comedy review

Death to 2020 Is a Failure of Imagination

Leslie Jones in Netflix’s Death to 2020. Photo: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Do you remember the events of 2020? Do you remember Parasite winning those Oscars, and the whole world going into lockdown, and the death of George Floyd? Do you remember the presidential election, and what it felt like to spend a lot of time on Zoom, and the most recent season of The Crown? Great! You’re all caught up, and have no need to watch Netflix’s end-of-the-year comedy special Death to 2020. If the special, which was produced by Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, had taken more advantage of its many celebrity participants, or added a new perspective to its observational humor — or even just pushed its juvenility a little further — it might have been more appealing. As it is, though, Death to 2020 is a limp, unimaginative recap of a year that surely few viewers need help remembering.

The special is filmed in mockumentary format, intercutting a series of talking-head expert characters with real footage from the year and voice-over from an authoritative narrator (Laurence Fishburne). The first clue to Death to 2020’s sense of humor is the names it gives to its talking-head characters. Samuel L. Jackson plays Dash Bracket, a journalist for a publication called the New Yorkerly News. Kumail Nanjiani is an ethics-free tech CEO named Bark Multiverse. Joe Keery, whose character is identified onscreen as “Gig Economy Millennial,” gets the name Duke Goolies. A scientist played by Samson Kayo is stuck with the name Pyrex Flask.

The special assumes viewers will be invested enough in its premise (phew, 2020!) that character development can start and end with a job title and a goofy name. As Bracket, Jackson leans back in his chair and opines about Black Lives Matter marches. He delivers lines about the Chinese doctors who tried to warn the world about COVID: “Blowing the whistle while on a ventilator? That’s a big ask.” Bracket never becomes a real character, nor does Pyrex Flask, who has no specific qualities beyond “likes science” and “knows how to floss” (as in the dance).

They are supposed to be impressions, sort of, but impressions of nothing and no one in particular. The script betrays no interest in using the specific roles of “journalist” or “epidemiologist” as springboards for more deliberate humor or pointed observations. And yet, because Death to 2020’s entire project is deliberate humor and pointed observations, those characters come off as bland, empty vessels for flaccid commentary.

Some characters are built of sturdier stuff, or at least crammed full with quirks thanks to their actors’ performances. Leslie Jones, as behavioral therapist Dr. Maggie Gravel, gets to be performatively furious with all of humanity. Cristin Milioti plays a next-door Karen named Kathy Flowers and gives the role her all, with a brittle smile and unnervingly intense gaze, but she’s let down by a script that cannot figure out how to escalate beyond real QAnon-mom rhetoric. The special’s unreserved highlight is Lisa Kudrow as a fantastic Kayleigh McEnany type named Jeanetta Grace Susan: She only gets one joke, but she plays it with such pitch-perfect, mesmerizing composure that I would’ve rejoiced if she had triple the screen time.

In order to appreciate those heights, you have to ignore the narrator’s flip-flopping perspective — which seems to shift between inside American politics and a British frame of reference — and push through the scenes featuring an underused Tracey Ullman as Queen Elizabeth, or Hugh Grant’s “Tennyson Foss,” a historian who feels like a collection of leftover jokes and muddled political ideologies. Grant’s embodiment of a smirking, simpering, prickly louche is convincing, but you get the feeling that if you peek underneath his performance, all you’ll find is a pile of crumpled paper and a script direction that reads: “Maybe make him an alcoholic?”

In lieu of finding humor in 2020 by digging into the details of who these characters might actually be, Death to 2020 falls back on a few tried-and-true devices. One is name-calling. Trump is “experimental pig-man Donald Trump,” Giuliani is “Trump’s hunchbacked lab assistant,” and Boris Johnson is called “prime minister and haystack.” It points out that the president-elect (“amiable phantom Joe Biden”) is old. Sometimes it finds ways to insert gentle potty words into superficially dignified contexts. (Kayo as Pyrex Flask gets to deliver this line: “The hypothesis is that a man had intercourse with a bat and got bat juice into his peepee hole, which festered.”)

Death to 2020 could’ve embraced zaniness, or run full tilt toward Kudrow’s captivating madness. There are a few spots where a different, better version of Death to 2020 becomes visible: There’s a sharp joke about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy. Unlike the rest of the special, the section on the Black Lives Matter movement actually has a specific point of view. There’s a part near the end, too, where an everyday British citizen (Diane Morgan) explains the weirdness of watching the American election fiasco from afar, that feels like a rich vein of material, but the special merely skims the surface.

Political comedy does not need to persuade anyone. It could change minds, or add new insight, or allow us to see the world in a new way, but all it really needs to do is let us laugh at the world. That can be accomplished through silliness or sharpness. It helps if it can establish a shared sense of absurdity, making space to laugh at frightening things. But all those things require imagination and a willingness to make creative choices about which perspectives to prioritize.

Instead, Death to 2020 just feels like a failure of imagination. It opens with a moment that haunts the rest of the special: Jackson’s Dash Bracket asks the producers, standing offscreen, what the premise of the special will be; they tell him it’s about reliving the events of 2020. “Why in the fuck would you want to do that?” he asks. If Death to 2020 had figured out how to answer that question, maybe watching it would’ve been less of a slog.

*A version of this article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Death to 2020 Is a Failure of Imagination