We live in a time of masks and Zoom happy hours, of elbow bumps and social distancing, of fearing that every coughing stranger could spell our doom. But how will we remember it? And what records will we leave behind to explain this time to others, what films and TV shows will tell future generations how we live now?
In some ways, it’s too soon to ask that question.
We’re still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic even if vaccines and plummeting infection rates have provided signs for optimism. It’s tough to depict a moment that’s still unfolding. That hasn’t stopped some creators from trying, however, whether dashing off movies and shows set against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak or trying to figure how to incorporate the changed world of 2020 into a TV world that already exists. The results have been varied, both in quality and approach. They also provide some of the first clues to how the global pandemic will be remembered — while also suggesting the best and truest depictions remain ahead.
If the only record we left of this time came from TV shows, our descendants wouldn’t know what to make of it. Some shows just carry on. The pandemic cut short The Neighborhood’s season last year, for instance, but on the show, friends still gather to drink wine while Cedric the Entertainer tries to dodge his first colonoscopy. On Mr. Mayor, Ted Danson presides over a Los Angeles blissfully free of the coronavirus after Dolly Parton “bought everyone the vaccine.” And, really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Television’s escapist potential helped make it what it is and maybe viewers don’t want to be constantly reminded about the dire world outside its frame. But the disconnect can be jarring, and even a little dispiriting. Here we are living a life filled with dread while TV characters taunt us by living the sort of life we used to lead.
On the other hand, only half-addressing the pandemic can look strange as well. Black-ish has established itself as a show willing to incorporate the issues of the day into its plots and with “Dre at Home Order,” the second proper episode of the seventh season, members of the Johnson family try in vain to watch a horror movie, distracted by a real-life threat that announces itself in the form of buzzing text alerts informing them that the disease Dre (Anthony Anderson) had previously believed to be confined to cruise ships would be disrupting life in Los Angeles. In the episode that follows, the family deals with remote learning as Dre adjusts to working at home. Junior (Marcus Scribner) laments a budding romantic relationship that’s been pushed to phone calls and video chats. It’s a typically strong episode of the series that addresses the realities of pandemic life. Two episodes later, however, Dre’s back at work and preparing for a family wedding to be held outside, in the only real acknowledgment of the coronavirus. Junior has even begun hanging out with his girlfriend again. It’s real, up to a point.
While it’s easy for a sitcom to offer a light take on Covid-19, or avoid it altogether, series about frontline workers like 9-1-1, Station 19, and Grey’s Anatomy don’t have the same luxury. Most have responded by depicting it but spending ample time in situations in which it can be ignored. The co-workers of Station 19 wear masks when out on the job, but not when alone together, which makes sense given a job that allows them to live together and apart from everyone else. It also sidesteps a problem with depicting our current situation realistically: requiring actors to perform scenes while masked can be distracting and robs them of some of their expressive tools. 9-1-1’s solution, for instance, has been to carve out its characters’ workspace as a mask-free zone. But, given that the season opened with a collapsed reservoir and a city-threatening flood, maybe they just have bigger problems to worry about. (Still, a flood is arguably preferable to the threat over at 9-1-1: Lone Star, where Austin has had to contend with a volcanic eruption.)
Elsewhere, The Good Doctor opened its fourth season with a Covid-19-centric two-parter that depicted several stages of the pandemic outbreak as the characters grew increasingly frustrated, sometimes despairing, at the new normal. With the season’s third episode it moved on. “Newbies” opens with star Freddie Highmore stating it “portrays our hope in the future, a future where no one will have to wear masks” but advising viewers to continue taking steps to protect themselves and others. As odd as this might seem, it also reflects the practical reality of a series like The Good Doctor and other procedurals, which were never designed to build a whole season around breaking news. Covid-19 is a blip it can move past and return to the old normal, a luxury the real world doesn’t have.
