In his latest Netflix special, “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker and his collaborator Annabel Jones gather an ensemble of talented actors to comedically dissect the year that was 2020, a 12-month period often accused of being so ridiculous that no one would believe its plot twists if were they presented in an actual episode of Brooker’s award-winning show. More than once this year, Brooker and Jones had to have been told that something was straight out of one of their televised nightmares. So why not comment on all of the dystopian insanity?
The tone of “Death of 2020” is very much “Can you believe this shit actually happened?” as actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Kumail Nanjiani, Hugh Grant, and Cristin Milioti play characters commenting on the insanity of Coronavirus, the election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and much more. While there was genuine concern this would be the comedic equivalent of that just awful “Imagine” video, completely missing the intended mark, the caliber of the cast here elevates the very inconsistent writing just enough to keep it from being a disaster. Yes, “Death to 2020” is too often taking aim at easy targets and firing low-velocity bullets, but the people pulling the triggers are having a lot of fun doing the shooting. Between the holidays, that may be just enough for this to work for people still hungover from 2020.
“Death to 2020” is structured like a year-end recap program, summarizing chronologically the major events of the year from the wildfires in January to the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference and all the blinding stupidity in between. Brooker and his team cast actors as fake interview subjects, such as Jackson playing a reported named Dash Brackett and Grant paying a history expert named Tennyson Foss. Narrated by Laurence Fishburne, “Death to 2020” intercuts real news footage with fake commentary on that news, and really doesn’t let up on the attempts at humor. Other than a brief interlude at the beginning of the BLM segment to take the murder of George Floyd seriously (thank God), “Death to 2020” follows a rapid-fire joke structure. If you don’t like one joke, wait a few seconds for the next. Sadly, you may have to wait a while for a good one.
While the rapid-fire structure is smart, there are a couple of segments and recurring punchlines that really get away from Brooker. With a cadre of other writers, he seems particularly out of his depth when he’s analyzing the U.S. election and the issues surrounding it. He’s either content to take incredibly easy jokes or really not even try to make one at all. How do you write a joke about Rudy Giuliani’s melting hair dye, for example? When “Death to 2020” gets into politics, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this material has been handled better all year by people like John Oliver or Trevor Noah. The characters are memorable in “Death to 2020,” but the political humor is truly hacky.
The writing is much stronger when it’s analyzing social trends in 2020. Cristin Milioti (a “Black Mirror” vet from the great “USS Callister”) is wonderful as a racist soccer mom who goes viral after being caught being awful so many times on social media and ends up being a conspiracy nut. “Death to 2020” is at its best when Brooker is legitimately creating a character with a comedian like Milioti or the fantastic Diane Morgan, described as “one of the five most average people in the world.” When it’s taking weak stabs at Biden’s age or Trump’s skin color, it feels like a bad open mic night at an empty comedy club.
Milioti and Morgan aren’t alone in the strong ensemble. Tracey Ullman is so perfect as the Queen that one wishes the master impressionist had more screen time (and better material); Jackson leans into a great bit about how he trusts the virus more than cops (because the virus doesn’t pretend to want to help you) that feels destined to go viral; Grant has a funny recurring bit in which he keeps interspersing fictional history from shows like “Game of Thrones” into his commentary that the great actor makes work; Joe Keery is fantastic as a social influencer moron who doesn’t really understand what it means to be an ally; Kumail Nanjiani nails a social media magnate without resorting to an impression of the actual selfish tech giants of the world; Leslie Jones leans into the cynicism of a writer who is basically just sick of it all; Lisa Kudrow nails the bold insanity of a Trump spokesperson who literally denies the existence of Ukraine. Everyone is good to great, and the cast’s general likability keeps “Death to 2020” moving (even if it should have been 15-20 minutes shorter).
Where “Death to 2020” really falters is in the writing. Brooker, Moss, and the team too often take the easiest road in terms of analysis, or humor, almost as if they know the jokes are going to make you groan. (Ex., “Critics described the lack of ventilators as breathtaking” or comparing Greta Thunberg to Billie Eilish because they’re both teen girls who depress people or claiming Kamala Harris was the second person of color on the ballot because Trump is orange. Sigh.) There’s a sense that “Death to 2020” was a little rushed to drop on 12/27 because they wanted to get as much of the year into it, but it might have been wise to give the script a couple more weeks for rewrites and allow post-production to fine-tune a few things. Focus group a few of the worst lines. Choose some of the better-improvised takes. It would have still been relevant in mid-January, and some of the weaker lines could have been refined. Let’s be honest: no one is going to forget 2020 that quickly. It’s going to take some time to kill this year. [C]