At first, Kathy Flowers was just a regular-soccer-mom-slash-Christian-girl-autumn-enthusiast living in the suburbs. She used Facebook and wasn’t sure if she could call people “Black,” and Dr. Fauci’s broadcasts were almost soothing to watch. But a quick dive into the internet brought her to a troll conspiracy documentary, and she soon became convinced that COVID-19 was created in a lab so that Bill Gates could turn humans into microchipped video game characters. It’s 2020, so why not, I guess.
Cristin Millioti’s character in the new Netflix special Death to 2020, written by the creators of Black Mirror, is a blandly amusing suburban mom archetype, one of many tropes that the film relies on. There’s the gig-economy millennial, the elitist historian, the White House PR rep, et cetera. All of these characters function as figures to point out the specific absurdities of 2020, and obviously there’s no shortage of those. Death to 2020 tries to embody the “it’s 2020 I guess” mentality, but ends up being an overly obvious recap of a year that, unless you never read a single headline, nobody really needed.
Kathy’s internet rabbit hole story is not an uncommon experience for real people who have found white-supremacist and conspiracy groups on platforms like 4chan and Reddit. But the rapid personality shift from nice, slightly racist white woman to delusional far-right conspiracist is one that dramatically oversimplifies the real dangers that the internet poses. “I read about it on Facebook” is a go-to line of hers that points to the growth of social media as a common news source for many Americans, but the mockumentary evades a more nuanced depiction of how people can quickly spiral out of control online. Critique of social media is a thread throughout Death to 2020, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been covered before. A funnier technology-centric moment is when the Silicon Valley tech CEO redefines violent political factions as groups across a “hate spectrum” and hopes to reduce the time it takes to radicalize people on social media from six months to five minutes. Whereas Kathy Flowers is obnoxiously exaggerated, the CEO is dead serious about his indiscriminate obsession with optimization, making the film get a little closer to quality satire. But regardless of anyone’s performance, Death to 2020 doesn’t handle the topic of social media with the chilling, mind-opening style that it deserves.
Leaving viewers wanting more becomes an unfortunate pattern throughout the film. Focusing on Tom Hanks testing positive for coronavirus, the plot shifts to news outlets’ glee over the “irresistible celebrity angle to an otherwise boring deadly pandemic.” But that’s where discussion of the media landscape ends; there’s no meaningful narrative about our addiction to constant entertainment aside from some quippy one-liners. Maybe that’s the point, but mostly viewers are left unsatisfied. Lisa Kudrow plays a Republican White House media spokeswoman who claims that conservative voices are being silenced despite her regular presence on Fox News, her YouTube channel, and her book. The delusionary unreality of conservative Trump loyalists is, again, so absurd that it often becomes a joke, but Kudrow’s character, like many of the others, are like SNL characters that flopped. Because of their overly obvious caricature, it’s hard to see Death to 2020 as anything other than a series of unnecessarily extended Twitter jokes. Satire should contribute something meaningful to the cultural narratives that are currently circulating, but Death to 2020 stays at the level of amusing-but-hollow pop-culture buzzwords.
At first, Joe Keery’s depiction of the gig-economy millennial seems to offer a moment of real humor. Before the pandemic, he worked as a mixologist and gender-neutral gender reveal party DJ, but then turned to roles as a reaction YouTuber and digital life coach, the sort of vaguely progressive jobs that make you think, is that a real thing? You can make all the arguments you want for his role as an indication of the economic conditions that have forced young workers to take on multiple “gig” roles, but ultimately, he’s just pretentious and obnoxious. Incorporating words like “mansplain” and “ally” into conversation, he reminds viewers of all the woke white men obsessed with their own faux leftism. But once he says how much he loves creating streaming content because there’s “so much material all year” (cut to him describing pandemic-era Wuhan as “shittifying”), viewers are reminded once again that they are watching a movie and that Keery’s character isn’t real. In scene after scene, subtlety is what Death to 2020 needs.
The mockumentary received mixed reviews, with many critics bored by its tired humor and lack of imagination. Given Black Mirror’s popularity and creative ability to diagnose social ills, Death to 2020 was definitely disappointing. An actual Black Mirror episode would have probably been much more interesting; Death to 2020 is so focused on real events that it becomes closer to a talk show recap than satire. Poking fun at the insanity of 2020 is entertaining, sure, but it doesn’t offer genuine cultural insight into the dystopia that reality has become. Much of the special consisted of simple, surface-level jokes that attempted to cover politics, technology, media, economics, and entertainment from a year that just ended. That’s likely part of the problem—the special treats conspiracy-theorizing, internet absorption, political chaos, and the disintegration of reality as laughably disturbing glitches. But now it’s 2021, and as Trump supporters storm the Capitol in the name of white supremacy, it seems like reality has only gotten worse. Satire might help us distance ourselves from the past year’s events, but right now, we need to look at those events up close. The chaos, violence, and injustice of 2020 will continue in the future unless we take legitimate, unironic steps to make the world better. Entertainment is soothing, but the time for blissful ignorance is long gone.
By Katherine Williams