The best and worst dramatisations of the pandemic in popular entertainment
If two years of international border closures, stop-start lockdowns, and obligatory Zoom dates has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to catch Covid-19 to be royally fucked by it. You don’t even need to believe in it.
When news headlines, social media, and the group chat were dominated by virus talk, our only escape was to log off, fire up Netflix, and mindlessly binge watch until we forgot the pandemic existed.
But not for much longer! That’s right, Covid-19 has officially spread to our screens, with a growing number of Hollywood and television creatives introducing the real-world pandemic into fictional plotlines. And when Carrie Bradshaw herself announced the upcoming SATC reboot would “obviously” address Covid-19, I couldn’t help but wonder; is the Covid-sploitation trend officially mainstream?
It’s certainly heading in that direction. But fictionalising a crisis in real-time is not as easy as it looks, and screenwriters would do well to learn from the mistakes of past pandemic-inspired entertainment. In fact, I’d recommend they consider the following five films and tv episodes living examples of the dos and don’ts of dramatising disasters in a post-pandemic world.
Widely billed as the first Covid movie, this dystopian thriller commenced filming in July 2020, with screenwriters purporting to have conceived the premise as early as that March.
Perhaps if the creators had spent more time reflecting on the crisis, they’d have produced something watchable.
Set in 2024, Songbird uses Covid-19 as a jumping off point before predicting a future in which infected people are put in concentration camps to die. 2024 is in two years, by the way.
As well as sick people being hunted down by sanitation workers in hazmat suits, in Songbird’s future citizens are only permitted “virtual” relationships because the government’s draconian lockdown laws prevent any inter-household contact. It’s pretty subtle, but the filmmakers almost seem to be making a political point about Covid control measures.
In many ways, the futuristic thriller really is ahead of its time. For example, co-option of the Holocaust by lockdown protesters didn’t really gain traction until year two of the pandemic. Director Adam Mason adopted the repulsive concept way back in May 2020.
A truly terrible film, it’s unclear whether Songbird is deliberate Covid-denial propaganda, or just unforgivably dumb.
Either way, keep it away from the anti-vaxxers.
Indie rom com The End of Us is a simple yet effective reflection on the subtle ways the pandemic can both bring people together and break them apart.
The film introduces twenty-something Nick and Leah, a couple in name only who are on the verge of calling it quits. But before they can make a clean break, California’s stay-at-home order forces the exes to become quarantine buddies for the foreseeable future.
Short of contracting the virus, it’s hard to imagine a more painful situation than being stuck at home with someone you can’t stand, and we feel both parties’ pain. The filmmaker’s attention to detail peppers The End of US with authentically relatable moments, from our habit to compulsively refresh news headlines, to the common anxiety of losing employment in the shrinking economy.
It is, however, possible for a film to be too relatable. Audiences don’t necessarily appreciate call-backs to times they’d rather forget. And the experience of being bored senseless in the same four walls is one of those times.
Though it hits too close to home in 2021, The End of Us captures a moment in time that we’ll one day enjoy looking back on.
Last January, series producer and star Sarah Jessica Parker told Vanity Fair that Covid-19 would “obviously” be part of the storyline of upcoming SATC reboot.
And it is. But only in passing, as the series is inexplicably set in a post-Covid world.
This is established in episode one which sees Carrie, crowded by an overbearing acquaintance, quip “Remember when it was illegal to stand closer than six feet from each other?”
“I miss it,” Miranda responds.
Given the reboot’s aversion to controversy, it’s bizarre that this line was not flagged as wildly offensive.
The only excuse for the episode is the possibility writers assumed Covid would be over by the time it aired. If not, why was Covid referenced at all?
In the words of Carrie, I couldn’t help but wonder if Kim Cattrall was right to sit this one out.
The equivalent of televisual comfort food, Grey’s Anatomy is not known for gritty realism. But just months after the pandemic reached America, the show’s producers took an uncharacteristic risk and decided to let Covid loose on Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
The episode aired in September 2020 but was set in pandemic’s early chaos of six months prior. The hospital’s new Covid ward is overrun and overwhelmed, the hospital is woefully unprepared for the influx of patients, and doctors flying blind with no consensus on how to treat the virus.
If the episode is at times hard going, that’s to be expected given the morbid subject matter, and Grey’s Anatomy refuses to sanitise or downplay Covid’s devastation.
Ultimately, the program succeeding in dramatizing the pandemic without exploiting, trivialising, or catastrophising. Finally prioritising substance over melodrama, this is an episode to take seriously.
Borat 2, or, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan to be exact, is not the most sensitive portrayal of Covid-19. But it may be the most original.
The film’s (very) loose plot follows Borat’s second American foray which sees the journalist quarantine with two QAnon conspiracy theorists, crash a right-wing militia rally, and pen an original song called “The Wuhan Flu”- the catchiest ode to racism since “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
Borat 2 is at its funniest when it keeps things simple. In an extended conversation between Borat and new friends Jerry and Jim- two every day, Democrat-hating, conspiracy obsessed Americans- Sacha Baron Cohen is at his best, subtly encouraging his targets to let down their guard and show their true colours for the camera.
In contrast, the film’s elaborate, and quite frankly dangerous stunts, such as infiltrating a pro-gun rally in full prosthetics, are often more depressing than funny. After two years of witnessing Covid-deniers, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and right-wing nutjobs crawl out of the woodwork in our own backyard, the joke wears a little thin.
Borat 2 concludes with a truly absurd, utterly tasteless, and entirely on-brand twist revealing –
–Spoiler alert! –
-Borat Sagdiyev is Covid patient zero. It turns out the virus came from an injection of “gypsy tears” secretly administered by Kazakhstan officials before they sent the journalist to America to spread the virus.
Truthfully? It’s no more ridiculous than the next Covid conspiracy.