In 2008, years before Charlier Brooker would find breakthrough international success for writing Black Mirror, the early DNA of that show got a chance to shine.
Dead Set is a BBC miniseries that presents itself just like an episode of the popular panopticon reality show Big Brother until things go horribly wrong. A zombie apocalypse overcomes the entirety of England, including the crowds waiting outside of the Big Brother house. Unfortunately, no one tells the contestants inside the locked-down set, so they continue bickering and begging for love into the cameras, unaware that the world outside has ended.
It’s a scathingly satirical take on the connection between reality and “reality,” which uses the real world location for Big Brother and its distribution network for unspeakably hilarious results. A host of real world cast members from the show’s sixth through eighth series lend a legitimacy to the presentation, and the house itself was built in a converted military facility, giving it the protection it needs to be a genuine best hope of survival location.
As Brooker says on the subject of selecting zombies to tell the story:
“Real serial killers are so mental they can scarcely tie their own shoelaces. So bollocks to the screen version. And don’t even think about mentioning vampires, with their gothic pretension and crappy teeth. They’re annoying, not scary. Fuck vampires. But zombies — now there’s a threat I can relate to. Zombies are the misanthrope’s monster of choice. They represent fear and disgust of our fellow man. The anonymous animal masses. The dumb, shuffling crowd. Them — the public. They’re awesomely stupid. They have an IQ of one. Proper zombies can’t operate a door handle or climb a ladder. Toss one a Rubik’s Cube and it’ll bounce off his thick, moaning head. All they do is walk around aimlessly, pausing occasionally to eat survivors. The idea for the show came about one night in 2004 while I was watching 24. Jack Bauer was performing a tracheotomy on a terrorist with a splintered peg or something, and another terrorist came running through the door. ‘I’m enjoying this,’ I thought, ‘but these terrorists are just ridiculous. They’re like waves of Space Invaders. They might as well be zombies.’”
Adding to the layers of meta-commentary, the story also follows a group of awful reality show producers who previously loved putting people in horrible situations, and their PA’s who are just trying to get by. By the time the producers seek shelter within the walls of the still broadcasting Big Brother house, they realize, with overwhelming horror, that the collection of attention whores they’ve assembled and tortured in this oversaturated suburban nightmare are probably the worst people you could ever try to solve a problem alongside.
The show rewards repeated viewings, as the multi-layered structure has too many twists and turns to grasp the first time through. By the time you realize that each death and terrible trapped moment mirrors the story of an actual Big Brother episode, where instead of getting kicked out of the house your eyes are removed from your skull, you’ll be sold for life. The show also breaks new ground for what the BBC considered acceptable from a violence perspective. So, if the smashing-in of a head in Episode 1 turns you off, that’s a sign you should bail before it gets infinitely worse.
Dead Set has everything you’ve come to expect from Black Mirror, just told over the length of a full season of the latter, which suits Brooker. The hilarious cast has time to develop into well constructed channels of contrarian thought, and it also knows how to do that Black Mirror thing that breaks your heart but keeps you coming back for more. This is all to say that if you can’t wait for more of the new stuff, take this weekend to dive back into Brooker’s old stuff. It’s even better.
The entire Dead Set series can be viewed on YouTube in this playlist. You can also purchase the entire miniseries through Amazon.