Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Death To 2020 offers an unnecessary summary of a miserable year

Hugh Grant as Tennyson Foss
Hugh Grant as Tennyson Foss
Photo: Keith Bernstein/Netflix
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Death To 2020, a new Netflix comedy special from Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, gets its best joke in early. Dash Bracket (Samuel L. Jackson), a reporter for the “New Yorkerly News,” asks what he’s being interviewed about; the off-screen director explains, “We’re reliving the events of 2020.” Bracket responds, “Why the fuck would you want to do that?” It’s a good question, and one which Death never satisfactorily answers. A lot has happened in the last twelve months, much of it not great, and it’s likely that the sheer volume of news has pushed a few minor catastrophes out of the popular consciousness. But even taking that into account, it’s hard to grasp the point of revisiting any of it now, especially not in the guise of a talking heads documentary where various familiar faces tell obvious jokes over familiar footage of this last particular year in hell.

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It goes down easily enough, at least, and there’s arguably some value in just putting everything out there in one clear package. Plus, it’s likely that coronavirus complications prevented Brooker and Jones from getting much more ambitious than what we see here. As productions go, it’s simple enough: A series of guest stars playing various modern archetypes (Hugh Grant as a stuffy British historian; Kumail Nanjiani as a sociopathic tech guy billionaire; Cristin Milioti as an Internet radicalized soccer mom right-winger; Tracy Ullman as the Queen; several others) offer commentary as Laurence Fishburne narrates a broad overview of the events of 2020, starting with the Australian wildfire in January and ending with the development of the coronavirus vaccine. Along the way, the special provides quick summaries of several major events, including Trump’s impeachment trial, Boris Johnson’s inept messaging in regards to the covid pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter protest movement.

None of these summaries are particularly insightful, but they’re not really meant to be—the point is less to offer a new spin or take on the issues, and more to serve as a sort of cathartic “what in the fuck?” rush. And hey, you may not have realized it, but a lot did happen this year, and it’s kind of shocking to be reminded of it all at once. I’d somehow completely forgotten that Tom Hanks getting the coronavirus was a major step in terms of news coverage and the American public taking the pandemic seriously, and odds are, at least something in the special’s hour and 10 minutes will serve as a reminder of some weird or unexpected twist in the constantly churning cycle of news.

Some of the character bits work better than others. Having Jackson serve as a reliable voice of sanity is a smart touch, and Fishburne’s narration delivers straight reporting and one-liners in the same confident, straight-forward tone, making some jokes land better than they might have otherwise. Ullman’s Queen feels like the sort of thing she could do in her sleep, but then, that’s true of just about everyone, and there’s something comforting in knowing where almost all of this is going before it happens. And there are moments here or there that lean into an idea enough to push it into the necessary levels of absurdity. Milioti’s intensely cheerful hatefulness builds to a nice fever pitch, and there’s a cute bit of surrealism when Samson Kayo’s scientist starts complaining about how the documentary keeps cutting to vaguely related stock footage whenever he talks about the more complicated aspects of generating a covid vaccine.

Not every subject gets the satiric treatment. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests is treated with relative seriousness, the humor coming from underlining the stupidity of the racist response; there’s an odd bit about Boris Johnson getting his soul put into the body of Black man by Nanjiani’s tech company that’s maybe the closest the special comes to an actual comedy sketch, but it’s brief and not all that insightful. There are a few lame stabs at “both-sides-ing” the polarization of American politics (Leslie Jones as a behavioral therapist sick of the fascists on the right, and the “fucking whiny woke lords” on the left), but in general, the special is content to take swings at the most obvious, if still deserving, targets. Lisa Kudrow, as a chipper political operative with a complete indifference to the dictates of reality, is a decent, if not exactly necessary, reminder of just how bald faced the lies have gotten in the past year.

Really, though, it’s hard to get past the word “necessary” for nearly all of this. Does anyone need more gags about Biden being old? Trump being a piece of shit? The world being a never-ending nightmare, from which the only escape is death? Maybe the only real reason this exists is to try and re-package the events of 12 frightening, chaotic months into something like a familiar narrative arc. Reality still feels like it’s coming dangerously close to spinning out of control every other day, and seeing stories that once paraded across our Internet feeds like living nightmares repurposed into fodder for sarcasm and mild mockery at least suggests that there’s some kind of normalcy left, however illusory that might be. After all, it can’t be that bad if we’re still snickering, right? Please?

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Stray observations

  • “I mean really, why?”
  • “Fire, a radicalized angry form of air”
  • “Don’t people call you selfish?” “I don’t know, it’s soundproof.”
  • The old man Biden jokes weren’t amazing, but “as familiar as an old chair and nearly as sharp-witted” was pretty good.
  • Diane Morgan is great as “one of top five most average people in the world;” her travails in trying to have a social life during a pandemic came dangerously close to high concept.
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