There’s no getting past it. 2016 has been a dreadful year. Even worse than Norbit. If you voted Remain in the UK’s European Union referendum, you’ve seen your fellow Brits decide to exit the EU, leaving everything about the country’s future up in the air. If you voted Leave and you’re happy about the way that misleading politicians have handled it before and since, you’ve still had to deal with the fact that David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Terry Wogan and more all died. (The In Memoriam section of 2017’s Oscars may need a separate show all to itself.)
A comedy programme trying to make you laugh about the past 12 months, then, might not sound like the best idea. But BBC Two’s annual round-up isn’t your average comedy programme: it’s 2016 Wipe, and there’s no one better qualified than Charlie Brooker to dissect the last 12 months. As bleak as he is laugh-out-loud funny, Brooker is like someone crossed the Grim Reaper with Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets. The result is the most depressing, uplifting hour of TV you’ll see this Christmas; a blast of misery and humour that’s just what we all needed.
In the past, the chronological nature of the yearly show has been its weakness, but 2016’s rollercoaster of events makes for a harrowing ride that is oddly cathartic, like a haunted house whisking you past all of your most traumatic memories. Unlike previous years, there’s also no end of source material. A soundtrack that includes a string arrangement of Life on Mars and (when discussing Brexit) the Game of Thrones theme only highlights how out-of-the-ordinary 2016 has been, from the extremes of tragedy to the heights of ridiculousness.
Brooker’s writing is as scathing as ever, from its descriptions of Nigel Farage – “like a nasty pop-up ad you can’t click away” – and recollections of Great British Bake Off to comforting footage of Planet Earth II, with its soothing scenes of animals “dying in godless agony”. It’s the perfect tonic to the toxic news headlines of 2016, spitting bile in the face of bile; this year, after all, is a year that seems to have brought everyone together with hatred. Brooker’s delivery has rarely been more downbeat or more confident: he rants about Donald Trump, still finding new ways to capture the horror, and vivid orange colour, of the US President-elect, but the point at which Jo Cox is mentioned sees Charlie look directly at the camera with a silent glare, which says more than a tirade ever could. At other times, he simply walks in a zombied state, strolling through an abandoned fairground of disillusionment (complete with upside down, crashed ambulance). And, of course, still finds time to make a “your mum” joke. That’s the secret to Brooker’s reassuringly cruel presence, which is like being told by Morgan Freeman that all your teeth are about to fall out: no matter how bad things get, there’s always room for a “your mum” joke.
It’s not just the news and bereavements, though, that gets attention: the show takes time out to remind us of the cultural high points of the year (Barry Shitpeas wonderfully describes The Night Manager in terms of Fawlty Towers), and remind everyone of the important event that was a puddle being live-streamed over the web. It’s all researched and edited together superbly, from news clips to old footage of a hole filled with water in Newcastle. After a year that started so innocuously, making it to the end of 2016 feels like something of an achievement – until you remember that the reward for doing so is having to face 2017 too.
After 2014 Wipe introduced us to Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake, 2016 Wipe reaches a new peak of mind-numbing perspective, not by going more in-depth, but by taking a step back into the wider expanse of stupidity that is Philomena Cunk’s universe. In a year where we’ve had enough of experts, how fitting that Diane Morgan’s eternally idiotic pundit should be the one to close out 2016, asking the question nobody dares to ask: is this the apocalypse? The result is an instant TV highlight of the year, as Cunk quizzes Professor Brian Cox about how, exactly, the Earth will meet its end. “You said things can only get better,” she challenges him. “How can I trust anything you say now?” The one thing we know for sure? 2017 Wipe can only be more depressing. And that, oddly, is a rather comforting thought.
Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe is available on BBC iPlayer until 28th January 2017.
Photo: Endemol / Kieron McCarron