Review: Death to 2020 Instead Brings Death to Comedy

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by Netflix

Netflix’s poster of Death to 2020

Stacey Zhang '22, Contributor

As a mockumentary, Death to 2020 had two jobs: comedy and documentation. It does neither.
Among the over two hundred shows I binged on Netflix in the past year, Death to 2020 easily rises as the most bland. With a star-studded cast, it essentially presents the audience a strenuous marathon of twitter jokes for those that have been living under a rock.

When I first saw Death’s trailer, I worried that attempting to tell the “definitive story” of a mostly tragic year might be dicey and potentially jarring. However, Death successfully avoids these risks by letting its writers scavenger hunt jokes off of the internet.

How many writers did it take for them to come up with the jokes that Biden is old, or that “the only positive news for Trump was his coronavirus report”? With the former being used throughout the one-hour show, surely it took quite a few.
How does Death tell its cheap comedy then? The producers employ news footage, green screen technology, sad transitioning music, and the linchpin of the show—celebrities clumsily pretending to be other celebrities or your wild Kyles and Karens.

But developing ten different characters takes time, so the producers decided that it’s best to just abuse stereotypes. Now everything seems so easy! You start the show, and two seconds into a character, you know exactly who that person is, why his/her script is funny, and exactly what he/she will say for the rest of production.

The unidimensionality and obvious joke-utility of each character are astonishing and shameful: the Queen is there for all the Meghan and Harry jokes, Kudrow plays the fact-denying self-conflicting politician, Nanjiani confesses the apathetic thoughts of the corporate giants, and Death did not forget to include a valley-girl accented Karen and a trend-following Kyle. The total five minutes that Samson Kayo (playing a scientist) was on the screen were exclusively for the single joke that, guess what, science is boring.

As the producers of the acclaimed Black Mirror series, Brooker and Jones’s resorting to stereotypes looks like a desperate move to achieve comedic effects. What’s more disappointing, ironically, is that the producers seem to be oblivious to the problems of strengthening stereotypes in an already divisive world.

But wait, I thought, there are still Samuel Jackson and Leslie Jones commenting along this potpourri of news footage, establishing shots, and internet memes! I was soon disappointed.

The two characters are far from salvaging the sinking ship that is Death to 2020. Samuel Jackson plays the second narrator by providing a bit more context to the news clips: for example, that Trump was among many Americans who compared the virus to the flu. Leslie Jones, on the other side, represents the nihilistic voice in America’s young demographics, describing lockdown as blissful because she “[hates] people.”

Looking closely, it was obvious that these two sources of commentary add nothing interesting, thought-provoking, or even original. At the end of the mockumentary, the director asks the question: “What did you learn in 2020?” Samuel Jackson responds by claiming that he “learned how many steps there are between [his] couch and refrigerator.”

In another instance of this, one character asks a great question: what happens when the next Trump comes along? To be honest, I was excited to see Death’s response to this question. Instead, the writers just left the question hanging and immediately transitioned to the next topic.

To confidently answer these difficult questions is certainly not a feature of documentaries, yet Death seems reluctant to start any serious or meaningful conversations of the complex events of 2020 and instead relapses again and again back to (unsuccessfully) trying to please its audience with cliché punchlines.

The most fatal problem of Death, however, is its inability to truly document the year 2020. The show, as previously mentioned, is composed of three kinds of shots: news footage, establishing shots that are probably stock footage, and celebrities talking into the camera as part of an “interview.”

Between the news headlines and the general chaos, between politicians and internet celebrities, 2020 was filled with individual stories of hopes and fears, distress and relief, laughters and tears. The story was a teacher’s worries of returning to class; it was a worker’s helplessness when losing his job; it was a nurse’s hope in vaccines in the near future; it was a young advocate’s joy in the election results.

Clips of election standdowns and Samuel Jackson describing major events can hardly do these individual stories justice. There’s no cameraman shooting at an election rally, no questions directed at a real “average citizen,” and no attempt to document 2020 the way it truly was. Instead, Death is a tripod and a camera, celebrities with a poorly-written script, and a suspicious calmness throughout the whole show. I couldn’t see my 2020 in this production.

“This is the definitive story of the most historic year.” the trailer claims. Instead, I saw (at 1.25x speed) a show painfully attempting to imitate comedy while carelessly throwing away opportunities to bring catharsis or closure and to explore the chaos that described the year 2020.