I wanted to know if 2016 was the worst year ever, so I binge-watched the last seven years.
Regardless of how bad this year has seemed—and it's seemed pretty bad—2016 still hasn't been the worst year ever. Compared to the giant-scale tragedies of a year like 1918, in which World War I mingled with an unprecedented flu pandemic, wiping out tens of millions, this year has been a comparative trip to Disneyland on a day when they ran out of frozen bananas. But 2016 has still sucked, dominated by a depressing rejection of cosmopolitanism in the UK, the ongoing refugee crisis fueled by civil war in Syria, and an inescapable presidential election here in the US that dragged the whole world through the sewer (and has, arguably, left it there). Plus, we've seen a rash of unusually high-profile celebrity deaths and the worst mass shooting in US history.
So, yes, it does feel like it's at least been the worst year in recent memory. Still, that's just a feeling. I decided to gauge the veracity of that feeling the only way I know how: by going back and watching every episode of Charlie Brooker's yearly Screenwipe series.
Brooker is a British comedian and TV show host who moonlights as Nostradamus. In 2011, he created Black Mirror, a speculative fiction anthology series, usually summed up as "The Twilight Zone with iPhones," only insanely prescient. But the Wipe series is more of a traditional guy-talking-at-a-desk show in which the year's events are dissected over the course of a profane hourlong TV special by Brooker himself, along with two fictional average couch potatoes named Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan), and Barry Shitpeas (Al Campbell).
If 2016 really was worse than all other recent years, I was about to find out.
Screenwipe Review of the Year 2009
9:05: The first thing that really resonates with me is Kanye West's "Imma let you finish" performance art thing, where he interrupted Taylor Swift's VMA acceptance speech. It's a reminder that, here in 2016, West is being treated for what appears to be a serious mental health crisis, and maybe this kind of behavior was never as funny as we thought it was.
15:10: Michael Jackson dies. I remember 2009 being a big celebrity death year. There was even a South Park episode about it. But apart from Michael Jackson, the losses were mostly less shocking than the ones in 2016. Sure, it's sad to see Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, and Ed McMahon go, but they aren't exactly David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, George Michael, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Sharon Jones, and Leonard Cohen, are they?
A couple things from 2009 are hauntingly resonant. With all the fuss about Brexit and UKIP for the past couple years, I forgot all about Nick Griffin from the UK's British National Party. He defends David Duke (24:57), saying, "I shared a platform with David Duke, who was once a leader of a Klu Klux Klan, always a totally nonviolent one, incidentally." Also, there's this moment where Brooker calls a dumb news show in the UK called Live from Studio 5, "a horrifying vision of our inevitable idiotic future." Hmmm.
8:30: Wow, in 2010 Tiger Woods sure takes a lot of flak for cheating on his wife with a ton of women. I wonder if he ever grabbed any of them by the pussy.
23:15: There's a UK election in 2010. During a debate, a live approval meter shows that the British people absolutely love when David Cameron says the rate of immigration is too high. Would you look at that? It seems like the UK's had some feelings about immigration for a while now.
10:37: Oh, speaking of relevant moments from that election, remember Prime Minister Gordon Brown's hot-mic moment? What happens is, he's on a campaign whistle stop, and when he walks away from talking to an old woman who doesn't care for immigration, Brown calls her "bigoted," but the press hears it all on a hot mic! And then they go and tell her all about it, and she's very offended. The gaffe basically ends Brown's political career.
42:30: One of the bleakest stories in history happened in 2010: The lady who got caught on tape putting a cat in a lidded trash can for literally no reason. "Our world was left revolving in the cold, dark universe knowing only two things: 1) There are some cruelties that can never be adequately explained, and 2) that we are all alone. Not as alone as a cat in a bin, but alone," Brooker broods.
There are certainly metrics, like a body count for instance, or the scale of a seismic political shift, that historians could point to when trying to measure how bad a year was. But a bleak story that hangs around, even if the bleakness is small in scale, can also add to the public's misery.
Brooker kicks this episode off by dryly referring to 2011 as "possibly the least eventful year in human history."
