Death to 2020

‘Death to 2020’ Gives New Meaning to a New Year

This mockumentary from the creators of 'Black Mirror' might make us rethink killing off this year just yet.
January 28, 2021
12 mins read

Every birthday I sit by the clock waiting for the countdown until I turn one year older. There’s the anticipation of a new year, a new age, something different — and then the clock strikes 12 and I feel exactly the same. That’s what this new year felt like as we finally put a close on 2020. The clock struck midnight and we all watched from the comfort of our own homes as the death toll for the coronavirus continued to increase, white supremacists stormed the Capitol and the fight for social justice continued all across America. We are all desperately hoping things will be different in 2021. With the promise of a vaccine and a new era as President Biden takes office, America is doing its best to put 2020 behind it.

But from the directors of “Black Mirror” comes the mockumentary “Death to 2020,” which tries to do a little more than just allow us to simply forget the impact 2020 has had on all of our lives; rather, it seeks to document and reflect on this past year in an ironic and darkly humorous way. But making plans for the future of 2021? I don’t think we’re far enough in the year for that yet.

Factual yet Funny

Much like “Black Mirror,” the film mixes fantasy with reality to create a self-enclosed world similar to, but different, from our own. Because the events of 2020 were too extreme for us to even imagine, directors Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones speculate that 2020 itself was its own alternate reality. They played on this theme by mixing facts with sardonic humor and witty one-liners to move the story along — seen when the film hypothesizes that if the coronavirus managed to spread from bats into humans, then a bat and a man must have had sexual relations. (Apparently recreating that experiment in the lab was hard to do because the bats kept flying away.)

Granted, we all know how the virus spread so comments like this don’t do much to detract from the story. The film opens like a documentary, with roles that would normally lend credibility to an expository film: Samuel L. Jackson plays a reporter from The New York Times, Hugh Grant plays a historian who references “Game of Thrones” and refers to how the “White Walkers led their army of the dead to Westeros” as a historical event, and Lisa Kudrow does a beautiful job at portraying a right-wing spokesperson from Trump’s presidency.

But in spite of the jokes, this film aims to document the pivotal moments that made 2020 historical. It starts with Greta Thunberg speaking out again the climate crisis and a tech billionaire responding by carving out a hole in the side of a mountain to save himself. Said billionaire, played by comedian Kumail Nanjiani, allows “Death to 2020” to shed a light on the reality of how big corporations and billionaires exist and respond to crises in our society. But it doesn’t just stop there.

The next clip looks back at how Trump killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which demonstrates that the mock-documentary isn’t just trying to tell the story of American history, but how America relates to the entire world. With sassy comments from Hugh Grant like “While the Iranians would have preferred their chap on the whole not to explode,” “Death to 2020” carries us through 2020 in chronological order in a satirical way.

Moving to Britain, we see the Queen of England (played by Tracy Ullman) talk about how shocked she was when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry told the world they were going to take a step back from the royal family — which transitions to a discussion of race and politics: “Sadly, I believe they felt there was a certain level of prejudice in Britain. Which is why they moved to America, where race has never been an issue at all,” says the Queen of England about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Dark Humor Wins Again

Though puns aren’t the only thing that manage to tell this story, it allows the message to be more digestible. As we’ve all had to live and survive through last year, and as we brace ourselves for 2021, it can be hard to look back on what’s happened in a way that’s not depressing. Not to mention, with the influx of events over the course of the last 12 months, it can be hard to remember exactly what’s happened as well. Can you honestly remember a time that wasn’t just spent in quarantine? “Death to 2020” seeks to remind us in a way that’s not as devastating but, hopefully, in a way that can be taken seriously enough before the history books try to skew the facts again.

It has been argued that the film is distasteful and unnecessary. The film is criticized for making light of the hardships of this year — but it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the realities we’ve gone through. Amid the actors and dark humor, there are real-life clips that portray the events that happened during the year. Plus, the actors represent archetypes that we’ve actually seen — such as the struggling millennial who still ends up making $16 million by the end of the year from his YouTube channel, or Karen, cleverly renamed Kathy, who poses as many people that add to the microaggressions and racism in our country today.

However, it can be understandable why many believe that we don’t need a film that portrays events while we continue to live through them. I don’t believe the intent was to make fun; rather it was to ease the tension from what we’ve overcome so that we can look toward a better future — but maybe some need a little more time to digest the past.

Clips of the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, for example, are displayed in a serious light, which is sobering compared to the satirical message of the film, but the movie quickly picks back up with jokes from Leslie Jones. Jones plays a psychologist who hates people and says Apple’s number one sales feature should be “exposes police brutality” for their phone cameras.

Still, the joke doesn’t take away from the harsh reality of the situation. Nor do the real-life clips take on a particularly graphic or somber tone that makes them hard to watch. Instead, they add to the reflective nature of the film. We’ve used dark humor during this time to laugh through our pain, to see the bright side of things in order for us to survive it. However, seeing as things are still relatively the same, we can only seek to laugh when we can as we enter a new year. That doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on it, but maybe dark humor isn’t everyone’s thing.

New Year’s Resolutions?

Time and time again we’re trying to rethink the way we set new year’s resolutions, goals, intentions, etc. Some choose not to do them, while others have their planners and to-do lists at the ready the moment the clock strikes 12. Though, no matter what type of person you are when it comes to setting aspirations for the new year, it’s not often that we as a society take time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the past 12 months. Google recaps the year with an inspirational video, just as Spotify does for music and YouTube does with their videos, but never on such a wide scale does entertainment come together with the intention of documenting our past year.

There’s a lot to be said from the way “Death to 2020” exposes human nature when handling crises as a culture, a country and a human race. The film looks back to help us move forward for the better in the future. Hopefully the intentions we set this year move beyond just 2021 because just like 2020 itself, “Death to 2020” sheds light on the realities of humanity and the systemic and social issues that exist in our society. We need things to change but how can we do that if we try to block out the year that’s meant to teach us all we need to know in order to grow?

I guess the next question is, can we hope? And if so, for what? It’s hard to predict a future that’s so uncertain and it is difficult to acknowledge that we can’t control what we do not yet know. Though that doesn’t mean Brooker and Jones don’t set out to try. They have their stars read a list of predictions for the year 2021: vaccines that give us powers, President Harris, a Trump News Network and my personal favorite, “We all woke up and it was a horrible dream”.

For a group of creators that specialize in predicting our future, even they don’t seem to have the answers. And maybe, neither should we.

Arianna Taylor, University of Rochester

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Arianna Taylor

University of Rochester
Language Media and Communications

Arianna is from the Bronx and is studying language media and communications. You can find her watching "Avengers Endgame" (again), reading about happily-ever-afters and writing short fiction stories. She’s here to try something new.

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