Saturday, February 2, 2019

Review: Dead Set (2008)

Dead Set (2008)

Network: E4
1 season, 5 episodes

Score: 4 out of 5

I haven't reviewed a TV show in a long while. The only one I can even think of, in fact, was the first season of American Horror Story, retroactively subtitled Murder House. At least part of this is because of the episodic nature of the medium; TV shows, especially in the modern age of streaming, binge-watching, and serialization, are usually long-running stories in which each episode is part of something greater than itself, merely a piece of a larger mosaic. Reviewing a TV show is quite different from reviewing a feature film. Looking back, I'd say there's a reason why Murder House is the only TV show I've ever reviewed, and that's because each season of American Horror Story is built as a standalone miniseries, with only the most recent seasons establishing crossovers and a greater shared mythology between them. You have a clear start and finish, in other words.

Which means that miniseries are right up my alley. And Dead Set is a great one. Created by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones three years before the debut of their breakout hit Black Mirror, back when Brooker was a cultural commentator and comedian largely unknown outside the UK and Jones was a producer and consultant on his satirical documentary show Screenwipe, Dead Set combines two of the biggest phenomena of mid-late 2000s pop culture: reality TV, and zombies. It is a story about a 28 Days Later-style zombie apocalypse breaking out in Britain and reaching the set of the reality show Big Brother, where the housemates, the production staff, and hundreds of fans were all getting ready for the latest eviction night before the infection reached them. With its five episodes coming together at just over two hours, Dead Set is practically a feature film split up for viewing on multiple nights, and what a film it is. Mixing a tense zombie survival story, brutal violence, and cutting satire of the cultural swamp that is reality television, all from a biting-the-hand perspective that employed the real-life house and host of the British version of Big Brother, Dead Set manages the tricky balancing act of being smart and humorous without sacrificing its grit. It feels like watching Black Mirror in embryo, lacking the tech-focused science fiction elements but hitting on similar themes concerning our relationship with the media we consume, all while serving up a cast of great characters that I soon learned to love to hate. In the pantheon of great modern zombie stories, Dead Set is often overlooked and overshadowed by its creators' later work, but it stands as an unsung classic.

The story gets rolling quickly, the zombie outbreak reaching the Big Brother house only halfway into the first episode. Only a small handful of survivors remain: the executive producer Patrick, the production assistant Kelly, the freshly evicted contestant Pippa, and the housemates, who were safely locked inside their reality show domicile and only figured out that something was wrong when Kelly, covered in blood, entered the house seeking refuge -- and even then, they mistook her for a new housemate at first, specifically a mental patient that the producers likely added to juice the ratings, until the zombie she was fleeing from followed behind her. Meanwhile, Kelly's boyfriend Riq is trying to reach the Big Brother house and reunite with her, teaming up with a hardened, Jeep-driving, rifle-wielding survivor named Alex along the way.

Right away, it becomes clear that the very things that made the cast of Big Brother so well-suited to reality TV are going to destroy them in a survival situation. The housemates include the flamboyantly gay Grayson, the aggressive macho men Marky and Space, the bikini model Veronica, the Scottish airhead Pippa, the sassy black woman Angel, and the dweeb Joplin, all of them selected and manipulated to cause maximum drama between each other. Once the action starts, however, they show themselves to be more than just the stereotypes they were cast as. Grayson, for instance, may be a campy male nurse who walks around in women's underwear, but being a nurse does mean that he has medical training that comes in handy, while the respective relationships between Space and Pippa on one hand and Marky and Veronica on the other are shown to be more than just played up for the cameras. When Marky, in the process of searching a nearby store for supplies, finds a stack of tabloids bashing him and saying that his love for Veronica is fake, he is genuinely hurt by it, and without spoiling anything, the ending hinges on a heartbreaking moment between Space and Pippa. That said, they were still cast to fight with one another, and as the apocalypse progresses, their secrets and arguments wind up fracturing the group in key ways, especially once the producer Patrick gets involved. Patrick is almost cartoonishly loathsome, shown during the first episode using a man in a wheelchair as zombie bait and, before then, acting more concerned about his show being preempted for the news than about what those emergency news bulletins contain. Andy Nyman does a great job turning Patrick into a human monster on a level with Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead, a self-centered bastard who's only in the television business for personal gain, and once the shit hits the fan he couldn't give a damn about anyone else. Given his lack of tolerance for bullshit, watching him getting stuck with the comically stupid Pippa for about half the show made for some of its funniest moments. The show isn't quite as sharp or incisive in its satire as Black Mirror or UnREAL would later be, but the juxtaposition of the "humans are the real monsters" themes of so much post-apocalyptic fiction with the personalities, egos, and drama that reality TV is designed to produce works remarkably well at both satirizing the TV show at its center and selling its story.

And on that note, this show also brings the pain when it comes to the horror. Director Yann Demange rests a bit too much on shaky-cam for the zombie mayhem, his hand behind the camera feeling a bit less sure than it would be with '71, but something tells me that this was in part due to the fact that the show was made for network television (British television, which has looser restrictions than the FCC, but still) and couldn't show as much without running afoul of regulators. Because they show just about as much as they can here, including multiple headshots, dismemberments, a head getting caved in with a fire extinguisher, a throat getting torn out, and a graphic, Day of the Dead-homaging disembowelment, all delivered by fast zombies straight out of 28 Days Later. Jaime Winstone takes after her father Ray quite well as the female lead Kelly, the outsider among the housemates and the only one who seems to be taking things seriously at first, doing a large share of the zombie ass-kicking. All told, even if you dropped all the satire of reality television, this miniseries would still work remarkably well as a straightforward zombie horror story. In fact, there exists a fan-made recut, called Dead Set: Serious, that does precisely that, cutting out the more humorous and satirical bits and reincorporating many of the deleted scenes in order to turn it into a pure, straightforward horror movie, in a manner not unlike Dario Argento's European cut of Dawn of the Dead; the result is surprisingly good.

If I had one real complaint about the series, it's that, for long stretches, the segments with Riq and Alex often feel extraneous to the central plot in the Big Brother house. Riz Ahmed and Liz May Brice both do great work, and on their own, their scenes are some of the best on the show, especially one where Riq is traveling by boat up a creek through a dreary, bleak, and very British post-apocalyptic countryside. And I will admit, a scene of Riq watching the Big Brother feed on TV and becoming ecstatic to see that Kelly is still alive, ignoring Alex's complaints about how he's wasting his time, was brilliant -- and felt like a fun jab at the "frivolous" things in our culture that we'd suddenly take for granted when they're gone (like reality TV). However, the shifts between their story and that of Kelly, Patrick, and the housemates can be jarring at times, the two plots only really coming together late in the series. Overall, it felt like the show was padding itself to bring up the runtime for five episodes, especially since a potentially interesting plot thread from the first episode, concerning Kelly possibly having an affair with one of her co-workers (which might've caused friction between her and Riq later on), never comes up again. Even so, a high-quality piece that doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the puzzle is still pretty good on its own.

The Bottom Line

Charlie Brooker got off to a running start with this show, feeling like Black Mirror in embryo combined with a 2000s zombie movie. If you enjoy either of the aforementioned, you'll probably love this, whether you love reality TV or think everybody who watches it is no different from the walking dead.

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