Charlie Brooker on Death to 2020, and the Year that Changed Him: “I Pivoted to a Strange Sort of Optimism”

Laura Martin
·7-min read

From Esquire

Well, that was an... eventful year, wasn’t it? As 2020 prepares to crawl back into the hellscape it arose from, it’s only natural that we’ll want to sit back and take a minute to process all of *gestures around* this.

Thankfully, there’s one man who’s very well versed in casting a wry eye over the year’s proceedings, and that man is Charlie Brooker. When he’s not predicting dystopian horror show futures in the Black Mirror anthology, he’s producing and presenting Screenwipe or Newswipe for the BBC, which looks back on events just passed, either on TV or IRL.

But this year, with the world turned upside down, Charlie - along with his co-creator and exec producer Annabel Jones - is also turning his tried and tested format on its head. Jumping over to Netflix, he’s created Death to 2020, a mockumentary where “absurd characters” are interviewed about their thoughts on the year.

“Every year I seemed to be saying this was the worst year ever,” says Brooker, speaking at the online roundtable for the production. “Then along came 2020, which puts all of that into sharp relief.”

He’s keen to point out that he’s not just cut-and-pasted the TV format of his BBC specials to Netflix - for starters, he’s not presenting the show, and instead has cast Laurence Fishburne as narrator, mainly for his voice, which Brooker says is “simultaneously a luxurious bath and a booming authority”.

Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX
Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

Fishburne joins an impressive cast line-up, with Hollywood stars drafted on board to help shift Brooker’s irreverent tone of topical comedy to Americans who have had their interest piqued by Black Mirror. Samuel L Jackson plays reporter Dash Bracket, Hugh Grant plays the fusty historian Tennyson Foss, Lisa Kudrow plays doublespeak political spokesperson Jeanetta Grace Susan and Tracey Ullman gives Olivia Colman in The Crown a run for her money by starring as HRH Queen Elizabeth II.

There are also star turns from Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones, Stranger Things’s Joe Keery, Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and even Diane Morgan, who’s stepping away from Philomena Cunk to play “average citizen”, Gemma Nerrick.

Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX
Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

Documentaries about appalling things happening, but with beautiful cinematography

“Effectively, it’s like a mock documentary about the year because that felt very apt format to do on Netflix,” Brooker says. “As well as high end dramas, it’s had great success doing documentaries often about appalling things happening, but with beautiful cinematography. You know, a bleak piano note being struck as a drone flies over a forest.

“So it was a good opportunity to do something that was talking about the year and gently tweaking the nose of a format you see on Netflix and also we could showcase a lot of brilliant performances.”

The one-off, 70-minute film will cover everything from the pandemic (obviously), the Black Lives Matter movement and the US Election through to the rise (and rise) of TikTok, Parasite’s Oscar win and the Royal Family.

Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The idea was pitched to the streaming giant in July, which made it a challenging prospect to even get to a first draft stage - after all, how do you analyse and satirise a year with six months still left to live through?

“It’s tricky to do something where it’s a moving target and you’re still in the thick of it,” admits Brooker. “It’s been quite a reactive script, it’s changed quite a lot as we go through, there were some things you could try and preempt but you can’t completely predict.

“At what point can you deliver a first draft for what’s going to happen in December? I’m not Nostradamus, so there were different varieties of drafts, it was kind of seeping out rather than ever being ‘delivered’.”

It took just 10 days to film in November, with each actor performing by themselves on camera, with Brooker and Jones watching on a live feed via Zoom - enabling them to make comments in real time. It’s a format that actually works surprisingly well, in these socially distanced times. “It’s as hard to shoot a bunch of people in a cafe than it is to shoot a fight on the moon at the moment, as everyone has to be swabbed every three seconds,” comments Brooker, about the difficulty the TV and film industry has faced this year.

Even now in December, it can be hard to really crystalise our thoughts on the year gone by, when so many of us have been concentrating on simply surviving, and making it to the end of the year in one piece. But Brooker, a man who’s TV persona plays up to a miserable nihilist, says this year has converted him into an...optimist?

Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX
Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

“I’ve always been a paranoid and worried person, but oddly, I pivoted to a strange kind of almost optimism”

“A weird thing I’ve noticed - and you’d never guess this from Black Mirror,” he quips, “but I’ve always been a paranoid and worried person who is neurotically concerned that the worst thing possible is about to happen. Oddly, when this happened, I think on some level, I pivoted to a strange kind of almost optimism, because that dread and anxiety of something terrible happening; once it’s happening and it’s a real and growing concern, you’re not worrying about some great unknown, you’re dealing with an actual situation.

“If I had been writing the Black Mirror version of the pandemic unfolding across the planet, it would have been incredibly violent and society would have collapsed in on itself in the thrilling opening credit sequence. Generally speaking, thus far, your neighbour is more likely to help you with something than they are to fight you for a bottle of water, so my more cynical and pessimistic thoughts have changed.”

It’s been billed as a “cathartic comedy” by Netflix, but Brooker wants to impress that “there’s a lot of silliness in there as well”. Actor Leslie Jones said it was one of the best scripts she’s ever received (presumably no shade to the Ghostbusters’ writers) as it was “so funny”.

Can we laugh about the year that was 2020 yet? After all, humour is how many of us survived the past 12 months - the quality and quantity of incredible memes this year is testament to that. But Death to 2020 will certainly be an experiment to see at what stage we’re all at with processing the traumas of the year.

Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX
Photo credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

This cursed year hasn’t diminished Brooker’s funny bone either. When asked about anything positive he was going to take from 2020, he’s straight in there: “I realised, ‘I don’t need to use deodorant very often, do it?’”

Joking aside, he adds: “I do think that in the UK there’s been a real appreciation of our health care - we had a weekly thing where we stood outside and applauded and banged tin pots. We’ve got to give these people a pay rise, we’ve got to put our money where our mouths are.

“Six months previously I would have complained about Amazon delivery drivers tossing a package over my gate, I’d have been moaning on Twitter and suddenly, they’re like a flipping hero to me. There’s an appreciation for the people who keep things moving in society and keep us healthy.” And there’s also a very important space for those who keep us entertained.

Death to 2020 will be streaming on Netflix from Sunday 27 December

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