Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits


The second story in new anthology series Black Mirror, Fifteen Million Merits may not have been as viscerally awful as last week’s The National Anthem, but if anything it was even more downbeat and depressing.

The setting is a future dystopia, a familiar enough device to satirise the present. This being Charlie Brooker, his familiar pessimistic bugbears were all present and correct, but I suspect his wife Konnie Huq, on co-scripting duties, had more to do with the far more sympathetic characters than we were presented with last week.

The most prominent target of the satire was ‘reality’ talent shows, the kind of lowest common denominator, bread and circuses excuse for ‘entertainment’ that drives me up the wall, so obviously it was going to appeal to me. As if to capitalise on that, the show was cunningly scheduled to start at the moment this year’s X Factor final finished over on ITV; sadly, I doubt any X Factor viewers were likely to tune in and learn anything. Charlie’s satire is powerful, but generally preaches to the converted – which is a pity, because this might have made regular X Factor viewers think twice about their choice of ‘entertainment’.

But with the typical precision of the conceits in Brooker’s opinion column, this was an intricately constructed world in which the satire was aimed at more than just one – admittedly easy – target. The futuristic detail was fastidious in this claustrophobic world where the masses toil on fixed bikes to provide the power to run everything, earning ‘merits’ to spend as they do so. Those too overweight or out of condition to do so are reduced to even more menial labour, or being humiliated for entertainment on a TV ‘contest’ called Botherguts.

So already we’ve got digs at our dwindling fuel supply, our obsession with appearance, and the increasing income inequality of a society in which the masses literally are enslaved to work to death, never seeing the outside world, for the benefit of a tiny few. But this being Charlie, his familiar paranoia about new media was also very much in evidence. In their off hours, the drudges reside in tiny cubicles lined with screens constantly bombarding them with Youtube/Porntube/Facebook style entertainment. In order to watch any of the constantly advertised shows, you have to pay with the merits you earn from constantly cycling to generate power. Not only can the screens not be turned off, but to even skip a trailer or mute the feed incurs a financial penalty as your merits are docked. And if you stop watching, the system will know and loudly pester you to “resume viewing” until you open your eyes.

Even in a world where everything is virtual, the ravenous urge to consume is fostered. You’re not even buying real commodities; everything is virtual. Even including yourself. To most of the world, you’re represented by an avatar – the dopple – and if you buy new clothes, or fashion accessories, or even change your hairstyle, it’s your dopple that gets it, while the real you stays clad in a grey, featureless tracksuit. The ultimate consumption, where money is spent without the need to even produce tangible commodities. And if you think that’s farfetched, consider how you now purchase your music, movies, and even books.

The one thing not included in this dystopian satire is politics – for a reason. We now live in a society in which more citizens are likely to vote on The X Factor than vote for those who govern them, and will even pay for the privilege of doing so. And as it becomes increasingly clear that all governments in the real world are basically subservient to the large corporations, it stands to reason that in a consumerist future, democracy will be irrelevant and politicians, no longer the source of power, will likely no longer exist.

In Brooker and Huq’s vision, the only way out of the lifetime of drudgery is one of the many ‘reality’ shows constantly streamed to the screens, the most prominent of which is a ‘talent’ show called Hot Shots. A pretty transparent clone of The X Factor, this even features a monstrous Cowell-alike judge, Judge Hope, incarnated with a New Zealand accent and a terrifying level of contempt by Rupert Everett.

The workings of this nightmarish, but logical, extrapolation of society are cleverly built up detail by detail as we follow the empty life of Bing Madsen, a young man completely caught up in it. But gradually, Bing begins to finally feel something real. He’s in love with the new girl a few cycles down. And when he hears her sing, it becomes clear to him – what better way to win her heart than by buying her a place on Hot Shots? The trouble is, that’ll cost 15 million merits, and that’s nearly all the money he has.

As Bing’s love object Abi, Jessica Brown is convincingly humiliated when, after hearing her sing, the judges decide that her best shot is actually to work on one of the endless porno shows. But semi-drugged, and tempted by even the slightest chance to get away from her life of drudgery, Abi accepts, and we see her reduced to a dead-eyed, chemically sedated sex doll while Bing, out of money to turn his screens off, can only watch in horror.

Daniel Kaluuya, as Bing, is amazing, building a powerful performance layer by layer. For the first twenty minutes or so, he barely speaks. Then, as he starts to try chatting up Abi, he displays that same disarming likeability we’re used to from The Fades and Skins. But as the horror of the situation dawns on him, he rages with impotent fury. Smashing his screens, he takes a shard of broken glass, slaves madly to save another 15 million merits, then goes on Hot Shots, ostensibly as a ‘performance artist’. Then, holding the shard of glass to his throat, he holds himself hostage as he delivers to the impassive judges a scream of rage and passion so powerful, it seems inconceivable that they – and the avatars of the watching millions – will not be moved.

