TV: Carol & The End of the World

Once again, non-expectations serve up delightful surprise. I entered Netflix’s animated comedy Carol & The End of the World (2023) completely without foreknowledge, expecting silly apocalyptic satire. But it pulled a BoJack Horseman on me, delivering something bleak, droll, uncommonly insightful, and weirdly beautiful.

It’s the same old story: a world-killing comet is on its way to obliterate life on Earth. The twist, this time, is humanity’s reaction. Rather than turning the planet into a chaotic hellscape, it inspires everyone to be their best selves. With seven months to go until impact, everyone decides to make the most of it, seizing the day and ticking every last item off their bucket list. Everyone except Carol Kohl (Martha Kelly), an aimless middle-aged woman who doesn’t know what to do with herself. As the world slides inexorably toward oblivion, Carol resorts to the daily mundanities of the Before Times, like doing housework and loitering nostalgically at an abandoned Applebee’s. Carol’s salvation is at hand, though; by chance, she stumbles across “The Distraction,” an accounting firm in an otherwise abandoned high-rise where daily office life mysteriously continues as if nothing is happening. Carol, like her colleagues, finds escape in the mind-numbing routines of the modern world, and shows up every day to keep her mind off the directionlessness of her life—and its futility, given the fact that everything is coming to a close.

Stories about the end of the world may never go out of style, but they only grow more relevant as humanity fails to course-correct. Sometimes this kind of narrative can be too much to bear, but Carol & The End of the World takes the grim foundation of its surface story and builds atop it a profound, moving meditation on coping strategies for surviving late-stage capitalism. As in Don’t Look Up, the onrushing asteroid stands in for the looming threat of environmental apocalypse. But unlike in that film, which deploys a bludgeoning message in unsurprising ways, Carol gets quietly under your skin, turning a deceptively simple visual aesthetic and deadpan approach into something probing and genuine. It’s also  unpretentiously funny, its tone set by Kelly’s famously dispassionate voice work and enhanced by supporting performers, especially Kimberly Hébert Gregory and Mel Rodriguez as Carol’s closest workmates Donna and Luis. Doomsday fiction is understandably ascendant these days, but it’s rarely this heartfelt and intriguing. Carol & The End of the World is a treasure, confronting the horror, but turning away from cynicism to muse empathetically on everything we’re going through.

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