There was a time when the idea of a massive critically acclaimed zombie TV series would have been laughed at, but in 2008, Channel 4 broadcast Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, a 5-part zombie/horror/black comedy/satire was met with acclaim. The series picked up BAFTA nominations, and more importantly, helped lay the groundwork for Brooker’s next series for Channel 4, Black Mirror.
Dead Set is a simple enough set up. It’s eviction night on Big Brother, a still massively popular programme, but running out of steam as contestants become walking, living freak shows to help Channel 4 (the home of Big Brother in 2008) create massive ratings, and eviction night (where a contestant, or housemate, is thrown to the starving hordes outside the studio) provides peak ratings. A load of former housemates (actual real life contestants from former series’ of Big Brother, which helps blur the line between fact and fiction) await to be called by the show’s presenter Davina McCall (again, the actual real life presenter on Channel 4 at the time) for the evening’s carnage. Unfortunately thrown into the mix are zombies (not real life) who proceed to speedily eat as many people as they can, being that they’re the fast 21st century zombies as opposed to the Romero slow type. One of the runners on the programme, Kelly (played by Jaime Winstone) finds the safest place to hide is in the Big Brother house with the remaining contestants who know nothing of the zombie apocalypse going on in the real world.
There’s a lot of zombie carnage in Dead Set, which on the tiny budget they had, is often astonishing. But there’s also an amazing amount of verisimilitude here as the series was filmed on actual Big Brother sets, and while the real show was filmed. The effect of that makes Dead Set look bigger than it is, and even when it ventures outwith the studio into the surrounding countryside and area around it in Hertfordshire, there’s a bleak authenticity about it. But then again Hertfordshire is pretty bleak…
Brooker by 2008 had developed a reputation for being a fine satirist, and his previous series (co-written by the great Chris Morris) for Channel 4, Nathan Barley, was a decade-too-early satire on Hipsters that failed to set ratings or critics alight, yet years later, has taken on a life of it’s own. Dead Set is very much a scathing attack on not just the phenomenon that was Big Brother in the millennium’s first decade, but of television itself. Barring Winstone’s lowly runner, all the TV people in this are varying degrees of arseholes from the preening housemates. to Patrick, the show’s producer, in a wonderfully monstrous performance from Andy Nyman. This is a series that dissects television in its production and its consumption with the zombies playing their part as metaphor for the masses, just like George Romero did in Dawn of the Dead.
From reading this it may seem like Dead Set is a tad dry. It isn’t. It’s amazingly bloody as well, as rippling with Brooker’s sharp wit. Plus at five episodes it doesn’t outstay its welcome as it makes a sharp, hard point about how we as an audience consume reality television and what it makes us in return. It’s a hard viewpoint from Brooker, a sort-of fan of Big Brother, but in 2008 the series was on the wane on Channel 4 and Dead Set gives it a firm kicking.
If you love zombies then this will give you enough to see you through the series, but this is much more than just a typical zombie story and the humour, satire and wit helps the viewer through the often hellishly bleak situation our cast find themselves in and that we find ourselves in as we consume any old crap with dead eyes and brains to keep us going through the day.