December 31st 2009 saw the end of long running period drama, “The Noughties”. Set over ten years and featuring a cast of over six billion characters, The Noughties' scale and complexity was surpassed only by The Wire. Though The Wire was set primarily on the mean streets of Baltimore and The Noughties was set everywhere, they did share at least one big similarity: both spectacularly jumped the shark in their final incarnation. Along with the sudden and unexpected deaths of what seemed like half of its main characters, and a desperately unrealistic sub-plot in which a black man became President of the United States, 2009 primarily jumped the shark due to the overuse sheer, hysterical melodrama.
Take one of 2009’s main plot twists: the long illness and subsequent death of tragic chav goddess, Jade Goody. After a recent storyline that saw Ms Goody revealed as a thick, racist bully during her second stint on vacuous visual-vomit factory Big Brother, the writers showed absolutely no respect for their audience by turning wildly on a sixpence and proclaiming her a deeply sensitive every-woman the moment she was diagnosed with cancer. Her legendarily low IQ was soon being talked about in Zen like terms, and her pathetic amount of charity work was spoken of in hushed and hallowed voices, as though she was some kind of cross between Princess Diana and Gandhi. All of this hyperbole served to justify the ludicrous lavishing of attention on what must have been the most over-exposed death in history, with the press delving into every irrelevant detail of the irrelevant woman’s demise.
Many were critical of this, pointing out that Jade’s spectacularly public shuffling from this mortal coil seemed to be little more than a commercialisation of death itself, a macabre spectacle in which we, the viewers, were invited to peer into, speculate upon and ultimately own someone else’s final moments. Others celebrated the move, saying the storyline gave us a chance to collectively examine issues to do with grief and our own fear of mortality in a way which was genuinely empowering.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the storyline was so incredibly popular that the writers scheduled a second, American version of the plotline for later in the year. As with all things American, it was bigger, louder and much more spectacular.
The death of Michael Jackson from a heart attack while drugged off his face on his honey-trap of a ranch dominated the headlines for weeks. Cribbing from the Goody story, Jackson had his own chequered and conflicted past. The singer spent the latter part of his life under a cloud, batting back allegations that he had undergone plastic surgery, had sexually interfered with underage boys, and hadn’t released a decent album since Thriller. As with Jade Goody, these contradictions caused polarisation instead of universal revulsion, with the debate over the artist’s life and legacy occupying the news for far more time than one man’s death decently should.
What was really unusual was that the writers of The Noughties gave so much more airtime to these stories than seemingly bigger, more important ones happening elsewhere. In April, the leaders of the G20 nations met in London. There they collectively conspired to give yet more public funds – money which had been repeatedly denied to schools, hospitals, police forces and every form of social program – to the very richest people in society, in exchange for their total decimation of the economy and in return for absolutely no control of the banks. Outside, people who disliked these and other ideas, such as the possibility that billions of people will likely be killed if we don’t stop steadily strangling our planet, were beaten and arrested. One of those who had the shit kicked out of him later died, a killing the police initially tried to pin on the protesters.
The death of Ian Tomlinson was a different kind of media spectacle to the others we’ve examined. Unlike Jackson and Goody, he was never beatified by the press – indeed, initial reports decried him as variously a protester, a yob and an alcoholic who, in all cases, had only himself to blame. It was only as details and, more importantly, videos emerged that the press and police had to tacitly admit it was the state, not the crowds of idealistic youngsters, who were at fault.
This story, one which seemed to uncover systematic state abuse and repression, not in some far flung Middle Eastern Dictatorship, but right here, in 21st century Great Britain, looked for a moment like it was a watershed, a fundamental shift in the institutional framework of the British state. Then the papers found something much, much more important to cover.
In May of 2008, the country was shocked into apoplexy by the discovery that politicians are greedy, earn more than you, and lead quite privileged lifestyles. It was like watching a lynching at the ideal homes exhibition, with each fresh revelation from the register of members’ interests inspiring both violent disgust at the largesse of our leaders and weasely fascination with how the other half live. What the mob seemed impervious to was the constant klaxon call that nothing illegal, or often really even underhand, had actually been done.
The specific items that MPs had claimed on expenses were often farcical, such as Jacqui Smith’s husband’s claim for a hareem of prostitutes and Douglas Hogg’s claim for a space castle, or petty, such as Alistair Darling's reimbursement for half of a penny sweet or Hazel Blears' claim for a single ant. What they were not, in the traditional sense, was news. One felt that public outrage and indignation was being transferred from the bankers, who had largely ignored the hissing and foaming of the masses, onto politicians, who have no choice by to take our idiot heckling seriously, no matter how unfair it may be. The overall result of the public’s rage at wealth, privilege and unaccountability is that they are now more likely to vote for a Conservative government. Good luck with that, guys.
Overall, 2009 was a cautionary tale about the danger of paying attention to the wrong things. From Susan Boyle’s matchingly mediocre looks and voice, to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize for sending more troops to Afghanistan, to the appearance of a fat stupid racist on Britain’s premiere topical panel show, in 2009 we forgot what was important. Perhaps this was because our real problems – from the recession, to Pakistan, to Climate Change – seemed too big and impossible to properly contemplate, let alone take action on. In the final few episodes of the 2009 series, The Noughties stole once again from The Wire's playbook, reminding us with a failed Copenhagen agreement and dark mutterings about Yemen that it's all cyclical - for all the admitted defeats and perceived victories, little has really changed.