Always on the lookout for new points of view, I stumbled upon a documentary series called How TV Ruined Your Life. Written and presented for BBC Two by British journalist Charlie Brooker earlier this year, each episode provides an extremely pessimistic take on how television has changed different aspects of modern life. Love, money, fear, and knowledge are all some of the elements discussed in detail. During his diatribes, Brooker has the uncanny ability to be both grating and engaging at the same time. If John Stewart and Ricky Gervais had a baby, it might turn out to be something like this guy.
Having never seen the show, I’ve had the episode titled “Aspiration” queued up for quite a while. I was all set to write about how Charlie Brooker is the devil, and thus being against all aspiration in life he tells everyone they will never achieve anything. The killer of dreams. Then I finally watched the show. Defying my misconceptions, it was brilliant- full of insight that was intelligent and well spoken. But that didn’t fit into my plans. Thanks a lot, Charlie Brooker. You had to go and be reasonable. A**hole.
“The basic theory behind aspiration programming is that if you watch beautiful fun-loving people on TV, you’ll somehow feel like they’re you’re friends. Where as in reality, of course, you’re essentially just a tramp staring at them from the other side of the room.”
This particular episode was about how TV provides a false impression of life, constantly showing us the golden sheen of a fantasy world where everything is easy. This is likely done in an effort to keep all the “sheeple” spending their money like good little consumers. Thus not surprisingly, Brooker suggests this all started with the world of advertising. The real-life Mad Men began attaching fantasies to the products they were hawking. “Buy this McGuffin and you too can be one of the fortunate happy ones.” Somewhere along the way, those values leaked out and became a part of TV shows at large. The late 70s show Dallas was an early example. Then the BBC followed with their own version, called Howards’ Way. Everything just kind of spiraled out of control from there.
At least back then the tycoons on TV were all fictional. Now real-life tycoons are celebrated and lauded. So we get annoying shows like The Apprentice, and it’s disturbing BBC counterpart The Underling. Here, an old bald man says absolutely horrible things to little british kids. This show is the exception, however, since by rule most programs completely venerate children. Apparently, there is something called the Child Coronation Network. This can’t be real. An entire network showing nothing but the live coronations of toddlers? OK, these last two were spoofs. But the joke is on America, since here we really do have a show called Toddlers & Tiaras, which almost basically the same thing.
As the demographic gets older, the shows get appallingly worse. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the MTV reality show, My Super Sweet 16. “Not so much a show, more an orchestrated smear campaign against humankind in general. Some of it is punishingly depressing…You know I think this might actually be an Al Quaida recruitment film.” I fear that this is more true than we know. In an effort to outdo itself, MTV also gave us Cribs. “Cribs dangles the aspirational carrot so impractically out of reach they might as well have put it on a million mile long stick tied to a rocket that’s been fired into a black hole.” All jokes aside, Brooker acknowledges the real-life implications all of this might have on today’s youth.
“One natural consequence of long term exposure to this kind of piffle is the kids who watch it grow up wanting to be treated like celebrities themselves, becoming self-obsessed little emperors in the process…Make no mistake, the next generation is going to be horrible. If I was Education Secretary, which I’m not…currently, I’d force every school in the country to run cartoons telling kids they were worthless just to counterbalance it all.”
Adults are not spared from this aspirational Neverland. They get house pornography, like the show Grand Designs. “Thanks to shows like this it somehow feels like it’s not enough to own a reasonably OK house anymore.” Faced with all these unattainable dreams, no wonder people got themselves so deep in debt. It’s not fun to realize that we are all constantly poked, prodded, manipulated and lied to on a daily basis. And that these delusional fantasies can lead to so many real problems.
Some might say, “You’re from the States, why are you even watching this?” The answer is simple. Because we don’t have anything like this here in America. Most of our documentaries are boring, and the most “truthiness” we get on TV is actually from satirical comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Plus, we don’t get to have foul language on prime-time American TV. (And no, South Park isn’t on prime-time.)
Looking back, we’ve always had celebrities who were famous for simply being famous. Just think of Dancing With The Stars as the new Hollywood Squares or Match Game PM. But things do seem worse now. Not only has the sheer amount of B and C level celebrities exploded in recent years, accounts of their inane comings and goings have invaded more and more of our airwaves, Internet space, etc. News organizations are now some of the worst offenders. Even before the wedding of the stenchury, The Huffington Post has been featuring daily articles about some bullsh*t or other the Kardashians are supposed to be up to. Daily. As in EVERY DAY.
It’s enough to make you want to run away screaming and head for the hills. So what are we to do? I’ll just leave with Brooker’s final words from the show.
“And hey, if it all gets too much, just do what I do and glug your way to Fantasy Island on the Goodship Liquid Brainkiller…Or, you could always switch your TV off, stop living off some kind of rubbish tip and just enjoy yourself, like me.” [then laughs hysterically]