You watch “Death to 2020,” “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooke and Annabel Jones’ mockumentary special now streaming on Netflix, with a blank stare. That’s because, by now, on December 27, most of us are war-torn and weary at the deflating end of a year from hell and, the last thing most of us want right now is a reflection of that year, writ in any form, echoed back to us. Despite the strained charms of talking heads representing various pandemic viewpoints, played by Hugh Grant, Cristin Milioti, Samuel L. Jackson, Leslie Jones, Lisa Kudrow, Tracey Ullman, and more, “Death to 2020” is profoundly unfunny. It’s a recap of the year peppered with charmless commentary and stereotypes seemingly drudged up from the bowels of Twitter — and from times we’d much rather forget, like when “Tiger King” reigned supreme.
Billed as a documentary special, but at a quaint hour’s length to suggest more could be in store, “Death to 2020” is in serious trouble right from the credits. The Netflix special has, including Brooker, 18 credited writers, and the commotion of voices is deeply felt. Also felt is a sort internal war on the level of the page as to why this project is being done at all. Samuel L. Jackson, in his cool, calmly commanding voice as a White House press member, addresses that question up front as his character is told by the “filmmakers” that this project is a summary of the year 2020. “Why the fuck would you want to do that?” Jackson’s Dash Brackett, reporter for the “New Yorkerly News,” asks. Good question.
It’s also one that goes unaddressed. Hugh Grant’s history professor Tennyson Foss delivers a dry, primarily bigoted summary of the year’s events, but the actor’s (as usual) sniveling performance hardly seems invested in anything beyond a phoned-in cash grab from Netflix. In fact, it’s easy to see that most of the “interviews” could be shot in less than a day, especially given COVID safety protocols, which contributes to making “Death to 2020” feel like HBO’s “Coastal Elites” all over again — an indulgent, actor’s exercise that’s seemingly unaware that nobody asked for this in the first place.
Cristin Milioti is amusing but inevitably harping as Kathy, embodying the Karen stereotype of a “self-described regular soccer mom” who gets her news from YouTube videos and thinks the vaccine is a fabrication by Bill Gates to exact mind control on the population. It’s, frankly, exhausting to see these types thrown back up onscreen again. Death to jokes about Peloton-riding soccer moms, please. Equally tired is Tracey Ullman’s embodiment of Queen Elizabeth, oblivious from her ivory tower of the world collapsing around her. Ullman’s flat take on Her Majesty could be from any one of her other specials. It’s not certain anyone wants to be here.
Weaving archival footage from the first half of 2020 that indisputably no one wants to relive in the first place, “Death to 2020” tilts from a focus on pandemic and Brexit to, inevitably, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter movement of the summer. And you’re almost dreading it, wondering how the showrunners are going to make this funny. They don’t succeed, because 2020 was so rough, it’s too soon for much of this to be funny, and the special never manages to convince that it should be. “Death to 2020” tries to skirt partisanship as it sets out to skewer everyone on all sides of the political fence, including President Elect Joe Biden, with plenty of tired cracks about his age and personality as a benevolent “phantom.” These jokes are so… mid-2020.
Some of the casting choices are inspired, like Lisa Kudrow as a batty “nonofficial White House spokesperson,” probably hired to make whatever she wants out of the character. Joe Keery, as with his “Spree” character from early this year, is dead-on as a millennial gig-economy worker who turns to YouTuber during the pandemic. As one of the most statistically “average person” in the world, Diane Morgan’s character develops multiple personalities to keep herself company during the pandemic. Leslie Jones plays a behavioral psychologist whose brand is rage, but also provides the most sensible center for the movie. Kumail Nanjiani, meanwhile, is underused as an Elon Musk-like tech mogul who buries himself inside a mountain to avoid dealing with the reality of the year.
Which, honestly, in the context of this movie, good for him. While we may certainly all wish death to 2020, let’s focus instead on wishing death to movies and TV specials centered around the pandemic that promise catharsis but hardly stir a shrug. Because this one is proof that Hollywood isn’t ready to tackle it, and for now, probably shouldn’t. At least until 2021 is through, but “Death to 2020” certainly isn’t going to help us get there.
“Death to 2020” is now streaming on Netflix.
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