OPINION | We don't want to escape; we want to understand - TV and film in the time of Covid

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Watching TV in the time of Covid-19. (Graphic: Getty Images)
Watching TV in the time of Covid-19. (Graphic: Getty Images)

It's been a year since the deadly virus swept across the globe, infecting millions and killing an estimated 2.33 million people so far.

The race against time continues as humanity battles a merciless, invisible enemy.

Pandemics have long been a vehicle used by storytellers to frighten or scare viewers with post-apocalyptic storylines of devastation.

But this time the topic is no longer fiction. It's real. Very real. A world where everyone wears a mask and stays indoors is no longer something a sci-fi writer dreams up. Instead, it's our daily reality.

Our connection with the themes of disease and viruses in entertainment has changed forever, and so will our interaction with and consumption of content related to it.

Many would argue that film and TV offer an escape right now – providing users with a safe space away from the current reality. As we try to cope with being stuck in what feels like a never-ending lockdown, the small screen provides a world without the trauma of Covid-19.

In fact, streaming services and TV channels saw a dramatic spike in consumption when lockdown started and people were stuck indoors. As viewership numbers reached record highs, the most surprising part was seeing what kind of content was being consumed.

How do I make sense of this?

During the lockdown, one of the first trending films was director Steven Soderbergh's 2011 release Contagion starring Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff) and Kate Winslet (Dr Erin Mears).

When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her son mysteriously die, a deadly virus is discovered. While the US Centres for Disease Control struggles to curb its spread, worldwide panic ensues. At its core, Contagion is a frightfully familiar tale that would set the tone for what would playoff in 2020 and beyond.

But why would we want to watch a movie about a pandemic during a pandemic?

Josephine Livingstone of New Republic writes: "The coronavirus disaster is messing with the boundary between fantasy and reality, leaving us feeling somewhat fictional ourselves, adrift in the enormity of the crisis and the volume of surreal information before us. What pandemic cinema offers is not an escape, exactly, but a refreshing variety of ways to frame or process that information."

As an unknown virus started to spread across the world and we were faced with a situation we've never been confronted with before, we needed to understand our new reality. Contagion provided a fascinating insight into the spread of viruses in a highly consumable format that we understand. Fiction became a tool to make sense of fact. While doctors and scientists struggle to find answers about the new virus, we turned to familiar faces on screen to hopefully give us some answers.

The Guardian's Charles Bramesco adds: "For some psychological profiles, keeping fear out of sight only enables it to expand in size and intensity. Such films as Contagion and Outbreak (1995) allow audiences to vicariously live through the end of days and survey what will be left after. It's a form of emergency preparedness for the mind, rendering thinkable the unthinkable and theorising where the average person's place in all of it might be."

Empathy and understanding

On the flipside, Covid-19-themed shows will also reflect our own reality back to us. While projects from the archives might give us fictional insight, current programmes will show our collective struggles with topics like isolation, mask-wearing, social distancing, loss and fear.

Shows filmed during lockdown are now entering the annual TV schedule and Covid-19 storylines will become more and more present in new seasons of some of our favourite TV shows.

In a recent interview, Manish Dayal, who plays Dr Devon Pravesh in The Resident, spoke about introducing the virus into the medical drama's fourth season.

"It was heartbreaking. When I read the first episode, I couldn't believe the sadness," Manish told Channel24's TV and Film Editor, Leandra Engelbrecht.

The fourth season of the medical drama, which premiered on Fox (DStv 125) earlier this month, follows the doctors and nurses at Chastain Memorial Hospital as they face personal and professional challenges and fight for their patients' health.

Manish says: "The beginning of the fourth season starts in a very explosive way. You see right off the bat, we're talking about the virus and the pandemic and what it's doing to the folks in our hospital. You'll see that we have our first case of the coronavirus coming to our ER and how we are all responding to the virus. It's the first time anyone's ever seen it and how it affects everyone in the hospital. We do jump forward in time and talk about life after the virus and after a vaccine."

For many, this will be a first-time look at the emergency room of a hospital overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases while for others it will give an outside perspective of the very real trauma they had to go through and offer a way to deal with it. Medical shows will provide fictional accounts of what frontline workers experience daily, show grief and loss and how the characters deal with it and provide empathy and understanding through filmmakers and the directors' lenses. It will create a sense of collectively dealing with the same heartache and help in the healing process that almost everyone is currently going through.

It would be easy to argue that entertainment should be an escape in a time of loss, death and heartache. Still, we might be surprised to learn that it's also the most helpful tool in dealing with and understanding what we're currently experiencing.


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Herman Eloff is the Lifestyle and Entertainment Editor at News24.

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