It’s an incredible performance, that really seals my respect for Kaluuya as an actor, but also for Brooker as a writer. “It’s not even real!” Bing seethes, sweating with rage. “It’s all fake fodder! You sell us shit and it doesn’t even exist!” It’s a powerful moment, but also one that made me reflect on consumerism, dumbed-down culture, and the increasing definition of everybody’s value solely in terms of how much they consume.

But this is a dystopia, and as in all the classics, there’s no getting out of it for the lone hero. There’s one last twist to Brooker’s script, as the judges are moved. Moved to offer Bing a thirty minute slot, twice a week, to vent his passion for the masses. And for a moment, you think Bing might defy them and slit his own throat. But not in this dystopia. In the next scene, life goes on just as before, but with the pedalling drones now glued to Bing, still holding the shard to his throat – itself now available as a fashion accessory for your dopple. As the story closes, we see Bing, still alone but in a bigger apartment, staring out at what appears to be a beautiful, forested vista of the real world. It cuts to the credits, but I’m guessing that vista was just as artificial as the ones everywhere else in this nightmarish future.

George Orwell, speaking of his defining dystopia 1984, said that it was a warning of what could happen if people weren’t vigilant. Brooker’s vision is similar, but he’s assuming people stopped being vigilant a long time ago. Orwell’s Winston Smith, in the novel’s chilling ending, has come to love Big Brother (also the title of a reality show, funnily enough), but this is after months of torture and brainwashing. Bing gives away his ideals far more cheaply, and voluntarily – if anything, it’s an even more horrifying ending. And given how much resemblance his impassioned speech bore to one of Brooker’s trademark rants, perhaps an acknowledgment that even the writer himself isn’t sure if he would do any better in the circumstances. Like last week, there was a lot of food for thought here, and like last week, no easy answers. One to think of, next time you vote for The X Factor, watch some porn, buy Farmville tokens or allow your iPhone to use your current location.

Reality used to be a friend of mine

So, Autumn is upon us again, and with it, the glut of mass-market, cunningly edited ‘talent’ shows to fill the TV schedules, the front of every tabloid newspaper, and, every five minutes of each show’s duration, the status updates of what seems like half of Facebook.

For me, these ultra-staged ‘reality’ shows drive me up the wall. They all seem to blur into one hideous, homologised entity of tripe with a title like Strictly Dine On Ice with a Celebrity Apprentice Chef. And yet, as my boyfriend pointed out, I find myself talking about them even more than their fans. What can be the reason? My dislike of the format is probably an overreaction, and yet I can’t stay away from it. The most apt comparison would be to say that they’re like a scab I can’t stop picking.

The growth of ‘reality’ television (I use inverted commas because these shows are transparently the most faked slices of reality you’re ever likely to see) has been an insidious one over the last ten years or so, starting with Popstars and the original Big Brother. But there’s nothing new under the sun, and the irony is that most of the big shows are actually updates of ancient formats that at the time were considered massively uncool.

Strictly Come Dancing is nothing more or less than creaky old ballroom dance show Come Dancing, which the embarrassed BBC used to bury in the schedules at the dead of night while allowing an apparently tipsy Terry Wogan to gently mock the stiff contestants. What the new show does differently is bring a media-savvy propagandist’s method of presentation, all cleverly edited artificial tension and emotional manipulation. Oh, and pander to the increasingly daft cult of ‘celebrity’ by interspersing their actual dancers with the sort of Z-listers that would struggle to find a place in Heat magazine.

In taking these old formats, the shows have cross-pollinated with each other, learning from and adapting each other’s methods to try and retain the mental stranglehold on Britain’s otherwise mostly sane populace. Undoubted master of all the techniques from these last ten years of brainwashing is The X Factor, a so-called ‘talent’ show that is basically a version of the ancient Opportunity Knocks polished up by Josef Goebbels – here incarnated as the massively smug and punchable Simon Cowell.

Well might Cowell be smug though – he’s working one of the best con tricks since Barnum. He’s feeding the viewing masses rubbish, and not only are they begging him for more, they’re prepared to pay him for it. So he lines his pockets, allows his ‘discoveries’ a brief, Icarus-like shot at fame with the strategically placed Christmas release of a bland, anodyne single, then rubs his hands all the way to the bank while they shuffle off to a baffled obscurity.