The year 2011 was insane! This is a year that really gives 2016 a run for its money. Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man whose death kicked off the Arab Spring, actually killed himself at the end of December in 2010, but throughout 2011, the world really felt the impact from the gesture. "In a normal year," Brooker says, "a revolution in Egypt would be the biggest story, but 2011 wasn't a normal year. More like an end-of-season finale for all of mankind."
But it's not just the Arab Spring that makes this an eventful year. As 2011 Wipe reminds me, this is the year US forces hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden, the debt crisis ravages the eurozone and tears Greece a new asshole, and the Tohoku Earthquake and its ensuing tsunami kill more than 15,000 people, causing a nuclear waste leak. Then there are riots in England following the police killing of Mark Duggan. And then there's Occupy Wall Street. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.
But is 2011 horrible?
49:30: When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is dragged into the streets by a lynch mob and tortured to death, a lot of Libyans take phone pictures. Brooker is reminded of those cultural myths about how having a photo taken will steal someone's soul. But he says in the Libyan footage, it "looks like the ones taking the photos are the ones who've had part of their soul's stolen." But looking back from 2016, it's impossible to feel any outrage about tasteless selfies anymore.
I don't think 2011 can hang with 2016, but it sure is eventful. More than that, I'm starting to feel like watching this stuff is highlighting patterns and trend lines that link together in ways I hadn't seen before. Then again, I've also been sitting still for three hours watching rapid-fire news clips and drinking coffee.
Brooker calls 2012 "a year so laden with incident, I hardly know where to begin."
9:21: Kony 2012. I remember loving Kony 2012, the viral video designed to get the internet involved in the effort to stop a Ugandan war criminal named Joseph Kony. Back then, I remember feeling like sanctimonious internet activism was the dumbest thing in the world, so I got a real rush from watching the video's creator fall apart so publicly. I mean, come on. Using oversimplifications to manipulate the raw emotions of people on the internet is never going to make a real political impact.
42:00: Apart from the London Olympics, what makes 2012 such an eventful year for Brooker, it seems, is the seemingly endless avalanche of allegations against Jimmy Savile. For Brits, Jimmy Savile is a TV personality from the days of yore who makes people feel warm and fuzzy—Bill Cosby might be a good analog. After Savile dies, a huge number of plausible accusations reveal that he was a breathtakingly prolific child molester, and generally kind of a monster, who seems to have been linked, #PizzaGate-style, to other child molesters in media, and in seats of power all over the UK.
The government at all levels gets pulled into a kind of inescapable witch hunt.
So Savile's history of being a monster dominates TV throughout late 2012. According to Brooker, "tuning into the news became like riding an endless, looping ghost train with this creepy, cadaverous monster perpetually leering toward you through the gloom, the news ticker scrolling in front of him like police incident tape." Boy, do I know how that feels, having just lived through 2016.
51:30: It's almost cute reliving the 2012 election. Brooker is mad at people like Nate Silver for saying the election will be close, and keeping him in suspense, when, actually, Obama wins easily. "Moneyball-style stats geeks had long been predicting a modest win for Obama. Despite this, come election night itself, the news wheeled out its most bombastic graphics and tried to play up the drama of a race it insisted was still too close to call," he says. LOL. Imagine a race where the person leading in the polls doesn't win!
Brooker starts by saying 2013 is "overflowing with terrorist incidents, abuse allegations, natural disasters, and high-profile deaths."
17:20: Politics in the UK are stale, but here comes a populist hero! "Guffawing Admiral Akbar-lookalike, pint magnet, and man-of-the-people impersonator Nigel Farage impressed a sizable chunk of the voting population with his non-racist, un-racist, racist-less, absolutely not racist party, UKIP, whose members, when interviewed, routinely describe themselves as not racist," says Brooker. Today, of course, Farage is a dear friend of the US president-elect.
25:00: Here's something interesting I forgot about: Charles Ramsay. Ramsay helps free the Cleveland women held captive by Ariel Castro. Then he's funny on TV. Then he goes viral. Then he turns out to kind of suck, and no one wants to see him on TV anymore. "Basically," Brooker says, "Charles Ramsay went through the trad celebrity career trajectory: fame, worship, disappointment, and then backlash in record time." Fortunately, this kind of thing never happens again.
