With zombies vs reality TV stars, who do you root for?
What you deserve to watch:
The setup is irresistible. A zombie apocalypse strikes the world while the so-called ‘survivors’ inside a reality show house remain oblivious. Set around Big Brother UK, Dead Set — a five part series written by savagely witty satirist Charlie Brooker, streaming on Netflix — explores vacant, slow-moving oafs who make absurdly poor decisions and steadfastly refuse to understand the world around them. Them, and zombies.
While that sounds like it could be a riotous laugh, a spoofy send-up — and at times it is — do note that Brooker is the writer who terrorised us with a certain show called Black Mirror, and therefore things here are significantly grisly and macabre, confirming to the zombie genre completely while commenting darkly on our celebrity obsession and the complete disconnection reality TV has with, well, reality.
In an impossible coup, Brooker got the production house which produces Big Brother, Endemol, to produce Dead Set, which allowed him not just to use the sets from the television series but also have fun with familiar faces like Davina McCall, host of the caged-up reality show, who Brooker turns into a flesh-eating member of the undead. The cast overall is an interesting one, with Andy Nyman and Riz Ahmed — yes, he of The Night Of — showing up in the middle of the madness.
The show displays both Brooker’s acerbic hate for and obsessive addiction to the reality show format, and — named obviously after the live Grateful Dead album from 1991 — Dead Set lashes out at its targets hard. The contestants are entirely insufferable, with a pretty boy acting valiant and tough when running out to get medical supplies but who then comes close to throwing a pouty tantrum when he realises that the gossip magazines are laughing at him.
And despite playing out like a proper, thrilling zombie feature, Dead Set allows room for conventional Big Brother format thinking, like the gang taking decisions by voting on them — and you’d do well to buckle up for the manipulations that follow. We aren’t saved from decisions either. One of the first people infected in the Big Brother house is an abrasive and obnoxious black woman, and it is with choices like these that Brooker tests the audience’s own prejudices: Do we want the nasty overweight woman to live or do we want to kill her right away before she harms the nice girl who is obviously the heroine?
This may not be Brooker at his best — we’ve seen Black Mirror and we know what he’s capable of — but it is a sign of things to come, a relentlessly sly and unflinchingly dark storyteller finding his way while paying tribute to George Romero’s classic Dawn Of The Dead.
What on earth is drawing the zombies toward the Big Brother house anyway? The reason might be the same that makes Dead Set so compelling to us: it’s too damned hard to look away.
What life’s too short to watch:
Netflix has spread its tentacles to other nations with aplomb, creating British shows like The Crown and Japanese shows like Midnight Diner, both of which I’ve written about here earlier, and I’ve just started watching a fascinating Brazilian show called The 3%. This is why it feels profoundly disappointing that their first Indian series — an English-language comedy about Indians in America — is an unwatchably dated sitcom called Brown Nation.
A man named Hasmukh has an annoying wife, a grumpy father-in-law, and an IT business that doesn’t seem to be moving on up. It’s the kind of thing we left behind a long time ago, and the kind of show Master Of None creator Aziz Ansari would be embarrassed about.
Pandering to Indian stereotypes, the laugh-track demanding show feels like a parody instead of an actual series: it’s like a show the dad in The Kumars At No 42 might make instead of something actual people put thought into. The cast includes Shenaz Treasury and Omi Vaidya around actors who look like producers trying to act, and the only charismatic person in a show about Indians is Remy Munasifi, an Arab-American comedian who plays an enterprising Egyptian.
I would have recommended avoiding this, but perhaps we need to see a bit of Brown Nation if only to sober up. Is this how far behind the television revolution in India is?
Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.