Death to 2020 covers the events of this terrible year with a heaping dose of sarcasm, satire, and dark humor dripping with existential dread.
I approached Death to 2020 with a fair amount of skepticism as I have with all projects about this horrible disaster of a year. I’ve been highly critical of Michael Bay’s film, which hasn’t come out yet but certainly sounds like an offensive disaster flick bent on making a buck off of our suffering. Alternatively, I’ve been fairly supportive of the Parks & Rec special that came out last Spring, which is also about our current crisis but lacks the anxiety-inducing speculation and exploitative feeling that comes with the Bay film. In fact, it even raised money for charity in the process, so overall it was a net-good.
The idea of tackling this year through a fictional narrative is not a black and white issue. It’s not a simple yes or no question. There’s a lot of things to consider about a project that’s attempting to do this, so I prepared to go into this ready to be critical but also ready to enjoy it if it handled the situation tactfully. Death to 2020 isn’t like either of the two aforementioned projects, though, and it’s hard to compare what it did right or wrong in those terms. It’s not trying to capture a moment in time in a realistic way like the Parks & Rec project, nor is it making frightening speculations about what is to come in a way that does nothing but increase our anxiety like the Bay film.
Somehow it still works for the most part and accomplishes what it’s trying to do. It’s goal seems to be to process our trauma through wit and satire. For a lot of us, this sardonic humor is exactly what’s needed to process our trauma. For others? Maybe not. I don’t expect this dark angle to work for everyone, so your mileage may vary. There’s also a fair bit of cringe that can easily drag down the good parts of Death to 2020 for a lot of people. I found myself able to tolerate the cringe by focusing on what worked for me and ignoring the rest, but that’s not the only way to do it. Other people who prefer to critique the film as a whole are valid, too.
Death to 2020 is created by Charlie Brooker, who was a creative I wrote about early on in the pandemic due to his comments about how the world might be too dark for more Black Mirror episodes right now. This was a hypothesis I disagreed with as it really depends on how the content is handled and he seemed to be implying at the time that only light-hearted material should be made. But the fact Brooker even considered what society can really handle during this situation proves that he’s willing to be sensitive about it. To my delight, what I ended up getting was a film that felt like my entire sardonic Twitter timeline rolled out in film format, complete with hits and misses and a sense of existential dread hanging over us the entire time. It didn’t feel exploitative at all and I overall enjoyed what we got.
Death to 2020 presents the facts of 2020 alongside biting satire that left my jaw on the floor. Referring to the 2020 presidential race as being stuck on the character screen of ‘geriatric Tekken’ or describing Rudy Giuliani’s election efforts as ‘so hapless, his hair starts crying’ were absolutely brilliant lines that had me laughing so hard I almost struggled to breathe (which is ironic, given the nature of the pandemic). There are so many quotable zingers it’s hard to pick a favorite. The one liners and individual sketches are truly the strength of the film.
There are three characters who made Death to 2020 really work for me with their specific brand of sarcasm and satire. First is Dash Bracket, a reporter for the ‘New Yorkerly Times,’ played by Samuel L Jackson. This character had some of the best lines of the entire film, delivered in a blunt way that only Samuel L Jackson could. He’s one of the most quotable characters in the film, and many of his lines are going viral on Twitter as I type this.
But it wasn’t just the zingers that made his character shine. He also had one of the heaviest lines of the entire film. When we approach the BLM protests that occurred over the summer, he has this line:
‘In some ways, I prefer the coronavirus to the police. And don’t get me wrong, I f***ing hate the virus, but at least it doesn’t pretend it’s here to help with “Protect and Serve” painted on its side before it kills you.’
It’s funny, but in a jaw-dropping, record-scratching kind of way. My reaction was less rolling on the floor laughing, and more of an ‘oh crap, they just went there,’ followed by a nervous giggle. It’s not unlike the commentary I’ve already seen on social media about the situation, but seeing it drop out of Samuel L Jackson’s mouth in a film streaming on a major content provider is quite the mic drop moment.
This type of heavy humor that slaps you in the face with hard truths can be a bit difficult to take. Again, this kind of humor works for me, but it may not work for you. This is largely why I’m praising the film, though, so if you disagree with this type of humor, the film is going to be a train-wreck for you. Plan accordingly. If this joke had been presented as a tweet, I’d have hit the RT button instantly. And, ironically, I’m seeing this moment screenshot and spread on social media already, so it really works for short-form social media delivery.
The other character that consistently delivered on the satire front was Kathy Flowers played by Cristin Milioti. This character is described as “a self-described soccer mom, representing a stereotypical ‘Karen.'” The year 2020 has truly been the Year of The Karen, so she had ample material to work with here. Her character embraces everything from conspiracy theories to blatant racism and she delivers it with a plastered-on fake smile that we’ve all become too familiar with through the barrage of Karen videos we’ve been subjected to throughout the year. The montage of all her Karening was a particularly funny bit that could have stood on its own as a one off comedy sketch.
