When channel surfing on major networks nowadays, you’ll see that current seasons of prime time television have acknowledged the overgrown elephant in every room: we are all living in the midst of a global pandemic. The networks flood our eyes with The Conners, Superstore, essentially any show written by Shonda Rhimes… yet, instead of providing me with comfort and relatable content, watching Ellen Pompeo’s Grey’s Anatomy character slowly die of COVID-19 left me profoundly disturbed and depressed. There is an almost-“uncanny valley” element to these shows that I can’t quite put my finger on; it’s almost as if these shows are trying to approximate what headlines the common people are living through, despite knowing they’ll never be able to understand what these people are actually experiencing during this part of their lives. Maybe it’s my escapist tendencies, but while in our lockdown and subsequent pseudo-reopening, I discovered a lot of pre-pandemic media that helped me process isolation and tragedy a lot better than some of the more recent, reactionary television.
In looking at media today, it seems like networks quickly realized how much of a cash cow COVID-19 could be for socially isolated viewers. Not long into lockdown, Freeform already started production on Love in the Time of Corona. The show attempted to (shallowly) display how (straight) people were coping with finding love in the middle of a pandemic, without acknowledging any of the underlying results of how it has affected society. As noted by Adrian Horton, writing in The Guardian, the show makes a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the ways that race has affected societies’ experiences with the pandemic, but it does not acknowledge the ways that the pandemic has affected people economically.
Another offender of bad pandemic media is the most recent season of The Bachelorette. Though the show went to great lengths in protecting the subjects, one cannot watch it without acknowledging that these are cushioned elites, a tier of society which the pandemic did not significantly disrupt. Harvard grads and former professional football players made up a majority of the male cast, and both of the recent bachelorettes were living money-sheltered lives. As if to compensate for the sheer volume of naivete on display, throughout the show, the viewer is bombarded with phrases such as “how lucky are we to be here?” and “aren’t we so fortunate?” Yes! Of course you are! It’s the shortsightedness of these already-fortunate people, talking about how lucky they are to be at a luxury resort in the middle of a pandemic, that excels in getting on my nerves. Perhaps it’s my personal envy, fueled by having to work for insufficient, industry-standard wages during a pandemic, but it seems like showing off how great other peoples’ lives are during a pandemic isn’t the best way to make a reality show in 2020.
Of course, it may be best not to dwell on the negatives. The first piece of pre-pandemic media that resonated with me was Junji Ito’s Billions Alone. Originally published in 2004, it was re-released as part of a timely story collection in August of 2020. Billions Alone brings the reader into a world where society is plagued with “group deaths,” in which people in groups of two or more all inexplicably die together. This leads citizens to force themselves into isolation; no public gatherings, and families living in the same house having to isolate themselves in separate rooms. The story came to Americans at the perfect time, if you consider the perfect time to be when the government decided we can all go back outside to work in droves again. Billions Alone provides a better understanding of the early days of lockdown, in which despite truly wanting to see people it was, and really still is, unsafe to be in large groups. However it also leaves the reader with a twist ending that shows us that our suffering is essentially continued due to our own actions.
Another emotionally jarring piece of pre-pandemic media is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. Without giving too much about the video game away, it sets the player in an America that has been dramatically altered due to the blurring of lines between life and death. Because of this, it is no longer safe for average people to travel outside, and people must live in isolated bunkers and shelters to survive. The player controls Sam Bridges, a man who makes deliveries to the sheltered people of America. Released in October of 2019, Death Stranding came to be regarded as surprisingly accurate in its depictions of the future, given that, in 2020, we witnessed the dangers of going outdoors, isolation from others, and how much we would come to rely on courier services like Postmates and DoorDash. The narrative of Sam Bridges became a supercharged allegory for the daily lives of essential workers, and the psychological parallels between our two dystopian futures made me feel strangely understood.
Both Death Stranding and Billions Alone tackle themes of isolation masterfully. However, it’s important to acknowledge however that they have the benefit of being made prior to the pandemic. The feeling of inescapable isolation is not something that has been exclusive to the age of COVID-19, though it exemplified much of 2020 and will probably continue defining us well into 2021. In the spirit of fairness, I’ve decided to bring up some media that is directly inspired by the pandemic, that maybe does a better job than shows mentioned earlier in this article. IT’s hard to believe, but, surprisingly enough, 90 Day Fiance: Self-Quarantined does a decent job in showing how former subjects of the reality show are dealing with the pandemic. While some of the subjects in the show are upper-class, the show doesn’t shy away from showing the struggles that middle and lower class families have experienced due to the pandemic. Is there probably some crafty editing and production interference? Sure! It’s a TLC show after all. But when compared to other reality show’s happy-go-lucky attitudes in the midst of a worldwide drain on mental health, it’s a breath of fresh air.All of this is to say that, naturally we all knew, despite how much we escapists didn’t want to relive COVID-19 in our media, we were inevitably going to get it. To those who are enjoying it, wonderful! I’m glad that you are getting something out of it that I’m not. It’s possible that this all just sounds like me complaining, but I think, I have every right to do so. It’s a terrible look to make media that is only a weak imitation of our current reality. In my opinion, by poorly dramatizing the traumas amid COVID-19, we run the risk of mocking those who have died from it. Their stories deserve to be heard, but not from Ellen Pompeo.