Our American cousins presumably came to Death To 2020 rather confused – it’s made by, and proudly billed as being made by, Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. So they were presumably expecting a seasonal tale of techno-terror, by which I mean a fictional one, not the real story of big tech and social media stoking division. Death To 2020 does touch on this, only to then do nothing more with it.
Instead, Death To 2020 is, for all intents and purposes, a special edition of Brooker’s yearly Wipes, one where it is a selection of celebrity guests rather than Brooker himself acting as the caustic narrators. Hardcore Brooker stans will be familiar with the Wipe format, but for many who have only known his work since Black Mirror popped up on Netflix, this will be their first exposure to the style – and to Diane Morgan’s recurring Wipe character Philomena Cunk.
The name ‘Philomena’ was originally meant to sell Cunk as more of an upper-class twit, by contrast to her prototype/co-presenter, the plebeian oik Barry Shitpeas. In the event, though, Morgan’s natural Bolton drawl suited the character far better. Come Death To 2020, Hugh Grant’s confused Oxford don filled much the same space as the original Philomena Cunk might have, sounding well-informed by virtue of his accent and bearing only to then reveal an absolute dearth of factual substance – and was one of the more charming parts of the special because of it.
(One of Cunk’s better tricks was to inflict herself upon real Oxford dons, and get them to try and make sense of her not-even-wrong questions about the world.)
Cunk and Shitpeas both satirised television by taking it completely seriously, uncritically absorbing whatever they saw on the idiot box. There is no better illustration of this than their savage commentary on Die Hard 5, the last in the increasingly clapped-out franchise, where their repeated praise for ‘the exciting film, with the explosions’ eventually becomes more brutal a takedown than anything Roger Ebert ever managed.
This time around, while remaining essentially the same persona, Morgan becomes Gemma Nerrick, ‘one of the top five most average people on the planet’ – a description that could easily have been applied to Cunk, whose name was traditionally followed by stuff like ‘showbiz liker’ or ‘flesh emoji’. All of which suggests that this gossamer-thin veil is to prevent Netflix getting their hooks in the Cunk character, who has contractual obligations of her own, like the spin-off BBC documentary Cunk On Britain.
(You’ll notice that ‘Gemma Nerrick’ is, in fact, an anagram of ‘Philomena Cunk’, if you change some of the letters.)
The key is that for Cunk and Shitpeas – and, yes, Nerrick too – the television is the only lens they have through which to view the wider world. David Attenborough’s nature documentary Africa, with its focus on wildlife, reveals that charity efforts like Live Aid ‘must be a con, because nobody actually lives there’. So, for the decidedly British Nerrick, the trials and tribulations of America’s 2020 become one massive reality show.
As a momentary quip this might work, but as the idea underpinning half your show, it’s an abdication of all comic responsibility. Rather than riffing on current events, it’s merely gesturing frantically at them, declaring ‘look! Look! The things are funny, so laugh, damn you, laugh, you baying hounds!’
For discrete units like Die Hard 5 or Attenborough’s Africa, the uncritical belief in what was presented onscreen worked in a way that believing all American news was a work of entertainment didn’t. And it’s a particularly odd choice in a work clearly tuned for an American audience – or, should I say, a certain kind of American audience, the self-deprecating, self-hating sort who really can look at their country and go ‘ah ha ha, it’s true, we suck’.
But as so many have noted, reviving the dead horse only to cudgel it to the ground once more, we now live in a post-truth age. The recurrent complaints about ‘fake news’ have rendered us all in the same boat as Cunk and Shitpeas. Their screen-burned delusions are no more, or less, valid than the insane lies spouted by some poisonously ideological journalist – a type which, tellingly, Death To 2020 features, but never manages to hit with a real death-blow despite being such an easy target.
The Wipe format hasn’t simply lost the fine flush of youth, it’s suffered the indignity of being ahead of the curve. And with its focus on American culture, Death To 2020 simply isn’t doing anything original. There is no hot take on the year’s events present that you couldn’t have found rattling around on The Onion or one of the fourteen or so interchangeable mock-news shows that are all called something like The Late Show Tonight and which pretend their millionaire host is some kind of bold cultural rebel.
The original Wipes did hit on current events, but also found room for all sorts of funny little interludes: musings on soap operas, looks into the way television is actually constructed, and even Gilliamesque animation breaks by the pride of Doncaster and creator of Salad Fingers, David Firth. Whether you liked or disliked any of these, it made the overall package far less generic than Death To 2020 turned out – as did Brooker’s genuine anger at the injustices of the world, something thoroughly absent here.
About the one break we get from Death To 2020’s incessant current event-punchline format is, you may be unsurprised to learn, with Nerrick. And that too is within the show a break from the norm, where in one jarring monologue she stops misinterpreting television and instead reveals the quiet pathos of her own life. Although it’s not strictly about being socially distanced, it’s not not that either – so this is about the one moment when Death To 2020 even attempts to speak to the deep-seated feelings of the average viewer, something which the Wipes used to be very good at, rather than dancing around with celebrities and other media types and their comfortable little quips.
It was also the Wipes that introduced drunken anarchist comedian Doug Stanhope to mainstream UK audiences, and it was Stanhope who nailed late-nite observational comics’ tendency to merely “notice, and move on”. What else can Death To 2020, released in late December, really be other than noticing that 2020 was a shitshow – and then, yes, moving on? We all grow up to become what we despise.
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