Another highlight is the perfectly delivered deadpan narration from Laurence Fishburne. His voice becomes as much of a character as either Flowers or Dash, and held the various threads of the film together. If you’re on the fence about this film, it’s worth it for his narration alone, even if you find the rest of the film a horrible mess, which seems to be what most critics have categorized the film as based on MetaCritic. Even people that hated the film seemed to love him at least, along with Jackson and Milioti’s performances.
Of course, this film is not perfect and some aspects of it felt very cringe, a bit offensive, or at best fell flat on the delivery. We really could have done without the fat jokes at Trump’s expense, for example. This has been an ongoing problem with the humor on our side of the aisle throughout Trump’s presidency and it feels like a cheap jab all things considered. With all of the absolutely horrific things Trump has done, we’re really going to hit out at his weight? I expect better from professional comedians, but it doesn’t look like this trend is going to end any time soon. As long as Trump exists, his weight is apparently a valid punchline and we have to deal with that I guess. It’s rather unfortunate.
Additionally, the constant ‘flossing‘ running gag from the character Pyrex Glass, played by Samson Kayo, felt weirdly dated and out of tune with the rest of the humor. While most of the jokes (the Trump weight jabs notwithstanding) lean more towards sarcasm and satire, this gag felt more like slapstick and cringe comedy. It didn’t flow with the rest of the tone of film and brought it to a screeching halt multiple times. These were the only moments where I really questioned my enjoyment of the film and debated whether or not it was worth the praise I’ve been pouring on it. But I had to look at this as a film with many separate stories, some of which are great and some, like this one, are not. It’s unfair to dismiss the entire thing, including the brilliance of Jackson, Milioti, and Fishburne, because the flossing gag happens to be incredibly stupid.
Not all of the Pyrex Glass segments were terrible though. There was a bit of meta humor where he is explaining a complex scientific topic and he calls out the unrelated B-roll that they played over him. This still leaned towards cringe comedy, but was a lot less awkward as a viewer than the flossing. Even within these individual stories, some bits are hits and some are misses, it seems.
Hugh Grant also felt startlingly misplaced in this film. I understand the role he was intended to play – an older, out-of-touch British boomer who has crappy opinions and doubles down when he’s wrong. I can see how this character could be funny, as its definitely something many of us have been encountering on social media and in our own social circles quite a bit. For some reason, he just wasn’t given the material to make this character really hit right. And I’m not entirely certain Grant was the right actor for the role anyway, even if he had the material to work with. Like the flossing, his parts typically brought the film to a halt and I questioned their purpose.
Similarly, Tracey Ullman as the Queen of England also felt out of place. She was the only character based on a real person, and as a result it cut down on the impact of a lot of the satire presented by the fictional characters. I honestly can’t think of a single moment from her that made me laugh or think about anything with any real depth. If she was removed entirely, the film would have been better for it. I would have even kept the flossing over this. At least the flossing was notable, even if for bad reasons, whereas the Queen’s inclusion was baffling and pointless.
Now, while I’m praising Jackson, Milioti, and Fishburne, and critiquing Grant, Ullman, and Kayo, most of the individual stories actually fell in the middle for the good-bad scale. They were just okay – not great, not terrible. Lisa Kudrow plays a Kayleigh McEnany-esque character that definitely belonged in the film, but was a little too on-the-nose most of the time. Kumail Nanjiani CEO character really added nothing to the narrative and I struggle to remember any jokes from his segments besides him being rich. Leslie Jones was similarly wasted in the role of Dr. Maggie Gravel. I find Jones an absolute delight, but her character didn’t really add anything to the film, but it wasn’t cringe-worthy either. Diane Morgan’s ‘average citizen’ character also had some hits and misses, and just sort of fell in the middle. You can find some great bits from all of these characters, but compared to Jackson, Milioti, and Fishburne, they weren’t nearly as strong.
And finally we have Duke Googlies played by Joe Kerry, which I find rather difficult to critique. I love Joe Kerry, so in general I enjoyed his bits, but there was quite a bit of ‘lol millennials’ humor, which can be hit or miss. He certainly represents one faction of the generation, albeit the slightly younger portion of it from me (born in 1986). But, like Grant, he seems to be an attempt to represent an entire generation, which can be a bit messy. That said, I still enjoyed him because I enjoy Kerry. He could deliver an absolute turd and I’d somehow have a good time. It’s his superpower, I think. So was it good? I don’t know, really. I’m blinded by Joe Kerry and can’t judge it. Someone else please critique it because I am incapable.
So do I recommend Death to 2020? Yes and no. If you can judge a film based on individual segments, enjoy dark humor and satire, and won’t let the awkward bits drag you down, you’ll probably get a lot out of it. If you don’t like that type of humor, or one flat or offensive bit can ruin the entire thing for you, you’ll probably hate the film with a fiery passion. I feel most of the negative reviews are likely from the latter group of people, which is totally legit and valid. I’m clearly not in that group, though, and was able to enjoy the hell out of the good bits while brushing off the crap. Hopefully you can, too, because there are some gems here. I think its worth a watch.
Editor’s note: You can watch Death To 2020 on Netflix in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. Other countries may need a VPN- check your Netflix!
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.
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