Charlie Brooker knows, and even loves, what technology has to offer but this does not mean that he cannot also see its negative consequences. The second of the Black Mirror dramas on Channel 4, 15 Million Merits, shows the point at which brash TV ‘entertainment’, faddish gadgets and addictive video games cease to be harmless distractions and start to corrode the soul.

The second in the series of three dramas was written in collaboration with Brooker’s wife Konnie Huq who has insider knowledge of television as an ex-presenter of BBC’s never-ending kids show Blue Peter and ITV2’s The Xtra Factor (which showed behind the scenes footage of X-Factor contestants).

The question posed in the show’s trailer is “How low would you go to rise to the top?” and it revolves around a talent show called Hot Shot.  On a superficial level, this is a simple piss-take of X-Factor with Rupert Everett as Hope revelling in the Simon Cowell role. But it goes further than straight satire by exploring the morally bankrupt nature of such shows and the effect this has on the lives of ordinary people.

You can assume that it is set in the future but it is not so far removed from our present day reality where news is routinely presented as entertainment and entertainment as news.  I watched the programme on Channel 4’s On Demand internet channel and the ads in the commercial breaks could easily have been lifted directly from the drama. Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure promotes a video game that allows you to escape into a virtual world while Foot Locker sells the idea that a pair of sports shoes will transform you into a superhero.

Society in 15 Million Merits is presented as a kind of hi-tech upgrade to George Orwell’s Oceania and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where the ‘proles’ spend their days in drab, grey track suits on exercise bikes to earn ‘merits’ while also generating electricity. Their homes are cells in which they are force-fed an endless diet of porn channels, video games and makeover shows which they cannot opt out of. If you cover your eyes or try to blank out the images, a repetitive spoken and written message warns the subject to ‘resume viewing‘.

Overloading the senses in this manner is a form of torture that works as efficiently as any sensory deprivation technique.

This deadening existence drives Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) to buy Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay) a golden ticket (cost: 15 million merits) to appear on Hot Shot partly because he fancies her and partly because, as he puts it, “I just want something real to happen”.

Abi sings a cover of Irma Thomas’s  Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) which conveys emotions of love and devotion that are conspicuous by their absence in the Hot Shot universe. The song moves the audience but panel member Wraith (Ashley Thomas), sees her beauty and innocence as qualities that can be put to more profitable use on his porn channel (Wraith Babes). The other two panel members concur on the basis that singers have already reached “saturation point”.

The way Abi has been exploited provokes Bing to seek his revenge. This  culminates in the centrepiece of the drama in which he delivers a kind of 21st century update of  Howard Beale’s speech in the 1976 movie Network in which a suicidal TV news presenter declared : ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’           .

Bing curses the “fake fodder” citizens are forced to consume (“we buy shit that’s not even there”) and rails against a system that consists of processing not feeling – “fuck you for happening”, he snarls at the Hot Shot panel.

As in Network,  he threatens to commit suicide live on TV and I half wanted him to make this as the ultimate gesture of defiance. But the sting in the tale is to present an even worse scenario. Bing is praised by the panel for his passion and becomes a TV presenter, paid to deliver similar rants to order. .

The cynical (but unfortunately accurate) message we can take away from this is that rage alone does not change corrupt systems but can actually make them run more smoothly by giving the illusion that freedom of speech exists.

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