Death to 2021 review: Another stingingly therapeutic newsreel that kicks in the groin of a year we'd like to forget

Death to 2021 may not have the originality of its predecessor but some acutely clever writing and spiky jabs at politicians, cultural oddities, and events that occupied the majority of 2021, make this one hour a perfect companion to float into a better year – hopefully.

Manik Sharma December 31, 2021 09:10:14 IST
Death to 2021 review: Another stingingly therapeutic newsreel that kicks in the groin of a year we'd like to forget

Hugh Grant in Death to 2021

Language: English

Saying f**k you to a year has become a sort of release mechanism. With consecutive years that have globally tested human spirit and patience, Netflix has found a cheeky, cathartic way of summarising the year that has just been. Death to 2020 was a smart, often riotous way of unloading a grim year off the chest. Because 2021 proved equally challenging, if not more, Netflix has brought back Death to 2021, a screaming, freewheeling conclusion to a dastardly year that, at least in the Indian context, was perhaps one of the hardest in recent history. Death to 2021 may not have the originality of its predecessor but some acutely clever writing and spiky jabs at politicians, cultural oddities, and events that occupied the majority of 2021, makes this one hour a perfect companion to float into a better year – hopefully.

Death to 2021 retains some of its original cast, and ropes in some new members. Diane Morgan continues her role as clueless British loner, Cristin Milioti is lovely as the charming anti-science republican, and Joe Keery is excellent as a wannabe modern influencer. But it is really the star act of the hour-long documentary, Hugh Grant, as a white, racist historian, that punches above everyone else. Because it is a US-centric production, we obviously start with the raid on Capitol Hill, where President Joe Biden’s swearing-in is referred to as a 'reverse exorcism.' From there we move towards the pandemic, where Samson Kayo plays Pyresk Flask a medical scientist whose explanations of the virus are hilariously accompanied by moody soundtracks. 

The predictability of this comedy special cannot undermine some of the witty writing at play here. Grant’s typically, ignorant ‘boomer’ behaviour is almost a charm offensive that proves too hard to resist. Though Lucy Liu features in this new edition, it is really Stockard Channing as the columnist who writes ‘extensively and often drunkenly’ about a variety of issues who holds together the sanity of a palette overflowing with vividly stupid people.

Death to 2021 is not just smart in its colourful captioning of things, or imaginative descriptors, but also in its ability to take up the challenge of ridiculing the sacred. The British Royal family feels the full brunt of 2021, in some especially snarky inverse commentary on the Crown’s racist routes, the over-hyped Prince Harry and Meghan Markle interview, and even Prince Philip’s death, summarised here as his 'final withdrawal from public life.' Even his title is, rather simplistically, shredded with 'Duke of Deadinbrugh.'

The special is also brave in terms of going places where most would not. A commemorative reel of ‘people who were cancelled in 2021’ is a simultaneous pun at both cancel culture and the notion of celebrity. Some of the jokes in the special are obvious and also-rans, with phallic references to Jeff Bezos’ space odyssey chief among them. But heard in the rather cocky, British accent of Grant ironically cheering a white man’s penis envy feels oddly rewarding. "A self-made man proudly thrusting his penis into the heavens, free from shame, defying the gods themselves with this immense blazing phallus," Tennyson (played by Grant) says. “Do you think the ship would have been better if it had balls,” the interviewer asks. It is a trailer park joke, but intellectualised by a graceful actor like Grant, it never seems below the belt where it is actually situated. 

Not all jokes in Death to 2021 of course land. Liu’s high-profile introduction to this particular instalment fades in comparison to Lisa Kudrow’s wonderfully kooky act in the original. It is also a format of comedy that requires a reader, and not just a listener, for it can alienate non-readers or people who cannot digest political insensitivity in the service of humour. It is also one of the inner jokes in the show as it uses political incorrectness.

Ignorant, snobbish, and clueless, Death to 2021, like its predecessor is held up by characters who are self-effacing caricatures but can also seem all too real, if viewed a little too intimately or seriously.

Almost everyone says or believes in the wrong thing, and are hilariously incompetent at the fundamentals in life. The fact, that this is more the world’s condition rather than a fad it is sieving through, is kind of the whole point.

Perhaps it is indicative of the age we live, the cruel few years we have had, that an olive branch can come out of nowhere. Even the narrative trivialisation of grief, suffering, chaos, and most significantly, human stupidity, for a condensed hour of self-gratifying, at times even crass, humour feels rewarding for the lid of concern it helps lift. To which effect, it perhaps does not even matter if the special qualifies as high art or not, as long as it makes moving past yet another horrid year that much easier. Of course, it cannot do all that on its own, but maybe putting a little joker hat and audacious make-up on the face of a morbid year can consign it to some sort of insignificance. In which case, Death to 2021 is another therapeutic newsreel with some biting and stinging commentary on another year we would like to forget. Kicking it in the groin is okay too.

Death To 2021 is streaming on Netflix.

Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.

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