Charlie Brooker Waves Goodbye To a Wretched Year With ‘Death To 2020’
Netflix’s “Death to 2020” might work better in the future than in the now, when we are still licking our wounds from a turn around the sun that brought pandemics, near-war, mass protests and an election still waiting to be conceded. Yet it’s still hard to deny that Charlie Brooker is the obvious choice to recap 2020. This was the year that felt constantly like an episode out of Brooker’s cult “Black Mirror” show, where human folly combines with technological paranoia. From January to December, ours was a season where dark laughter became a survival tool.
“Death to 2020” may not be one of Brooker’s greatest, but it still has worthy moments that poke bitter fun at all the bitter events we’re now going to reflect on. In our hypersensitive era some commentators are already bemoaning why we even need a comedic takedown of the year. Like any hour-long special made almost on the fly it’s hit or miss, but the hits still provide some necessary catharsis. Brooker collaborates here with his usual “Black Mirror” co-showrunner Annabel Jones while Al Campbell and Alice Mathias direct. The style is a hybrid of Brooker’s “Wipe,” a year-end special he would do in the U.K. before Netflix commitments with “Black Mirror” consumed his life. A cast of characters appear that play like goofy reflections of the different social sectors we assume should comment on all that transpired in 2020.
It all begins where it should, in January, when Trump faced impeachment proceedings and nearly dragged the U.S. into a major conflict after assassinating Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. This feels like a lifetime ago, when Trump’s dangerous antics were our main concern. Brooker’s commentators include New Yorker reporter Dash Bracket (Samuel L. Jackson), refined historian Tennyson Foss (Hugh Grant), tech billionaire Bark Multiverse (Kumail Nanjiani) and political spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan (Lisa Kudrow), among others. The rest of the riveting development of the year goes as we all know it. As with any special, the tone is that of a bunch of people sitting around and with straight faces making you chortle with whacky ways of addressing very serious subject matter. When Covid-19 begins its spread throughout China, a scientist named Pyrex Flask (Samson Kayo) theorizes it might have been the result of man on bat sex. Lab experiments have failed because the lab bat keeps flying away. Once lockdowns begin, narrator Laurence Fishburne informs us they became the biggest worldwide franchise since the Marvel cinematic universe.
As with the “Wipe” series, Brooker and his editors find just the right footage to make hilarious points, like Trump in the early stages of the pandemic thanking the press corp. for practicing social distancing even as he huddles with aides onstage, or Joe Biden speaking before supporters in parked cars and therefore looking like an old man yelling at traffic. The Beirut port blast becomes a subtle leitmotif. A lot of the absurd political firebombs of the year are also twisted into lightly funny jokes, like Bernie Sanders being described as an “anarchist grandpa.” Helping comment on all this are also common folk, like soccer mom Kathy Flowers (Cristin Milioti), who believes in Covid-19 conspiracy theories and went viral herself in videos where she threatens to call the cops on Black people for doing mundane things. “Wipe” regular Diane Morgan is Gemma, an “ordinary” citizen so ordinary she doesn’t even realize a lot of these events occurred in just 2020. Because it’s Brooker overseeing it all, there is a particular British sense of humor where the satirical jabs get more vicious than in your average Stephen Colbert show. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s brush with Covid is described as a potential “Prexit,” and Foss is astounded at how the virus had little effect on Johnson’s capabilities, meaning he gained none.
Stronger portions also deal with the Black Lives Matter movement which became so prominent during the summer after the police killing of George Floyd. Jackson’s journalist tells no jokes when he comments on the inequality that leads to racial profiling, while the humor comes from Gemma when wondering if a slave trader’s statue pulled down in the U.K. drowned when tossed into a river. There’s also a rather biting commentary on fake woke culture when a YouTuber boasts about driving through Black neighborhoods at night with a megaphone proclaiming solidarity, or Bark Multiverse proud of making an Alexa with a defiant Malcolm X voice. Good satire crystalizes through humor raw truths, and at its best “Death to 2020” does that in its better moments. Even when the humor is very on the nose, it’s not necessarily lacking in fun, as when The Queen (Tracey Ullman) describes “The Crown” as a good show about everyday people, while “Tiger King” was a sham.
“Death to 2020” winds down close to where we are now, as Trump meets defeat at the polls and still refuses to concede. Soccer mom Kathy insists the election was rigged, of course. Brooker and team wisely avoid trying to make fun of the more grisly aspects of the pandemic that has shaken our lives, instead focusing on the lockdown and social distancing angle. Dr. Flask learned to dance “the floss” and Gemma wonders if we will ever be able to date again and find heartbreak in the hell of living with someone else. Some of the laughs are dry, others witty and some fall flat. Yet those complaining about “Death to 2020” are over-criticizing what amounts to an hour of simply reflecting with cynical grins at a year that seemed to be mocking us all.
“Death to 2020” begins streaming Dec. 27 on Netflix.