You probably haven’t seen “Yearly Departed,” and it’s likely you never will.
Amazon Studio’s all-female comedy special should be good. Featuring an ensemble cast of the best women in comedy, the likes of Tiffany Haddish and Rachel Brosnahan — donning chic black ensembles and fabulous hats — present eulogies for 2020. Phoebe Robinson of “Two Dope Queens ” is the master of ceremonies.
Their eulogies lament the expected: pants, casual sex and Donald Trump. They paint the pandemic in familiar shades of sarcasm, frustration and incredulity. But there’s a dissonance when they stand back and nod at their own finished picture. At best, the special is an unoriginal takedown of a year we already believe to be bad. At worst, it epitomizes the artistic and political failings that the pandemic did not create, but revealed.
The special, for me, peaked in the first scene. The women, entering one by one, greet one another with the kind of ebullient grins I have reserved for the first time I can walk through a crowded space and wave feverishly at that person for whom I have a nickname. You feel the rarified air of the community in the opening scenes, the fact that these are women who once bumped into one another at late night wrap parties. In this space, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Brosnahan) is just “Rachie Broz Broz.” It’s a coven of the cool finally returned after a forced hiatus.
But the delight of voyeurism ends there. You start to realize that the performers are sitting six feet apart, the eulogies they give were filmed separately, the director having never been in the same room as her cast. “Yearly Departed,” much like HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” was produced under social distance procedure, a change that signals the radical reinvention of cinema.
Movie theaters, to little surprise, aren’t necessary when direct release platforms like Netflix and Amazon can draw large audiences. Content, it turns out, can be made virtually. No one is saying that these highly-edited and virtualized shows are any good, but the point is that they’re possible. All of the performers can lament the past year as much as they want, but if they can shoot both a TV show in Los Angeles and a stand up special at Radio City, will the virtual world that COVID produced suddenly become valuable?
Beyond the physical production, it’s the message of the special I find most disturbing. In theory, jokes about how bad this year should land. Why wouldn’t they? In some ways the pandemic is comedic gold, the end to the “you had to be there” futility of trying to tell someone what your bad experience was like. Even if we all wield varying degrees of privilege in crisis, no one will call 2020 the best of times.
But there’s a lethargy to this setup — it un-ambitiously relies on what we already know, which doesn’t yield great material. Art, in any form, has the unique ability to exist within the colliding hemispheres of what we understand and what we don’t. Comedians rely on both truth and fiction to produce something profoundly truer than a breaking headline. Even if much of comedy toes the line of reporting, there’s a reason jokes are not journalism.
And yet, we exist in a peculiar world where reality feels like make-believe, as if the joke has written itself. But I can’t say I’m laughing as much as I used to. Jokes about the pandemic feel cheap. They lack the enlightenment that comes when you use creative invention to find something true. Instead, the comedy is tinged with premature understanding of a time that we probably won’t fully know until it’s codified in history books. Still, we rest on the laurels of our shared misery, using COVID as a catchall for every feeling we have. “Well, you know, it’s the pandemic!,” as if this incomprehensible glitch in our system is somehow both rational explanation and brilliant comedy.
More importantly, the concept of the show itself doesn’t quite land. The special relies on the idea that we’re finally able to celebrate the departed, but you might as well be burying 2020 alive. Sarah Silverman eulogizes the “MAGA years” in the special, but her jokes didn’t even age a week. Whether Trump is in or out of office, MAGA will spawn until systematic, widespread campaigns can spread education and economic reform to the Trumpian communities that believe themselves the downtrodden and the GOP their high priest.
Perhaps the special would work if 2020 were actually dead, but we have reason to believe otherwise. In many ways, 2020 crystalized centuries worth of problems. If 50 million Americans can go hungry after unemployment, there is reason to believe that wages should have been higher a long time ago. If 40 million people face eviction, then tenant laws ought to do more to protect renters.
I wanted “Yearly Departed” to be the nail in 2020’s coffin, just like I wanted Joe Biden’s inauguration to be the end to hunger, eviction, inequity and assaults on American democracy. I’m starting to think, though, that we don’t yet have a corpse.
ELLA ATTELL is a rising sophomore in Davenport College. Her column, Toil and Trouble, runs every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.