‘Don’t Look Up’ and ‘Search Party’ compete to satirize end times

What a privilege: to survive the end of the world long enough to debate the accuracy of movies and shows created during, and about, the end of the world.

“They would never do that,” one might say, from the comfort of quarantine, watching actors whose nostrils have become docking stations for cotton swabs. “That’s so us,” one might tweet, watching a fictional depiction of social media activity around a planet-destroying asteroid. It’s cold comfort to interrogate apocalyptic satire for a few hours, as a little break from stewing about the apocalypse itself. A pair of recent entries in this bleak subgenre offer competing satires of our climate- and COVID-19-ravaged moment—and implicate viewers in different ways.

Netflix’s Don’t Look Up hit the Twitter discourse the last week of December like a star-studded asteroid. Nobody was safe from the takes, least of all the film’s creators, who went heavily on the defensive. For anyone who somehow missed that conversation, Don’t Look Up is director Adam McKay’s allegory about climate change, in the form of an Armageddon-esque disaster movie. It’s about the hydra-headed monster of politicians, corporations, and media outlets who together thwart scientific efforts to alert the world of its impending doom.

While Don’t Look Up lobs plenty of blunt barbs at the most powerful people standing in the way of properly addressing our existential threat, it saves its most cutting critiques for the viewers themselves. The daytime TV hosts played by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett may get paid to be vapidly sunny about the asteroid, but at least they have agency. The apparently hundreds of millions of people who tune in to their show every day are part of the digital scrum of cattle-like consumers who chew content like cud. Don’t Look Up’s biggest blind spot is the smugly condescending way it scolds those people, surrogates for the audience themselves, for simply not looking up at the end of the world.

The unwashed masses in Don’t Look Up are mostly glimpsed through the lens of social media. They make memes about a scientist (Jennifer Lawrence) who freaks out when those daytime TV hosts patronize her on their show. They accidentally shoot bottle rockets at their faces while participating in the #LaunchChallenge on Instagram, to commemorate a rocket launch aimed at the asteroid. Only when the rocky mass is actually visible without a telescope do internet dwellers finally take it more seriously and start hashtagging #JustLookUp. In the world of this movie, the fate of the planet seems to hinge on whether people meme the right way before it’s too late.

Don’t Look Up is at its best when exploring more complex positions than “just look up” and its titular opposite chant, which Meryl Streep’s president character adopts as a MAGA-like catchphrase. The parents of Lawrence’s character, for instance, are “for the jobs the comet will provide,” while Chris Evans’s fictitious movie star wears a pin pointing both up and down, to urge people against arguing about the asteroid. This is the kind of complexity that Search Party, another recent source of end-times satire, has offered throughout its entire five-season run.

(Consider this a warning: Major spoilers for the fifth season of Search Party follow.)

When it launched in 2016, Search Party followed Dory, Alia Shawkat’s quintessential Brooklyn hipster, as she used the disappearance of an old acquaintance as an antidote to the lack of purpose in her life. Following various shifts over the years, both in plot and tone, the fifth and final season finds Dory becoming a cult leader whose quest to create enlightenment in pill form ends up turning people into ravenous, bloodthirsty creatures.

What more perfect ending could there be for a show about millennial solipsism than its main character single-handedly causing a zombie apocalypse? How about that character arguing with her formerly missing acquaintance over which of the two actually gets to make that claim?

[Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix]

Like Don’t Look Up, Search Party gets in some decent digs at corporations (through an Elon Musk surrogate played by Jeff Goldblum), and at the media, which reports, “This new trend of psychosis is aggressive and spreading at an alarming rate.”

However, what is least successful about Don’t Look Up’s approach to satirizing the end of the world is what’s most successful about Search Party’s—how the viewer is implicated.

In real life, the average person doesn’t simply refuse to speak out against the threats posed by climate change and COVID-19; they’re likely just too self-involved to deal with these issues beyond the extent to which they’re personally affected by them. If they are in a position to remain in some level of comfort throughout a catastrophe, most people tend to focus more on living with the problem than thwarting it. Not exactly a flattering trait to depict on-screen, but at least it’s not that of the mindless, meme-making zombies who populate Don’t Look Up.

One of the most surreal moments in this long pandemic happened early on, when car commercials all suddenly started mentioning “these unprecedented times.” That was when it became clear that people weren’t going to stop buying cars, commercials weren’t going to stop trying to tug at our heartstrings; we would all just learn to adapt. Living through the experience of fighting COVID-19 while also waking up to blood-red skies due to wildfires in California, however, only begs the question: What, if anything, would we not just learn to adapt to?

[Photo: Jon Pack/HBO Max]

During the fifth season of Search Party, our adaptability is not a testament to our resilience but an indictment of our complacency and denial. The series ends some time after the initial zombie outbreak, with the main cast traipsing through Safe Zone 12B in what remains of New York City. They’re surrounded by signage warning about the undead, and it looks eerily, pointedly similar to signage in the subways about mask protocol in the pandemic. They also endure a wrist scan that pronounces them human. Like many current New Yorkers, they seem mildly burdened by such precautions but thankful that the system adapted.

The most savage critique arrives earlier in this episode, though, during the onset of zombification. As the series’ main foursome runs for cover, a random Brooklynite also running nearby yells to them: “It’s honestly kind of exciting!” Whoever this random man is, he finally found what Dory was searching for at the beginning of the series. Survival is, of course, a compelling and urgent purpose. It’s almost certainly the first purpose any human being ever had.

Unfortunately, too many of us just can’t seem to get terribly motivated to ensure survival for anyone beyond ourselves, whatever doing so at the end of the world entails.

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