards the studios and screens, and the total disregard for others that causes them to viciously devour their acquaintances and the British public to tune into programming that delights in human distress is cast as one and the same.
 Jowett, Lorna and Abbott, Stacey. TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013, p. 184.
 Jowett and Abbott, p. 194.
 Jowett and Abbott, p. 196.
 ‘Jeremy Kyle: TV on Trial’, Dispatches, Channel 4, 20:00 27th May 2019.
 ‘Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime’, Channel 4, 22:00 13th March 2022.
 Giroux, Henry A. Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. London: Peter Lang, 2011, p. 2.
 Abbott and Jowett, p. 195.
 McLuhan, Marshall. ‘The Medium is the Message.’ In Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p. 107.
 Jowett and Abbott, p. 194.
 Bailey, Matthew. ‘Memory, Place and the Mall: George Romero on Consumerism.’ Studies in Popular Culture, 35(2), 2013, p. 105.
 Blake, Linnie. ‘“Are We Worth Saving? You Tell Me”: Neoliberalism, Zombies and the Failure of Free Trade.’ Gothic Studies, 17(2), 2015, p. 29.
 Downey, Dara. ‘“We’re Coming to Get You”: Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set.’ The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 5(1), 2008, p. 117.
 Jowett and Abbott, p. 195.
 Hill, Annette. Restyling Factual TV. London: Routledge, 2007, p. 15.
 Bienstock Anolik, Ruth. The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004, 10.