Pilot episode: January
There is always a heavy burden on the first episode of a series. It must be drawn into the story, hint at what is coming, but of course it must not reveal too much either. In this respect, “January” turned out well. We get to know some of the key players of the year, but we are not yet fully aware of their roles. One example of this is the figure of US President Donald Trump, who has to face his re-election in the course of the series. At first glance, the role is grotesquely exaggerated, a rioting racist who pursues his own business interests instead of politics, insults the media, political opponents and scientists and with this mixture gathers a loyal following around him. It seems implausible, but it is played brilliantly by a former reality TV star who gives the role a lot of force.
In the pilot episode, Trump has the high-ranking Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani killed by drone. One suspects, however, that this storyline will not be pursued further, but should only underline Trump’s character. Towards the end of “January” we hear about a new type of virus called Covid-19, which is causing numerous cases of serious illness in China – there are also the first cases in Europe. It sounds ominous. The episode ends with us following an interview in which a man named Christian Drosten has his say. A leading virologist from the Berlin Charité who knows more about the new virus than most other people in the world. The role is interestingly cast – Drosten is a somewhat tousled, Prenzlauer Berg-compatible guy, not the classic scientist-nerd as you know him from James Bond films. He will appear more often in the series.
Episode 2: February
In episode 2, the scriptwriters initially lose the thread. The plot takes a lot of time for a prime ministerial election in Thuringia, which becomes a scandal because an FDP man can be elected by right-wing extremists. The whole thing becomes half a state affair, as a result of which the head of the German Christian Democrats resigns. Of course, it has a long double name that is difficult to pronounce, which is applied a bit thick. The whole case actually plays no role whatsoever for the further course of “2020”, which is why one wonders why this is dealt with in such detail.
But then the authors take up the central threads again. Despite clear allegations, the wandering US president manages to evade impeachment for abuse of power and pursues his gloomy intrigues. And the danger posed by the virus from China is becoming increasingly clear: In Italy, individual regions are cordoned off, in France there is the first death, and in Germany a crisis team is being set up. We see concerned business people starting to grasp the gravity of the situation as the Barcelona cell phone fair and Geneva Motor Show are canceled, all because of the virus. The series is now clearly picking up speed and developing towards a disaster film. Most important sentence: “Why do they have to eat bats too?” The authors remain very strict in interpreting the genre. There is no place for a love story. At best, the exaggerated US President provides comedy.
Episode 3: March
The whole package of the epidemic: the virus arrives in Europe with full force, the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic, the stock exchanges are experiencing record crashes. With strong symbolism, but probably not unrealistic: As soon as the virus is there, the states close their borders, the USA impose an entry ban for Europeans, and at the German-French border there is hostility between the residents of the two countries.
The episode takes little time for details, but wants to tell the big picture: a virus that affects the whole world, paralyzes everything and almost brings air traffic to a standstill. Terms like “incidence”, “aerosols” and “excess mortality” fly through the dialogues. Most of the actors are now walking around with masks, which is not so successful cinematically, you want to see faces. The Italians are no longer allowed to leave their houses and instead sing to each other courage on the balconies – a nice idea of the director, which leads to a musical sequence that is rather unusual in disaster films. Also pretty, if very clichéd: while the Italians are singing, the Germans are hoarding toilet paper in case of a curfew. It will never come into force, but now everyone has toilet rolls in their apartments for years to come. You can draw the German character in a more subtle way, but the message gets through.
Episode 4: April
The direction shifts to a long stretch of eerily beautiful images: empty boulevards in France, no more ships in the Venice lagoon, a cloudless sky free of planes over Europe. It’s an elegiac, slowed-down episode in which very little happens in terms of action. At Easter, people also sit in their homes in Germany. Church services are not allowed to take place, schools are closed and football games are completely canceled across Europe – a somewhat exaggerated detail. Airplanes fly over Berlin on Easter Sunday with a banner that reads “Peace be with you”. The scriptwriters are forgiven for the slight tendency towards kitsch. Of course, the usual end-time preachers appear who interpret the virus as a sign of something and want to see a turning point in the history of modern times.
Against such esoteric excursions, the script sets harsh reality: Millions of people on short-time work or, if the US is concerned, unemployed. The western industrialized countries decide on aid programs worth hundreds of billions of euros. A rescue package has to be put in place for the German Lufthansa. This is largely realistic, but one wonders whether in reality everything would have actually happened so quickly. And that the stupidly brazen US president actually suggests that disinfectants should be injected against the virus: The authors’ imagination must have run out of steam.