Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe format was honed over many years to a fine balance of commentary, news footage and spoof talking heads. He already made a solid coronavirus programme, the Antiviral wipe, for the BBC in May, his first since the 2016 Wipe, which won a Bafta. So it's baffling that for this Netflix one-off, Death to 2020, he and his longtime co-producer Annabel Jones have taken their unbroken idea and tried to fix it, with the usual results.
The concept has been spun out into a 70-minute spoof documentary looking back at the year, narrated by Laurence Fishburne and featuring fictitious talking heads played by famous actors. There’s the snappy New York journalist Dash Bracket (Samuel L Jackson), a tweedy British historian Tennyson Foss (Hugh Grant), a craven political spokesperson (Lisa Kudrow), a racist soccer mom (Cristin Milioti). Tracy Ullman plays the Queen. They go through the big events, starting with the Australian wildfires and running through Covid and the US election, with a bit of George Floyd and Boris thrown in for good measure.
It badly misses Brooker himself, who usually serves as the acerbic, sometimes zany, ringmaster but is only heard in glimpses behind the camera. Without him, Death to 2020 flaps around. Normally these programmes focus on mocking the coverage rather than the subjects themselves. Here, it sometimes shifts into honest crusading, especially on Black Lives Matter. That’s fine, but it’s a different kind of show. Why invent characters to say things real interviewees might say? It also can’t make up its mind whether it is for a British audience or an American one, and ends up pleasing neither.
The highlights, like the running gag about Biden’s age and Diane Morgan’s Cunk-esque turn as “average citizen” Gemma Herrick, are fleeting. You feel for Grant, not given a single decent line, and several that make you want to slide under the sofa. The credits list 18 writers. How many of them did it take to come up with the idea that Joe Biden is old? Too often you find yourself waiting for punchlines that never arrive. With Trump, as ever, it’s nearly impossible to write something as funny as the real footage, but you can surely do better than “experimental pig-man”.
It’s hard to know what’s happened here. Clearly there’s money behind Death to 2020, given its provenance and the calibre of the contributors. Between Black Mirror and the Wipes – to say nothing of Brooker’s previous career as a critic of acid brilliance – its creators are too good at TV not to know that this is substandard. Is it a kind of televisual cash-in-hand plastering job for their bosses at Netflix, who wanted a piece of the Wipe action? Was there meddling from above about its tone and direction? Was there not enough time to apply the usual quality control?
Whatever the answer, Death to 2020 is a mess and you’ll be glad when it’s over. In that sense, at least, it’s appropriate to its subject.
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