▶︎ Death to 2020 is on Netflix.
Twenty-twenty hindsight is said to be a wonderful thing; the joy of 2020 hindsight is something Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones are evidently counting on in their new Netflix ‘Original Comedy Event’. Brooker and Jones are best known for creating the acclaimed dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror, but Death to 2020 is far closer in construction and spirit to Screenwipe, Brooker’s merciless annual takedown of audio-visual idiocy.
Brooker has already tackled the pandemic in Antiviral Wipe, broadcast by the BBC during the first lockdown, but this one-off special – funded by Netflix’s bounteous coffers – has more lavish production values and a star-studded cast: enter Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow and others, playing a panoply of fictional experts and commentators (plus Tracy Ullman as the Queen), with various personal and political perspectives on a global annus horribilis.
The rapid-fire switching between characters, interspersing Jackson’s sceptical ‘New Yorkerly Times’ reporter or Grant’s reactionary elderly historian with Laurence Fishburne’s deadpan linking narration, certainly keeps things moving. That’s essential, given the show’s broad, somewhat predictable focus. The sidelining of Brooker’s own curmudgeonly host surely helps provide more wide-reaching streaming appeal, but it also blunts some of his spicier, more surreal edges and tangents.
Few would begrudge the inevitable emphasis on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the drawn-out aftermath of the US presidential election. And nailing America’s self-presentation as a daytime soap / gameshow hybrid is apt. Yet anyone who’s watched Trump lip-syncher Sarah Cooper or late-night TV commentator John Oliver, or spent a fraction of their enforced extended 2020 screen-time on social media, will have already seen much of the factual material here shared, mocked and memed as both comedy and tragedy ad infinitum, often in near-real time.
Still, Brooker, working here with a team of 17 credited writers, has always been able to put his own stamp on current events. There’s particular enjoyment in hearing Fishburne’s mellifluous baritone brand Trump an “experimental pig-man” and Joe Biden an “amiable phantom” or comparing the roll-out of international Covid-19 lockdowns as “the most successful franchise since the Marvel Cinematic Universe”. And anything that gives greater exposure to Diane ‘Philomena Cunk’ Morgan, here playing a bemused, insular British couch potato, can only be a good thing.
It’s when Death to 2020 excavates its own distinctive niches that it truly comes alive. While more obvious characters – Kudrow’s gaslighting Republican, Ullman’s prim monarch – soon grate, some less familiar names shine. Joe Keery’s wonderfully named Duke Goolies is an astute skewering of entitled white male ‘content providers’ for whom Black Lives Matter offers an equal opportunity for glib, ostentatious displays of online solidarity and profiteering.
Best of all is Cristin Milioti (who also featured in an outstanding Black Mirror episode, the Star Trek-inspired ‘USS Callister’), playing Kathy Flowers, a seemingly sweet suburban housewife whose liberal veneer quickly peels away to reveal a bigoted conspiracy theorist (the character is clearly modelled in part on Amy Cooper, who in Central Park last May called New York police to falsely accuse a Black birdwatcher of threatening her life). With her rictus and mania-tinged stare this is the sort of character and performance that could readily carry an entire show.
Brooker and Co. can lampoon white supremacy but, necessarily, when tackling the horrendous murder of George Floyd and the resultant Black Lives Matter movement, the multi-character approach enables a deft switch to a more sombre tone. Samuel L. Jackson is deadly serious when comparing the twin threats of the pandemic and US law enforcement: “In some ways I prefer the coronavirus to the police… at least it doesn’t pretend to help.” Some screen images should be allowed to breathe, unwiped.
Unsurprisingly, Brooker bites the hand that funds, swiping at Netflix’s own endless content conveyor-belt and self-important documentary presentation. However, given his brilliant televisual deconstructionist track record, from the TVGoHome website to 2008’s zombified Big Brother spoof Dead Set, the factual format send-up here offers disappointingly slim pickings. The OTT title sequence and the deployment of random images to liven up a scientific explanation were both done with more spark and needle as far back as the groundbreaking news satire The Day Today in the mid-90s.
One might argue that regimes and cults like those of Trump and Jair Bolsanaro, also briefly glimpsed here, suck everything into a shame-free black hole beyond satire; that the savage futurism of Black Mirror might be better suited than retrospective projects like Death to 2020 to challenge such nascent neo-fascism. There’s a glimpse of the possibilities here, when Boris Johnson’s soul is cynically implanted into a Black man to capitalise on Black Lives Matter, before the project is aborted and the prime minister can “get back to ruling from a position of safe, familiar white incompetence”.
It’s an all-too-brief sequence, but… as a standalone, developed Black Mirror concept? BM goes BLM? Now there’s a show to look forward to with unease, rather than back at in relative, overfamiliar comfort.
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