Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe USA

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 by

It’s amazing how a little bit of adversity can bring out the best in some people. Only a short while ago, largely thanks to his internet-based TV listings spoof TV Go Home, Charlie Brooker was the subject of widespread media attention and tipped for great things. Things have moved on since then; there are other newer talents for the industry to fawn over, and Brooker – his reputation tied to five-years-out-of-date “cutting edge” technology and a string of television shows that were full of good ideas badly resolved – has been shunted into the sidelines.

Fortunately, the “sidelines” in this instance are represented by BBC4, where it is still just about possible to get away with resolving your own good ideas without the pressure of hype or the need to appeal to some imaginary trendy audience. Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe sees the titular presenter – whose career as a television critic predates his involvement with comedy – take that time-honoured “caustic” look at the small screen. It’s a format that has been tried many times before and often to no great effect, but Brooker – doubtlessly fuelled by his own bitter programme-making experiences – has aimed towards something more substantial than just laughing at hairstyles in archive clips.

Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe started out with a short pilot run earlier in the year, which was watchable but somewhat confused. In particular, it contained too many concessions to the sneering clip show mentality it should have been dismissing, and wasted too much time on “ironic” choices from fellow media types’ video collections. Thankfully this seems to have been treated exactly as a pilot run should be, and between that and the more recent five-week series many of the earlier problems have clearly been addressed and largely ironed out.

The reinvented Screen Wipe has proved to be an entertaining look beneath the surface of the television industry, exposing hypocrisy and stupidity while celebrating the worthwhile and rubbishing the – well – rubbish, acting as a more cerebral counterpart to the fantastic Harry Hill’s TV Burp. Its one weak spot is that it seems to skirt around some obvious and deserving targets and lacks the confidence to really go to town on them (including some that Harry Hill seems to have no hesitation in savaging), but maybe that’s down to the incestuous nature of the modern day broadcast industry, where everybody owns shares in everybody else and even minor boat-rocking can have career-threatening ramifications.

This was less of an issue with Screen Wipe USA, a double-length special that concluded the series, and it showed. Examining the relationship between American and British television, and in particular the culture of imports and remakes, it had positive words and harsh facts to relate about both parties. Where certain other critics have recently been making absolute idiots of themselves in their rush to proclaim American television superior to its laughable homegrown counterpart – and Brooker’s own columns in The Guardian have not been immune to this in the past – Screen Wipe USA suggested that both models have their strengths and weaknesses and to judge either solely by their best or worst excesses is pointless.

To illustrate this, two wildly contrasting American shows were examined in some detail – The Wire, a crime drama played out with a subtlety and complexity that was apparent even from the short extracts that were shown, and To Catch a Predator, a prurient and morally dubious reality show that aimed to trap adults “grooming” children in online chatrooms and showed the results of their operations in lurid detail. Elsewhere, a group of Stateside viewers were shown extracts from a number of popular British shows including Bullseye, The Bill and Rail Cops and asked for their opinions, which proved to be rather revealing. While they were impressed by the superior acting and lack of glamour displayed by the residents of Albert Square, they also considered Bill Oddie’s family friendly and sports commentator-like enthusiasm over live wildlife coverage to be “patronizing”, scoffed at the idea of a game show where the contestant’s skills are considered more important than flashy computer graphics and financial acquisition, and implied that the tameness of fly-on-the-wall shows about the British police when compared to their own diet of car chases and shootouts caught on security camera indicated a lack of entertainment value rather than, perhaps, an important sociocultural difference.

The unspoken implication of this is that in trying to gauge what might appeal to UK audiences, the US isn’t really the best place to look.

Meanwhile, veteran American comic Lewis Black ruminated on the relationship between broadcaster and audience and told a belief-beggaring story about being forced to audition to be himself in a TV show (and ultimately turned down in favour of someone else), while a television executive praised his British counterparts for their willingness to experiment with comedy formats, wearily recounting how the likes of Cheers and Seinfeld were rarities that had somehow survived unscathed in their torturous journey through production meetings. Brooker himself made the most salient point of the entire programme, pointing out that oddities like The Twilight Zone, Manimal and R Kelly’s insane music video/soap opera crossover Trapped in the Closet may have been bizarre but were not to be sneered at, as they were at least byproducts of an industry that was prepared to take a risk on off-the-wall formats rather than playing it safe and commissioning endless direct clones of Holby City.

Screen Wipe itself is a tried and trusted format, of course, but unlike numerous other floundering attempts at wringing comedy out of television, it benefits from having a presenter who finds humour in the medium itself rather than simply being hired to be funny about it. Brilliantly, the show opened with a pastiche of the opening titles of Entertainment USA, a show Brooker was keen to stress that regardless of the latterday notoriety of its presenter was actually quite good, and a reference point that – much like his likening of Glyn from Big Brother to “The Boy from Space” a couple of weeks earlier – will have been lost on a good deal of the audience, while delighting those that did get it.

Elsewhere came an explanation of the fact that it costs a good deal of money to show the copyrighted “Hollywood” sign (although calling the copyright owners “a bunch of money-grabbing bastards” costs nothing), a “pointless montage to show we’re in America”, and the suggestion that Belgian television involves little more than a man in a penguin suit wandering around in circles in a suburban living room.

The one real problem with Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe USA was that it didn’t draw any conclusions from its findings, which while not mandatory for a programme without a defined agenda, left it without a strong point to end on. Although maybe that’s something that can be worked on between series…


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