In June this year, an advert appeared on the side of a bus shelter in Madrid that had a mirrored surface and the words “Black Mirror. 6th Season. Live now, everywhere” on it. While it was actually a black market Black Mirror ad – neither Netflix, the makers of the tech-horror series, nor Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, its co-creators and show-runners, had any involvement in the prank – it made real something that many of us had been saying for months: all-in-all, this was a year that felt very Black Mirror in and of itself.
It’s partly for that reason – and largely because, as Brooker has noted, filming anything involving more than one actor has been just about as difficult as filming on the moon this year – that we’ve had no new Black Mirror with which to gawp away 2020’s endless sofa minutes. “At the moment, I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart,” Brooker has said. Instead, he and Jones delivered an early take on COVID-19 in May’s punky Antiviral Wipe for the BBC, which proved it was possible to laugh at a pandemic even while it was targeting old people as mercilessly as a Werther’s Original ad campaign.
Now, they wrap up the year of turmoil in Netflix’s similarly-nosed comedy production Death To 2020. The major difference is the effect of buckets and buckets and buckets of cash, meaning Death To 2020 has top-notch production values and an A-list cast that contains, among others, Hugh Grant as batty historian Tennyson Foss, Stranger Things star Joe Keery as Duke Goolies, an influencer, Lisa Kudrow as presidential spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan, comic actor Leslie Jones as populist author Dr Maggie Gravel and Tracey Ullman as “Queen Elizabeth The First Part II”, vexed by Harry and Meghan’s own Brexit.
At first, it feels like it might be an uneasy over egging of the pudding: the first actor we see is none other than Samuel L. Jackson making a limp gag about the cliche of candid establishing shots in talking head interviews. But Death To 2020 very quickly finds a pace and maintains it for 70 hilarious minutes, tying together 2020’s various, er, plotlines into one cohesive story. That includes those that we’re still living with – the pandemic, police brutality, Brexit – and those we’ve forgotten because so much other terrible shit happened, like the assassination of Qasem Soleimani or January’s Davos summit, “Coachella for billionaires” in the show’s parlance. It’s the story of fake news, polarisation, the technocracy, media bias, the climate emergency, Karens, “lib-tards”, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and everything in between.
Brooker’s unique talent for skewering public figures in a short descriptor has never been sharper: Trump is an “experimental pig man”, Boris is “Prime Minister and scarecrow”, Harvey Weinstein is a “wizened rapist”, Rudy Giuliani is “Trump’s hunchbacked lab assistant”, Greta Thunberg is “this teenage girl who’s become famous because everything she says is depressing – kind of like Billie Eilish”. Some of the gags even fill the hole left by the lack of cracker jokes and dad humour at this year’s social bubble-sized Christmas dinner tables, like this one: “Critics describe the lack of [hospital] ventilators as ‘breathtaking’”.
As much as it satirises the news of the year, Death To 2020 undermines its own form and medium, too, employing all the tricks of a “landmark” documentary, like lavish cinematography, off-camera interviewers, campy stock footage cutaways and the kind of overblown CGI graphics that allow scientist Pyrex Flask (Truth Seekers‘ Samson Kayo) to explain how the COVID-19 molecule resembles an “alien basketball rendered on PlayStation 2 – which is biologically unusual”. There’s even a portion overtly poking fun at Netflix itself – biting the hand that feeds him coming naturally to Brooker, who turned a career as a savage TV critic into one as a masterful TV creator.
Netflix has introduced a global audience to Brooker and Jones’s dramatic work, and while even the bleakest Black Mirror story has its share of gallows humour, this is their first overt piece of comedy for the global network. Those raised on Weekly Wipe and Nathan Barley won’t be surprised at just how funny it is; those who came to Brooker’s work via Hated In The Nation might be shocked at this masterclass in television comedy. Towards the end of the show, Hugh Grant’s character says: “The history books covering this period will have to be written in crayon… by a dog.” Actually, future generations will find more truth in this show than they would in a year’s worth of rolling, 24-hour news or, indeed, a library full of crayoned textbooks.