Serial illusionist and goatee-beard enthusiast Derren Brown recently returned to our screens with his trademark showmanship and mind-boggling feats on The Experiments. This was a four part series on Channel 4, where each week he carried out psychological experiments on members of the public.
He has tried to avoid the low-rent, parlour trick feel that these kind of shows can have, by tying each week’s experiment into a broader theme or story. The first, titled Assassin, explored whether Brown could effectively brainwash your regular man on the street into carrying out an assassination that he would a) not be conscious of doing, and b) not remember afterwards. This experiment was punctuated with the story of Sirhan Sirhan, who, apart from having a really lazy name, is currently serving a life sentence for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. He claims to have no recollection of the murder and little memory of the weeks prior, something conspiracy theorists believe indicate that Sirhan was the ‘victim’ of a secret CIA brainwashing programme known as MK Ultra.
MK ULTRA was sadly not an attempt to make the definitive Mortal Kombat game
The subject for Brown’s attempt to test these claims was plucked from a group of 100 due to his pliable nature, something Brown was able to determine through a number of hypnotic experiments. He was fully aware that he was participating in a show about hypnotism, but the true purpose, to train him up as a deadly assassin, was not revealed. Over the course of the episode we follow the progress of this subject as Brown engages in various techniques to make the man aim and fire a gun at a target when exposed to certain triggers, namely a polka-dot pattern and a really annoying ring-tone.
Seeing your average, trendy t-shirted, stylishly messy haired, Joe Blogs turn into a robotic servant, perfectly capable of killing, is fascinating, and the final stage of this experiment is truly unnerving to watch. The whole episode is Brown at his best; effusive easy going patter, unbelievable psychological trickery, and all of it capped off with a genuine sense of unease as the viewer is left to question; could that happen to me?
Could it happen to me? Could I ever wear something as craptacular as a t-shirt with a tie on it?
The follow up to Assassin is The Gameshow, which looks at people’s moral flexibility when they are an anonymous member of a crowd. This was explored through the guise of a fake game show, Remote Control, where a studio audience was invited to decide on the events that an unwitting participant, who is followed by a series of hidden cameras, is forced to encounter.
With the options the audience are given there’s always one bad and one good, for example, the first event is whether an attractive girl (played by an actress), who is at the same bar as the participant, should a) flirt with him, or b) accuse him of pinching her bum. Two fairly low level outcomes, neither offering great risk or reward. The audience choose the ‘bad’ option, then watch the scene play out in real time, getting a good laugh out of the misfortune they created. These ‘good’ or ‘bad’ event choices escalate as the show continues, with the reward and risk becoming greater each time.
Unfortunately what the show explores and presents to the viewer at home is nothing particularly new or surprising. It showed that people become more dickish when they have anonymity and won’t be held accountable. A fact well known to anyone who’s ever read the comments on YouTube.
YouTube showing that brevity is the soul of wit.
What else did it show? That being part of a group causes people to abdicate their responsibility and act maliciously as they ‘go with the flow’? No shit, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of that throughout history, from the audience of the Coliseum baying for the blood of the innocents, to the supporters in every football ground around the UK every Saturday.
The lack of fresh insight into this common phenomenon could be forgiven if what we were left with was an entertaining demonstration of it, but sadly the The Gameshow falls short on this mark too. Remote Control, the fake game show the audience are participating in, is designed to resemble your average lowest common denominator Saturday evening brain gruel, with lots of bright lights, scripted comedy banter and even a smooth voiceover man to instruct the audience. This all helps lull them into a sense of comfort and detaches them from reality (they’re on TV, on a game show, nothing really bad happens on game shows!), as well as providing a nauseating specter when the audience participating in light-entertainment turns into a quasi-lynch mob. But there is one fatal flaw to the whole setup; due to the nature of this experiment, we, the TV audience at home who tuned into watch Derren Brown bend our minds, end up spending an hour watching a crap game show full of wankers.
Just like an episode of Hole In The Wall! That’s not fair. Brown’s fake show was much better.
Out of these two episodes Assassin is far superior. It is more in keeping with Brown’s past exploits where he perpetuates the whole experiment as opposed to The Gameshow where he is simply a catalyst who then lets the audience determine what happens next. Furthermore, the brainwashing was a less familiar subject where the outcome was less certain, whereas you always kind of expect a crowd, when prodded, to turn nasty. The Gameshow simply showed us again that in spite of the foreknowledge that groups can act deplorably, and as individuals we look on and shake our heads, it doesn’t stop us joining the mob when it feels comfortable to do so.
You can watch all four of the The Experiments on 4od bt clicking on this link.