Watching anything a decade after its release changes the context of a show, but there’s something about the way “Dead Set” plays now that’s understandably different than in 2008. The five-part series, following a group of contestants and crew trying to survive after a zombie outbreak spreads through the set of “Big Brother,” aped the megahit reality show’s set and production style before tearing it and the rest of civilization asunder. It’s partly genre exercise, partly a public wrestling with a changing TV landscape.
But in the intervening years, it’s also become an interesting case study in the evolution of its writer/creator Charlie Brooker, who would go on to be a creative force behind “Black Mirror.” Brooker had an established career before and after “Dead Set” took on Halloween nearly ten years ago. But as a bridge to what would come in the four seasons of “Black Mirror” on Channel 4 and Netflix, it’s an indicative example of the approach and attitude that would make that later work even more chilling than watching society crumble on live TV. Whether you’re exhausted all remaining episodes of “Black Mirror” or are looking for a more familiar, accessible entry point into the spirit of the show, “Dead Set” is worth adding to your Netflix queue.
Aside from the shadow of TV that looms over all the genre proceedings, “Dead Set” is something of an analog precursor to the digital-themed entertainment that would come later in Brooker’s career. In many ways, it’s the lack of advanced resources for the team that keeps them immobile and unable to fight their way out and beyond. As the world outside gets reduced to its most elemental, the survivors inside and out of the Big Brother house are reduced to hatchets and improvised spears to fend off any undead stragglers lurking around their workplace.
But for as much deserved attention as the perils of technology get as the lifeblood of “Black Mirror,” “Dead Set” shows that there might be a stronger theme running through this and the rest of Brooker’s work. In both series, when faced with the possibility (and inevitability, really) of catastrophe, all of his central characters face the consequences of split decisions. Whether it’s the approaching hoards of mindless flesh-eating monsters or the final choice to submit to an all-powerful digital service, Brooker’s specialty is writing a very particular kind of “fight or flight” drama. The circumstances surrounding “Dead Set” (armies of bloodthirsty rage monsters) may accelerate that process a little, but there’s still something primal about the way that Kelly, Space and the rest try to stay alive that feels right in line with the urgency of the later terrors in something like “Playtest.”
Crafting characters and scenarios that prey upon characters’ instincts make it impossible not to mine meaningful drama from vulnerability. Brooker’s worlds are often bleak, but they feel earned if the foundational impulses that drive these characters are true to what we know of them. So in “Dead Set,” when a pig-headed TV exec slowly reveals extra layers of ruthlessness which threaten fellow occupants of the compound, what comes across as initially outsized and garish follows through to its logical conclusion. When any number of murderous “Black Mirror” characters decide that, in the grand equation of their lives, it’s worth it to take the life of someone else to preserve their own, it’s not always just a dread-inducing move. Brooker’s characters are always forced to offer up a sacrifice; whether or not that narrative choice succeeds is up to how well it fits into the story’s pre-established framework.
Part of that success is how earned it feels to watch characters confronted with the consequences of their own actions. Like in the starkest “Black Mirror” installments, where spectacular horrors unfold right in front of the people who helped bring them about, “Dead Set” spares no one. It’s not enough that a character has to live with the guilt of slamming the door on someone in the middle of an escape. They have to watch that person get munched on slowly while watching behind a barrier of safety. It’s dread-inducing, but also illuminating when it comes to the way that catastrophe can magnify weaknesses and amplify simple feats of daring.
There’s also the strength of a well-cast ensemble. As the boyfriend of the key Big Brother crew member left alive, Riz Ahmed shows hints of what would eventually propel him to stardom, similar to what Daniel Kaluuya brought to the TV-centric “Fifteen Million Merits.” Actual “Big Brother” contestants made cameos in “Dead Set,” but the fictional pool of housemates make for as much as lived-in feel as possible amidst the growing chaos outside the studio walls.
As much as this shares spiritual DNA with later “Black Mirror” standouts, it’s also interesting to watch “Dead Set” and see the seams of a series that could easily have played as a standalone, feature-length episode. Even with a five-episode arc, there are some side characters who feel less like integral parts of the story and more of a means to reuniting. If “Black Mirror” is the polished, acclaimed studio album, “Dead Set” is the grungier, exposed live show whose imperfections are a feature, not a bug. (Just look at all the blood splatter on the camera!)
Even as some of the ancillary elements of “Dead Set” seem like shaggy add-ons, there’s a certain kind of glee that Brooker takes in diverging from a neat and tidy wrap-up. Certain zombie weaknesses and one character’s romantic misadventure both linger in the background as the story goes on, but the way that those elements are resolved at the series’ close feels like a tiny act of defiance on top of an already-daring TV send-up.
And, as so often happens on “Black Mirror,” there’s nothing like a crisis to bring out some amateur philosophizing. (In the final “Dead Set” episode, when one character wonders aloud if the zombie plague is God’s punishment, it’s hard not to hear a faint echo of David Mitchell asking “…Are we the baddies?”) Still, even before “The Walking Dead” baked it into its foundation, the idea of having central TV human characters be just as monstrous as the unthinking masses trying to break through the gates feels like an ideal vehicle for much of what Brooker is still exploring years after.
The latest season of “Black Mirror” largely does away with the mid-credits scenes from past seasons, but if you’re looking for the kind of knife-twisting parting stab that peppered episodes like “The Waldo Moment” or “White Bear,” there’s a fitting companion here in “Dead Set.” Like the work that would come later for Brooker and Co., any power that it has comes from the sheer inevitability of it all. Maybe it drives the analogy home too hard, but if you’re going to go for the literal throats of the characters at the center of the story, that might be the only way to do it.
“Dead Set” is streaming now on Netflix. “Black Mirror” Season 4 premieres Friday, December 29.