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Experiencing COVID in Film and Television

Experiencing COVID in Film and Television

“I’m living it! I don’t need to see it on my shows,” I yelled at my television in frustration. 

I was sitting alone in my living room watching the Season 17 opener of Grey’s Anatomy. The clock was instantly rewound back to the first horrific month of the pandemic. It was November 2020, and we had only been in the throes of this virus for several months ourselves. We were still enduring the fear of being unsure of what we were dealing with. We were still navigating the dos and don’ts of mask etiquette. Time with family and friends was still limited, if it were happening at all. Travel was ill-advised, and the restrictions were tight. We were still wiping down our groceries before putting them away. There were still so many unknowns, yet we were expected to deal with the uncertainty of the time both in our real worlds and the make-believe ones. 

I was already filled with angst from the sheer number of people who were falling ill and dying from COVID. Being reminded of the pandemic on the shows I watched in order to skirt, if not totally escape, my reality only served to heighten my anxiety. I was a germaphobe pre-COVID, but seeing Meredith Grey, a cutting-edge doctor, unconscious and fighting for her life as a result of the virus made my life seem even more vulnerable despite all the extra precautions I was taking. Grey’s Anatomy, Station 19, 9-1-1, and Queen Sugar reinforced that there was no safe place at various times throughout the week. Even comedies such as Black-ish and Superstore, while trying to find an angle that would make us all laugh, did not provide a complete reprieve. 

In addition to my television staples, there are also shows like Love in the Time of Corona, Connecting, and Social Distance that centered around the effects of the pandemic. I chose not to watch those for my own mental health. As a writer, I am always drawn into stories that investigate the human condition; however, I had no interest in the experiences of new characters cloistered in the pandemic pressure cooker. Stories are my escape. I chose to keep that space sacred, only making exceptions for those television shows to which I was already dedicated. 

After a whole season or one-off episodes dedicated to the pandemic, many of these shows returned to a “normal” world without masks. Both Grey’s and Station 19 now end with a disclaimer that explains the show is reflecting a post-COVID world. Even though mask-wearing is on the decline in real life, it’s been a relief for my television to return to a form of escapism. Film seems to have taken a different route and has largely stayed out of the fray, though I’m sure that will change as life seems to be slowly returning to pre-COVID living. 

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While television and film endeavor to reflect events that have happened in real life, it is very rarely in real time. The beauty of art reflecting life is the lag, giving us time to process these events before facing them again. We revisit these events with the benefit of hindsight, but what happens to the psyche when it’s in tandem with what you are living in the moment? For me, it did not have a desirable effect. It made me not want to watch those shows, though I still watched anyway. However, that good feeling I usually have after watching lessened after each mask-ladened episode. There was no hope of a return to normal through the lives of my favorite characters. They were in just as much trouble as I was, and while that may have been comforting to some, it was not to me. 

We’re in Year 3 of this pandemic, and I’m grateful that I’m having to deal less with the pandemic in my everyday life and on my television set. Despite my paranoia, I did contract the virus. Twice. I suffered extreme exhaustion and weight loss the first time and mild cold/flu symptoms the second; no breathing issues or long-term effects that I can see now. I did not lose any immediate family members or close friends because of it. 

I know I was fortunate and that many were not. Even though I hated the realness of those shows in the moment, they do serve as a reminder of what and whom I could have lost, and what so many did lose. Art has so many responsibilities, one of which is to remind us what we have overcome. Just like film and television depicting eras we are unfamiliar with, art that has chosen to address the pandemic will serve as a record for later generations as to what life during the pandemic looked like. Someone will want to know, and maybe it is our duty to provide that record, however painful that may be. 

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