“That was a huge win for us. A huge, but sad win.”
It won’t be a spoiler to say that the year 2020 exceeded many people’s expectations in terms of how catastrophically things can go. The COVID-19 pandemic hit a lot of people very hard, and left the door open for a lot of other issues to bubble over. The result was that a lot of the usual year-end reviews that adorn the festive television schedules had a different look and feel; with shows like the UK’s Big Fat Quiz Of The Year on Channel 4 filmed in front of a Zoom audience, with contestants separated by plexiglass barriers. Never before had so many light-hearted comedy shows had quite so many harbingers of the apocalypse to deal with in one show; and it’s fair to say some handled it better than others.
One of those is Death To 2020.
Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror and of Death to 2020, partially came to prominence in the UK for his weekly show Screenwipe, a review show for BBC4 that evolved into an annual end-of-year show which satirised the events of that year. Going on hiatus in 2016, fans of the Wipe series have eagerly waited its return; but Brooker took his review skills in a different direction this year. Death To 2020 casts a selection of your favourite actors (including Samuel L. Jackson, Tracey Ullman, Kumail Nanjiani and long-time Brooker collaborator Diane Morgan) as a variety of characters from across the spectrum of society, both real and fictional, and captures their thoughts on the biggest news and events of the previous 12 months.
As with the Wipe series, Death to 2020 moves chronologically, starting with the Austrailian wildfires that dominated the news at the beginning of the year; and centres itself in the coronoavirus pandemic, taking time to cover the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the US Presidential election and more. The format is where Brooker and (co-creator) Annabel Jones come to the fore; using their fictional characters to not only summarise the events being discussed, but also to satirise the viewpoints of the types of people they are representing. For example, Kumail Nanjiani’s (Stuber) Bark Multiverse is an Elon Musk-style billionaire tech CEO; whose talking head pieces are used to reflect both the focus of Musk’s professional goals throughout the turmoil of 2020, but also his personal output on Twitter and other… notable public appearances; hammering home the contrasts between the businessman and the person, which we saw from innumerable people in the public eye in 2020.
Death To 2020 mostly operates on a political no-man’s-land in terms of who is satirised and why; with shots being taken both at public figures who fall on both sides of the political spectrum, and at those who publicly wear their political colours on their sleeve. However, as with Brooker’s earlier works; it’s fair to say that those on the right take a few more heavy punches than those on the left. One could speculate as to why that is, the obvious answer is that Brooker isn’t afraid to let his own political biases shine through in his work; or perhaps it’s simply that the landscape that 2020 provided allowed more people from the fringe of right wing mentalities to steal the spotlight amongst the chaos. Death To 2020 doesn’t hold back when it comes to those fringe elements, with an incredible turn from Cristin Milloti (The Wolf Of Wall Street) as Kathy Flowers; a suburban American housewife who has fallen victim to the conspiracy theories from the likes of QAnon. Her breezy, relaxed delivery of lines that are packed with the kind of open, unfiltered racism that has become more and more prominent over the last few years, and her physical expressions are absolutely incredible, evoking thoughts of The Stepford Wives in her presentation of herself as the perfect example of suburban Americana soccer mom. Likewise, Lisa Kudrow’s (Friends) turn as “unofficial conservative spokesperson” Jeanetta Grace Susan is sublime; with the veteran actor utilising her expert comedic timing and sharp delivery to authentically embody the kind of talking head you would expect to see on the Fox News network’s various magazine shows (or being hired as a White House press secretary).
These characters are mainly effective due to their relatively short screen time; allowing the impact of their characters to hit harder through reduced exposure. Other characters do not fare so well. Despite featuring excellent narration delivered by Laurence Fishburne (Predators), some of the other characters are leant upon to help provide context to the stories as well as to satirise the viewpoints they adopt, and the impact of their characterisation can be deflated by their increased screen time. It highlights the stark change from the Wipe series, which became so beloved partially due to its tighter array of characters as talking heads, but also due to Brooker himself acting as narrator for the topics being covered, letting his own personality set and maintain the tone and the lens that the show was being seen through.
Death To 2020 is an enjoyable and amusing examination of the year 2020, something which is an achievement in itself considering everything that happened. However, as Brooker’s first foray into an annual review show since 2016 Wipe, it is almost hurt by the comparisons to its predecessors. Death To 2020 lacks the intimacy of Brooker’s Wipe series, and without his voice as the anchor for the show, it allows itself to lack the consistency which made that series work so well; instead delivering the same style of humour without sparing any of the expense that Netflix was clearly welcome to provide for this production. However, the cast is excellent and performing on top of their game; and the jokes which land do so with such a heavy impact that it’s not difficult to ignore those less positive elements. At a time where it’s good to take stock of the year that’s passed and allow those experiences to help drive us into tomorrow, Death To 2020 is, in my mind, one of the best options if you want to laugh while doing it.