It’s been a little more than a week since many Americans began self-isolating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and already time has become blurry. Days seem less like days and more like one very long stretch of time, broken up occasionally, if you’re lucky, by eight hours of sleep.
Reality feels all too brutal and horrifying, but if you and yours are still relatively healthy, it can also feel distant, like a TV show you’re watching but not actually living. Maybe that’s because we are actually watching so much of it on screens, via marathon viewings of MSNBC or CNN, or by refreshing the latest news on Twitter or Instagram or the New York Times. Even our conversations with friends and family outside our walls are happening via screens, thanks to FaceTime and Skype and Zoom. Screens are our tether to reality right now, our connection to what’s beyond our boxed-in lives. Too much screen time is bad in normal times, but these are not normal times. Screen time is all we have.
Okay, fine. We also have books and puzzles and games and dog walking and home-schooling our kids and work and actually talking to the people we live with to keep us busy. But as long as we’re discouraged from going outside unless absolutely necessary, screens will remain our primary vehicle for making sense of the wider world.
Just like our understanding of time, though, what we watch on those screens is making things blurry. Watching the news feels like watching a Roland Emmerich disaster movie that’s crashed through the fourth wall and become real life. Watching a comedy that should provide light escapism somehow manages to remind us of COVID-19. Our screens are our lifeline, but they can’t fully transport us to a place where we’re not facing a catastrophic global health crisis. (If James Poniewozik’s recent column in the Times is any indication, I’m clearly not the only person feeling this way.)
When I turn on MSNBC, I am unsettled by everything I see: The chyrons that keep adding more numbers to the total COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths, the coverage of primary elections that are still happening in the middle of this mess, the sight of Donald Trump word-salading his way through press conferences and leading by bad example. Cable news can sometimes hyperbolize news events. None of this seems like hyperbole.
The commercial breaks are somehow even more jarring, as if beamed in from some other dimension where the coronavirus doesn’t exist. There’s an Amazon ad in which busy people get on buses and into rideshares and order products using their phones, because Americans can just press buttons without washing their hands and get whatever they want almost immediately. I watch it and think: You shouldn’t be taking the bus! Why are you even going out? Why are you spending money on anything that isn’t antibacterial soap? Did you Purell that phone?
I get a kick out of the Volkswagen commercial in which Paul Giamatti acts as a financial adviser to Kieran Culkin — basically a crossover between Billions and Succession — until Kieran valets his brand-new car in Las Vegas. Then I’m like, “Roman Roy, what are you doing in Vegas right now? It’s shut down, dude!”
I do not wish the coronavirus on anyone, but if I did, I would wish it on the “Change in plans!” couple in the Fidelity ad who keep smugly planning what to do with all their retirement money. Change in plans! All that cash you’ve been saving has gone straight down the drain because COVID-19 tanked the markets!
When the news becomes overwhelming, I turn to my usual escape valve of movies and TV shows. But those valves don’t always function effectively. Sometimes that’s my own fault. Deciding to watch Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion probably wasn’t the best way to feel less overwhelmed. This is a 2011 film in which Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks on TV about social distancing, where people panic-shop and empty grocery store shelves, where an online kook convinces people that he knows how to cure the widely spreading virus. How is that so different from the news in 2020? Fine, here’s one important difference: The online kook in Contagion is not Alex Jones. It’s Jude Law with bad teeth that still fail to make him look unattractive.
Maybe the best way to take one’s mind off of the specter of the virus is to watch something comforting, something old, something on this list that we at Vulture published, because making lists of things to watch on our screens makes us feel helpful and normal when nothing is normal and it’s hard to know how to help. So, I try that instead.
I watch Cheers and that famous Sam and Diane confrontation where they slap each other, and I think: Wow, they really shouldn’t be touching each other’s faces.
I watch The Wonder Years and find myself wishing that Kevin and Winnie wouldn’t kiss, because I don’t want Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper — who are 1) not real people, and 2) living in the 1960s on a TV show that aired in the 1980s — to get a virus that is spreading in 2020.
I watch The Golden Girls until the coronavirus reflex kicks in, making me unbearably concerned for Betty White, the last living Golden Girl and one of America’s greatest treasures. What would happen if, God seriously forbid, the illness got to her?
I try watching other things, like Jeopardy!: Man, the contestants really shouldn’t be putting their hands on those buttons without washing them first. Love Is Blind: This show is stupid, but on the other hand, maybe the pod thing isn’t a terrible idea? Arrested Development: “No touching” is now the national mantra. The Mandalorian: I should force my family to drink bone broth because that’s probably good for you, right? (Oh God, what if Baby Yoda got COVID-19? Can puppets get COVID-19?) Cheer: These kids are doing the complete opposite of social distancing. Also: Is Jerry okay?!
Now that movie theaters are closed and The Invisible Man is streaming, I make plans to watch that because maybe replacing one horror with another will work some brief mental health magic. That film is about a woman trying to flee from a dire threat that she can’t see and … wait a second, are we all Elisabeth Moss now?
Nothing on our screens can make what’s happening go away. Yet we repeatedly turn to those screens because what other choice do we have? Every morning, we wake up and the first thing many of us do will be the same thing we always did before this happened: Glance at our cell phones. Fire up our laptops. Switch on our televisions. We look to our screens because they’re what most readily connect us to the sobering present. They’re also what reminds us of what life looked like in a time that feels so, so distant but was only one very long week ago.
When this is all over, whenever that may be, I wonder if we’ll need to take a long break from binge-watching — if we’ll have to tell our screens, “It’s not you, it’s us.” Normal seems so far away that it’s hard to imagine what “normal” will look like even three days from now, let alone in weeks or months. There’s no crystal ball to peer into for answers to such questions. But there is the TV. So I turn it on. And right now, as St. Vincent once sang, it looks just like a window.
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