As “the most average person in the world,” Diane Morgan’s “Death to 2020” character sits on a couch in a comfy sweater during her talking-head interviews about the year that was 2020. She does not have a strong personal position on the political moves made over the course of the calendar year, preferring instead to sum up what she has witnessed taking place across the pond as watching a “show called America” that is “on the news channel.” She notes she found the story farfetched when it came time for President Donald Trump’s “experimental” vaccine, and that “it looked like the final shot in the season finale of America, so I was actually quite surprised when the country kept going after that.”
In those ways, Morgan’s character earned her title: She perfectly summed up how so many citizens across the globe have felt of late: like bystanders absorbing wave after wave of dramatic content that felt like it, along with the year itself, would not end. In order to reflect on 2020 with a bit of sardonic wisdom while also bidding it adieu, “Black Mirror’s” Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones created a special one-off mockumentary, in part to continue the trend of Brooker’s annual yearly “Wipes” that aired in the U.K. for the past decade, but also to provide a bit of “cathartic release,” he tells Variety.
“Really what this is is a lot of character comedy and spoofing the documentary form that you’d see on Netflix. Hopefully that left us enough room for goofy jokes and surreal gags, as well as some angry commentary from time to time and a bit of gallows humor. But generally we just wanted to do something where people would find a relief,” he says.
Rather than be a complete year-end wrap-up, “Death to 2020” focuses on tentpole events that had an “international view,” Brooker explains, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the U.S. election and of course the coronavirus pandemic, with smaller mentions of topics such as “Megxit” and #OscarsSoWhite thrown in.
“Because these stories had such an impact, they’re universal,” Brooker says. “Obviously the pandemic is a huge global story, so in a way there is a commonality of experience between the nations — we’ve been subject to the same forces and have the same criticisms, the same anxieties. The Black Lives Matter movement became a huge international story and the U.S. election is always in some ways more glamorous to British people than our own election; we love to comment on it and view it more because we’re slightly removed, even though it has a massive impact on our lives.”
Although everyone has experienced these events at the same time this year, they experienced them in different ways, depending on where they lived and what news outlets they read, watched or to which they listened. Brooker and Jones didn’t want to be the Brits going, “I’ll tell you what the deal is with America,” he says, so they relied on their U.S. cast and members of their writing team, as well as their directors, to make sure to cover multiple points of views, as well as multiple events that were still unfolding as the project was being produced.
“We were trying to shape it while it’s happening,” Brooker says. “Normally you’d have a beginning, middle and an end — but you don’t know what the end is going to be, so you hit thematic beats every now and then.”
Production took place in both the U.K. and the U.S., with Brooker and Jones watching footage remotely while Al Campbell directed the actors who were in the U.K. — from Morgan to Hugh Grant and Samson Kayo — and Alice Mathias directed those, such as Leslie Jones, Lisa Kudrow and Samuel L. Jackson, in the U.S.
Despite filming amid the pandemic, all of the actors’ individual talking heads were shot in real locations, with crew kept to the bare minimum needed to achieve each look and shot. “I think we were lucky with the timing,” Jones admits. “When we shot in LA, it was just before the current lockdown, but we were very mindful of what the actors were doing. Some are in production bubbles and some were just a bit nervous, so we worked with the actors and their teams to make sure everyone was comfortable.”
In other ways, though, the timing proved complicated. Each actor only shot for one day, which limited the amount of prognosticated reactions and commentary the production crew could get out of them at their time of filming. Brooker and Jones continued on with the edit through the end of December to make the piece as timely as possible, including information about the COVID-19 vaccine during the post-production process with heavy archival imagery and narration by Laurence Fishburne because “I didn’t guess that a vaccine would be approved,” Brooker says.
(On the flip side, Brooker admits there were some cultural moments they had to leave on the cutting room floor, including “Joe Keery reacting the ‘WAP’ video,” he says.)
As the credits roll on “Death to 2020,” various characters deliver line-readings of possible events to come, including that Kamala Harris will take over the presidency (presumably because President-Elect Joe Biden’s health takes a turn for the worse), and even those were limited in nature. Brooker and Jones say they couldn’t even sneak in the news of when their hit anthology series “Black Mirror” would return to Netflix there because they haven’t shot any of it yet, and while they spent a lot of the writing period “estimating” these pieces of material, they wanted to be optimistic and humorous, rather than delivering intentionally incorrect information.
Rather than focus on nitty-gritty details of any events depicted within “Death to 2020,” though, the most important part of “Death to 2020” was getting the right balance of “grounded and sensible points of view that will resonate with people and others who are exhibiting insane or repugnant ones,” Brooker says.
Grant’s Tennyson Foss, a historian who resembles a younger, less-disheveled Bernie Sanders, starts out seemingly rational, perhaps in part because of Grant’s charm, but quickly devolves into declaring “All Lives Matter.” Meanwhile, Cristin Milioti embodies the epitome of a “Karen,” both in her interviews and footage of her accosting Black people for being in places such as their own cars, and Lisa Kudrow captures the insanity of an “unofficial” political spokesperson who denies things happened even when looking at footage of them.
The latter two characters are specific archetypes that have dominated American news, culture and social media for months now and therefore were written to be that “heightened” before the actors even came on-board, says Jones. But, in many cases, once actors were in place, they were able to influence their characters’ attitude and even their words. Brooker shares that Kudrow, specifically had a strong point of view on a few things she wanted in her scenes, and they brought them to fruition, while for characters who served an analytical purpose within the mockumentary, from Jackson’s “New Yorkerly News” reporter to Jones’ behavioral psychologist, “we were just lucky to work with actors, some of them who have done a lot of improv and are used to bringing their own lines and material to a performance. And that’s quite helpful when you’re a British production company and you’ve created American characters giving views on some American angles,” Jones says.
Such collaboration has expanded Brooker and Jones’ relationships with their performers, some of whom they’d worked with before, and the experience has left them interested in more.
“I’d love to spend more time with all of them,” he says of his “Death to 2020” characters. But noting that they are “too heightened” and “a different beast” than the world he and Jones create within “Black Mirror,” it would have to be in a show with “a comic basis.”
Let’s see what 2021 brings.