55:00: Former South African president Nelson Mandela dies, and his death, along with Margaret Thatcher's earlier in the year, makes it a pretty big death year. I remember 2013 for the untimely departures of Paul Walker and James Gandolfini, but those don't show up in this episode.
7:55: There's a Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk segment about 12 Years a Slave, culminating in a pretty depressing monologue from Cunk: "They don't have racism in America anymore. When they voted for Obama, they sorted all of that out, y'know, drew a line under it. These days, America's changed, and black people can be whatever they want to be, as long as it's either president, or shot."
20:55: Nigel Farage's UKIP Party keeps hurting people's feelings throughout 2014. A member calls a Thai woman a "ting tong," for instance. But it turns out, saying racist stuff doesn't really do much to damage the anti-immigration party's standing in the polls. Huh.
In debates, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who was once a far-leftist outsider, fends off attacks from Farage, who is currently an outsider. Brooker characterizes Clegg as "the company man, defending the closed shop against a new wild card, man-of-the-people outsider," adding, "as soon as you're part of the system, you're not a man of the people anymore." Maybe this will be an important lesson for President Trump to learn before 2020.
27:30: After talking about ISIS, Brooker pauses a moment to note a changing tone in the discourse. A feeling of "ever-expanding madness has been unfolding all year, not just with ISIS, but with Russia and the Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Ebola, mistrust with politicians, with institutions, with the media, with cultural icons."
That monologue turns out to be the lead-in to a short documentary by Adam Curtis that absolutely stops my heart:
Oh dear, indeed.
In his intro, a lead-in to a segment about the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Brooker says, "Usually the first few weeks of January are kind of uneventful." Looking back, the observation holds up. Horrific tragedies tend not to happen right at the start of the year. (Fingers crossed on that one.)
Everything in 2015 seemed to revolve around Syria in one way or another. Brooker calls Syria "a hellish tangle involving a brutal regime, rival rebel factions, extremists, and vested national interests. It's a civil war, a proxy war, an ideological conflict, and a monumental humanitarian disaster all at the same time."
15:00: We see the first mention of Donald Trump in a Wipe special, and it's a reference to Nigel Farage, whom Brooker calls "Tiny Trump."
18:48: More remarks about polls. In the UK election last year, the Conservatives won an easy victory after polls had been making it look close. "It seems voters had been trolling the pollsters all along," Brooker said, noting "it's hard to know really how they could make opinion polls any more accurate." LOL.
46:00: Another poignant Barry Shitpeas/Philomena Cunk sketch about the photo of Alan Kurdi, that three-year-old Syrian migrant whose dead body was photographed on a beach in Turkey. The photo came along, according to Shitpeas, "just as I was really getting into hating the migrants." Cunk breaks it down. "It was like the white and gold dress. Once it's flipped to blue and black in your head, that's it. You'll never see it any other way forever. Well, until Paris happened. Then they went back to being a swarm of bastards and criminals again."
54:00: In another Shitpeas/Cunk joint, we finally see Trump's face. Shitpeas monologues: "He says all these things that aren't true, and loads of his followers don't trust the media, so they believe whatever he says. So he can basically create his own mental reality and have thousands of people blindly agree with him. Actually, saying that out loud makes him sound sorta terrifying, but luckily he's also got silly hair you can laugh at."
The whole thing ends with Brooker clicking fearfully through the channels, terrified of a Trump victory, and all the other madness from the year. He lands on a funny TV commercial, and oh, how he laughs and laughs. I do, too!
By watching all seven of these, I feel like I just binge-watched the entire last seven years through Brooker's eyes, and it was more than I bargained for. He sees the world with a kind of blacklight that illuminates the techno-social jizz stains on society's fabric. I now feel like 2016 was not only the worst year in recent memory, it was also the point at which the trend lines of the recent past converged in a very final and epoch-ending way.
And of course, 2016 Wipe will air on BBC Two on December 29. I'm much more excited about that air date, than, say, the year 2017.
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