“The history books covering this period will have to be written in crayon. By a dog.” – Death to 2020 history professor
I saw Netflix was producing Death to 2020, a mockumentary Netflix original by the makers of Black Mirror (more specifically, the old Charlie Brooker Wipe crew complete with Diane Morgan). Well, in my position as geek culture tribal bard and global life coach, when that happens, I’m obligated to tune in.
What to make of this “TV” special? It’s a hyperthyroid Daily Show segment with a bigger budget. It’s also a sip of the catharsis we all need. It’s a rushed production with hit-and-miss jokes. It’s also got Samuel L. Jackson in it, reprising his role as “Capital One guy,” for no other reason than because he makes everything cool by being in it. It has some glittering moments of awesome like Tracy Ullman as Queen Elizabeth and Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery as The Token Millennial. It also bites off a mouthful more than it can chew, of the task nobody wants, which is “trying to make 2020 funny.”
A lot of very unfunny stuff happened in 2020. The natural human reaction to it is fear, grief, revulsion, despair, terminal misanthropy (my favorite!). This special has its heart in the right place; it’s trying to be the grim gallows humor that talks us down off the ledge, for those of us eyeing that ledge with longing. It kind of works, but it’s more band-aid than panacea.
I’m more into it to watch Charlie Brooker work!
I know all y’all are only familiar with Charlie Brooker from Black Mirror, which rightly has taken the Twilight Zone crown of relevant anthology series in our modern times. But – adjust my hipster glasses – I was following Brooker from his old Screen Wipe shows.
If you can’t spot the Black Mirror gleam showing in Brooker’s eye from some of his previous series, you just weren’t looking closely enough. Charlie Brooker is a student of media, somebody who observes and asks “what are we doing to ourselves with this global telecommunications Valhala?” I can’t confirm it firsthand, but Brooker has definitely read Marshall McLuhan, and is carrying on the work of philosophical media critique in his absence.
If this is your first time hearing about Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, let me give you a taste of what you missed out on some decade ago. You know reality TV? That garbage you’ve been believing for the past 20 years? It will die for you once you have fully absorbed this demonstration:
Charlie Brooker shares the hacker mindset with his tech contemporaries, only he sticks to media and the way it’s applied. Here’s a random 2015 year recap from his usual show:
So we see, Brooker’s no rookie when it comes to sharp skewering of a year’s history. He made 2015 – a year you already forgot even existed – sound as devastating as 2020. He is the living incarnation of a hot take. Black Mirror might stand alone as a magnum opus, but in context of the rest of Brooker’s work, you come to think that it’s a mere diversion for him, something without a present season because he just got bored with the little toy. Watching Brooker masticate the year 2020 becomes more like watching Tom Bombadil idly tossing the One Ring about while remarking what an amusing, but trivial, trinket it is.
But, like other British-to-US media imports, not to look at John Oliver or anything, Charlie Brooker is likely to become lazy and complacent. Here he seems to be reaching only for the low-hanging fruit because he knows he can get away with phoning it in for typical American audiences. We’re impressed with less over here, that’s just our national identity.
Weird History has a quick, down-to-Earth recap of 2020 if you want the condensed version:
Back in November, this news special tackled the question:
That video does make the case that this is not, amazingly enough, the worst global pandemic. The 1918 Spanish Flu was far more devastating. However, we’ve had a full century of scientific advances since then. COVID-19 should have been contained, if everybody could have gotten their act together. The 1918 pandemic was an accident. The 2020 pandemic is brought to you by people who caused it on purpose.
The Verdict on 2020
OK, let’s take a step back and get some objectivity here. As a bona-fide history geek past the age of five decades and working towards my sixth, was 2020 really THAT bad? Well, yes. The worst I’ve seen in my lifetime. Close runners-up would be:
2007 – The beginning of the subprime mortgage recession, and final year of ongoing wars under president Bush, who at the time was unpopular although we had no idea then how bad a president could get.
2001 – 9/11really did a number on our national psyche, folks! Then on top of that, there were the Anthrax attacks, the Enron scandal, a market crash, and a generally miserable national atmosphere of paranoia shepherded by the first year of Bush, who clearly had no clue what he was doing.
1979 – Listen to this, kids: In one year, we had the Iran-American hostage standoff, an economic depression with skyrocketing inflation, the great oil crisis that had cars lining up for miles to horde gas, a nuclear meltdown at 3-Mile Island, and then Skylab was going to fall out of the sky and kill all of us. The Cold War was still going and, insult to injury, disco was still popular. President Carter, whom we all still love, just wasn’t the steadiest hand you’d have wanted on the wheel at that time.
Looking back, previous to now the year 1979 takes it hands down for that “My God, is the world ending?” feeling. In 2020 we have “doom-scrolling,” but in 1979 we were “doom-watching” the evening news on TV every night, cringing as we anticipated the next installment of “what the hell happened now.” 1979 was the year I first turned to embrace misanthropy. Thank you, 1979!
But 2020 beat it! Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like a global pandemic, on top of the fart-brained stupidity of at least half the population at large, making everything ten times worse. And on top of that, the return of racial tensions in the biggest way since the Rodney King riots, a banner year for natural disasters, the last great political circus of this administration, and an economy which has crashed so hard that I feel guilty for my relatively unaffected career.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that outside of our lifetimes or recent history, there’s plenty more years that must have sucked. 1960 was a lousy year if you were Chinese. We know WWII had some downer years. The Black Death in the mid-14th century was bad enough that all of the pandemics since then do not equal its death toll. And if you want natural disasters, about 75K years ago we had the Toba catastrophe which was so bad that it is said to have caused a global human population bottleneck, reducing humanity to as little as 3000 people. So that must have been a pretty crappy day.
So there, that puts things in a speck of perspective, doesn’t it?
As for Charlie Brooker and Netflix… nice try, I guess? It’s still worth watching because this is 2020, and you can say you sent it off with this toast from Netflix’s decidedly flat glass of champagne.