At the start of “Death to 2020,” a reporter played by Samuel L. Jackson sits alone in an abandoned office listening to a disembodied voice explain he’s looking back at the past year. “Why would you want to do that?” Jackson responds, with an additional curse for emphasis.
The question haunts the next hour. One reasonable answer is that hearing Samuel L. Jackson swear is one of the finest pleasures in popular culture. Another: Where else are you going to go for some new jokes by famous people right now? The last week of the year is traditionally rich with live comedy events, but the pandemic has sidelined beloved annual shows from Sandra Bernhard and Dave Attell. Two streaming services have tried to fill the void by creating their own new genre. With talent-rich one-off specials, “Death to 2020” (on Netflix) and “Yearly Departed” (on Amazon) are comedy’s answer to journalism’s year-end lists.
“Death,” slickly produced by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, the pair behind “Black Mirror,” is a fake documentary starring a fantasy team of actors, while “Yearly,” a more stripped-down affair hosted by Phoebe Robinson, imagines a funeral for things lost in 2020 attended by a cast of superb female comics. But both conceits are essentially thin pretexts to throw a bunch of jokes together recapping recent news under socially distanced conditions. Some of the bits are solid, others aren’t. But they never add up to more than fine diversions.
“Death to 2020,” which lists no fewer than 18 writers, presents an array of talking heads, all caricatures, quipping about a highlight reel of news events: Tom Hanks getting Covid-19, Trump talking about injecting bleach, Biden in the basement and more of the greatest hits. There isn’t a strong perspective here outside of ugh, this year, can you believe it? And there’s fun to be had with these performances, including Hugh Grant playing a foppishly pretentious academic with impeccable condescension.
Grant, who has aged into a masterful player of villains, always begins in seriousness before veering into dumb absurdity. Describing the fires that ravaged many parts of the world early in the year, he states: “It left these areas utterly inhospitable,” before pausing for the punchline: “Even to Australians.” Then there’s: “People think democracy is permanent and unchanging,” he says. “In truth, it’s something you must perpetually nurture like a woman. Or a professional grudge.”
Many of the actors don’t play new characters so much as version of ones that have been popular elsewhere. As Dr. Maggie Gravel, Leslie Jones alternates between abrupt rage and pleading lustfulness. And in a turn that will delight fans of “The Comeback,” Lisa Kudrow turns a pathologically lying White House aide into hilarious cringe comedy.
My favorite is Cristin Milioti’s Kathy Flowers, the ultimate Karen, whose series of monologues add up to the closest thing to a fleshed-out character arc here, starting in placid suburban normalcy before the internet radicalizes her, shifting into eye-bursting, conspiratorial madness. It’s silly sketch comedy performed with the commitment of an elite actor. More often in this special, the joke takes precedence over character, and the monologues have the feel of a collection of punch lines doled out like cards at a table.
“Yearly Departed” also looks back in anguish, but instead of actors playing types, standup comics act as eulogists, taking turns at a lectern to pay their respects. Tiffany Haddish bids farewell to casual sex, and Natasha Rothwell speaks about giving up on “TV cops.” Everyone appears to be together, watching each other, but they were all filmed separately and cut together with reaction shots. The resulting feel is oddly uncanny.
Not only are there seasoned stars like Sarah Silverman, but they mix in some new breakouts like Ziwe Fumudoh and up-and comers like Patti Harrison, who delivers one of the funniest, most acutely observed eulogies on the obsolescence of “rich girl Instagram influencers.” With mock poignancy, she asks: “Who could forget your surface-level love for photography, which you tried to get people to call ‘memory remembering,’ a term you coined.”
The comic Natasha Leggero has a sharp set on the death of her desire to have kids, where she speaks for many parents during the pandemic saying: “I love my daughter, but I love her in the same way I love LSD. In microdoses.”
Along with the stand-ups, some actors made cameos including Sterling K. Brown, laying on the floor to illustrate the span of six feet, along with Rachel Brosnahan, perhaps to remind you that “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” can be seen on Amazon. Her flat set about the death of pants is a reminder that playing a stand-up is not the same as being one. “Yearly” is hit or miss, but so are most stand-up sets at clubs, and by showing us a well-curated collection of female talent, there were more good jokes than in “Death to 2020.” And fewer stale ones.
And yet watching both these shows repeatedly bemoan the miseries of the past year, I couldn’t help but think how the streaming services producing them actually did very well. Just as the pandemic has disproportionately hurt marginalized and disadvantaged groups, it has devastated small theaters and clubs while benefiting digital behemoths.
That Jeff Bezos made $90 billion during the pandemic goes unmentioned on Amazon’s “Yearly Departed.” And while the script for “Death to 2020” points out how people stuck at home during lockdown spent more time on Netflix, name-dropping the reality shows “Love Is Blind” and “Floor Is Lava” amid the tragic news events makes you wonder if this was self-mocking comedy or corporate synergy? Spoiler alert: It’s both.
In our ever more consolidated culture, where product placement is the norm and only a few companies produce the vast majority of large-scale entertainment, Netflix covers all the bases, pumping out escapist content for an audience stuck at home, then poking fun at themselves for doing it. “Death to 2020” was billed as a departure for the creators of “Black Mirror,” a comedy instead of a haunting vision of technology gone awry. And yet, seen from a different angle, it might be their darkest dystopian production yet.