“But, but,” say Cowell’s blinkered defenders, “The X Factor’s all about discovering new talent. Some of the contestants are really good musicians/have really good voices.” The tragedy is that some of them really do. But what Cowell’s trying to do is make the most money possible, and where music is concerned that means smoothing out any trace of individuality so that your product will appeal to the greatest number possible. The songs we end up with are so overproduced and bland that they serve as the musical equivalent of the Ford Mondeo.

And they can’t even be bothered to come up with original songs. The usual material available for cover is mass-produced pop that was trite enough to begin with – hardly an opportunity to display any talent the ‘star’ may have. Even when they use a song that does have some character of its won, they immediately use pitch-shifting, audio filtration, and a sub-Phil Spector production style to bludgeon it into mass-market conformity. Witness Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Hallelujah’. Burke genuinely does have a good voice, and the song’s an undoubted classic – albeit covered many, many times already. But her version ends up as the one that displays less genuine emotion than a sociopathic Vulcan. It may have been popular, but then so was ‘The Birdy Song’, and I’d like to think ‘Hallelujah’ has a bit more dignity than that. Elsewhere, Leona Lewis took Snow Patrol’s raw, fragile ‘Run’ and turned it into an overproduced dirge that presumably caused Gary Lightbody to take the money and run.

But The X Factor isn’t about music. It isn’t about talent. It’s about money. And the way to maximise the revenue is to shamelessly manipulate the show’s audience with the breathtaking propaganda skills of a latterday Leni Riefenstahl. Anyone who thinks success or progression within the show’s competition format has anything to do with actual talent is being startlingly naïve. The pre formulated drama of the show demands certain archetypes, and if you don’t fit into one of the pigeonholes then, talent or not, you’re out mush.

By now, many contestants seem to have learned to exploit the show’s need for caricatured archetypes. Hence the most successful at winning the audience’s sympathy, and those all-important £1 a minute phone votes, are the ones who have a dead, or dying dad/gran/dog etc. “If only he/she/it could have been here to see me,” they tearfully moan as the viewing public collectively goes “Aaah”, seemingly unaware that it’s just been had.

The X Factor though, like all these shows, is not reality. It’s actually drama that, because its characters are the unpaid members of the British public, is very cheap to produce – a godsend for an increasingly desperate and cash-starved ITV. And drama can’t function with just a hero, you need a villain too. Ever since Nick Bateman propelled himself, unwittingly or not, into this role in the original Big Brother, reality show producers have realised that they need a baddie. For every show, every year, someone is cleverly manipulated into being the one the viewers love to hate.

If the ‘villain’ is one of the contestants, the irony is that, while they won’t win, they’ll often end up better remembered – Bateman being an obvious example. But it’s more usually one of the judges, a lesson learned from Nigel Lythgoe’s unforgettably spiteful turn on Popstars and honed to sneering perfection by Cowell.

Elsewhere, we have The Apprentice – a concept that, as far as I know, isn’t derived from a creaky, ancient relic of an uncool show. But this too learns from the historical lessons of Big Brother, turning its everyday business drones into gladiatorial competitors hoping to score a ‘proper job’ as some kind of yuppie wanker. And Alan Sugar, originator of the crummy Amstrad brand, is hardly a substitute for megalomaniac tycoon Donald Trump – Sugar doesn’t have a giant skyscraper named after him that tourists come to gawp at. It’s all rather low-rent and British.

The rebirth of the humble cookery show as polished imbecile contest took place even earlier. Loyd Grossman’s 80s drivel Masterchef has been given the same slick polish as the other shows, but remains basically a way to turn food porn into cheap drama. And allows the viewing masses to bay for the blood of yet more Z list celebrities to boot. Along the way, Gordon Ramsay – who really should have been a football manager – has managed to become the food porn shows’ equivalent of Simon Cowell, though his ceaseless swearing at least makes him seem somewhat more human than Cowell’s withering, dead-eyed scorn.

Since the advent of Big Brother in 1999 and Popstars in 2001, the reality show has come to dominate British television while simultaneously reducing it to its cheapest, lowest common denominator. It’s Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame reduced to two seconds. It’s Christians fighting lions in the arena for a bloodthirsty public that distracts them from thinking about anything worthwhile. And more than anything, it’s dishonest. It’s not about ‘reality’. It’s not about ‘talent’. It’s a combination of money making exercise and latter day freak show. How many of the liberal viewers watching it ‘ironically’ would think it was acceptable if it was Siamese twins or bearded ladies put up on their screens to have fun poked at them?

From America, where the reality shows are becoming more insane and surreal by the day, I think the late Bill Hicks encapsulates the phenomenon and my feelings about it best:

“Go back to bed America, your government is in control. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom. Here you go America – you are free to do what well tell you!”

Rant over. For now…