Sunday, January 04, 2009

Dawn of the Dumb

In the spirit of the preceding post, let's start keeping track of my cultural intake for 2009.

And we're... not off to a particularly spectacular start, actually, but I suppose we might as well be comprehensive. Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb is a collection of columns he wrote for the Guardian in 2005 to 2007 - both his "Screen Burn" TV reviews and some of the op-ed stuff for the G2 supplement.

Look, it was in a 3-for-2 offer at Waterstones and I needed a third book, okay?

Brooker is currently responsible for the largely excellent BBC4 series Screenwipe (which started off loosely based on his Guardian work but has deviated into something more thoughtful). He also wrote the well-received zombies-meet-Big-Brother show Dead Set for E4 (which, as it happens, gets its Channel 4 airing this week).

Most of this, however, is from before that - in the days when his persona was largely based on his TVGoHome website and a central theme of misanthropic rage. Sometimes this works; he's got a great ear for a phrase, and his wholly disproportionate reaction to everyday irritants hits the mark from time to time. But it works best in small weekly doses, and reading it as a book tends to expose his limitations. In 2005 you could make a strong case that he was a one trick pony - and a lot of these pieces suffer from weak endings.

Brooker was clearly aware of this, because around the start of 2006, there's a clear effort to start writing more positive reviews and channel his absurdism in other directions - as well as some more moderate think pieces that seem to come closer to what he really thinks without the heavy veil of irony. It's a huge improvement.

Still, there's nothing here to equal the best Screenwipe segments: Brooker is at his best when there's a real point behind the flailing, when he actually reviews stuff instead of using it as a subject for his schtick, and his polemics feel like he might really mean them. Today, he usually gets the balance right. Not so much in the pieces collected here - some of the early op-eds are precisely the sort of "Isn't X rubbish?" thing he now occasionally parodies as bad observational comedy on Screenwipe.

There are exceptions, though, such as his spot-on evisceration of Banksy, or an apparently sincere tribute to the joys of harmless obscure satellite channel Solent TV. And even when Brooker is just ranting for the sake of it, he's often worth reading, just because his viciousness is so inventively worded.

But... yeah, a lot of this stuff really belongs as a weekly column in a newspaper, and putting it together in a book tends to accentuate its weaknesses.