On the other hand, maybe it’s better to blip past it than dwell on it when dwelling on it results in a project as half-baked as the Freeform series Love in the Time of Corona, which uses the lockdown as a backdrop for some pretty familiar stories of relationships at a turning point. It’s warmhearted but drab, a project obviously rushed into production in an attempt to do something, anything, during a difficult moment for TV production. Its most notable element: much of its cast was already quarantining together. The real-life couple Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson play husband and wife. Gil Bellows, Rya Kihlstedt, and Ava Bellows play a family of three, which they are.
The best TV depiction of the pandemic has come from a series that has continued to put it front and center. Superstore began off its sixth and final season with “Essential,” an episode checking in with the staff of Cloud 9 Store #1217 at various points in 2020, following the characters as the reality of the disease — and their own danger in working in retail — kicked in and depicting touchstone events like the Black Lives Matter protests (and, to a far lesser extent, the popularity of Tiger King). As the series has long done while dealing with issues of immigration and labor rights, the episode keeps a light touch while acknowledging the graveness of the moment and refusing to wave it away. Subsequent episodes have found the store still unsettled while dealing with Covid-19 and a corporation that seems only vaguely interested in their well-being.
It’s the series that, years from now, will most likely serve as a reminder of how we spent the pandemic, particularly the newfound anxiety of any public space. If there’s a film equivalent it might have been Locked Down, the Stephen Knight-scripted, Doug Liman-directed heist film that premiered on HBO Max in January. Set in the early days of the pandemic, it captures some of the ways being shut off from the outside world can chip away at the psyche, particularly the situation the London-based couple of Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find themselves in. Their relationship, already in trouble before the pandemic put them constantly in each others’ company, they find they have to confront the issues that have driven them to the brink of breaking up — before bonding over their shared commitment to committing a crime. It’s a good premise but hampered by annoying execution. Even if it gets a lot of the day-to-day details of pandemic life right, they’re overwhelmed by the loud, forced clashes that never carry the dramatic weight they should.
All of which raises a question: What genre best captures the feeling of living under the shadow of Covid-19?
There’s really no right answer. Chances are your experience has felt alternately comic and tragic, filled with moments of hopelessness but also rediscovered pleasures. Turns out many of us really love baking bread, so much so that sourdough references figure into almost all the projects mentioned above. Maybe future depictions of 2020/2021 will use bread references as an easy shorthand to establish period, like bringing in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth” to alert viewers they’re in the 1960s or bringing in a “Baby on Board” sign to announce the 1980s.
Or maybe it’s horror that best captures the moment, at least right now.
British director Rob Savage’s horror film made its debut on Shudder back in July and its fast turnaround helps it freeze in time the moment when most of us began to realize the disease would be sticking around and wouldn’t clear up in a few weeks. Its characters are still in the let’s-find-new-ways-to-amuse ourselves phase of pandemic life, a desire that leads them to hold an online seance. Predictably, it doesn’t go well, and Savage uses a lot of effective found-footage horror tricks, and some new ones, as well, to turn a Zoom call scary as one participant after another runs into trouble. In ways other sorts of genres can’t, it captures the fear that’s accompanied a disease that’s made so many of us feel alone, even when we’re alone together. It’s a horror movie with documentary qualities, up to a late-film moment when two terrified characters encounter each other in the flesh then, rather than embrace, draw back to bump elbows. Some horrors can supersede even ghosts, demons, and other threats from the great beyond.
But for the most encouraging depiction of pandemic life, and what comes after, it’s best to look again to Superstore, which ended its final season on a more hopeful note than the one on which it began — albeit with the usual cautious optimism that characterized the series. The world the characters have lived in for six seasons comes to an end with Store #1217 redesignated as a fulfillment center as Cloud 9 moves toward a more online-focused model of doing business. It’s a change in retailing hastened by Covid-19 and a change that will never be undone. But the characters move on, into a future where they’ve found new footing and new ways of living while holding onto what really mattered about the old life, including relationships forged under immense pressure. They’ve gotten through to the other side to a different world, one marked by loss and filled with new challenges but also new rewards. And there’s not a mask in sight.