How the Pandemic is Affecting Entertainment Storylines

By Caitlin Armstrong  | 

Shakespeare famously wrote King Lear while on lockdown from the bubonic plague, which begs the question: what output will the entertainment industry deliver when it emerges from its own production pause? And how will offerings reflect the unique circumstances we’ve all experienced as a result of Covid-19? We take a look at some coronavirus-related content, with plotlines inspired by the pandemic or stories filmed under restrictive conditions—and, in many cases, both.

Filmed in black and white in a single location on the California coast to ensure safety, Malcolm & Marie unfolds over the course of one long night. It tells the story of a director, Malcolm (John David Washington), who forgets to thank his longtime girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), during an introductory speech before the premiere of his new film. When the pandemic hit last year, Zendaya had been starring in Euphoria, a Sam Levinson-directed drama series. Production halted, and she asked Levinson to come up with a movie that might provide work for their unemployed crew. Thus was born Malcolm & Marie, which Zendaya and Washington also helped finance and produce. Locked Down similarly portrays an unraveling relationship, this time in the vehicle of a romantic thriller starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple wrestling with the effects of forced confinement. Viewers may cringe at the dramatization of new rituals that now feel all-too familiar, including awkward Zoom calls and socially distanced grocery store lines.

These Days was made in a way that would have felt unimaginable a year ago: via Zoom sessions and phone calls. The episodic short from director Adam Brooks is set during the pandemic’s early days, when toilet-paper stockpiling and sourdough-baking were still hot conversation topics. It follows two strangers, Mae and Will, who connect on a dating app and struggle to maintain intimacy while forced to remain apart. Future seasons of the show may continue to explore subsequent months of the pandemic, pairing those storylines with unconventional production practices that could one day become the norm. Social Distance premiered on Netflix last October as an anthology with eight standalone episodes from writer/producer Hilary Weisman Graham, and it likewise focuses on the early effects of quarantine on relationships, this time between families, couples and friends. Like others in the industry, Weisman Graham’s goal was to create jobs for colleagues during an economically challenging time while capturing the emotional experiences of life in lockdown.

Director Nanfu Wang moved from China to the United States nine years ago, so she was uniquely poised to paint a picture of the pandemic as it unfolded in both countries. Her documentary, In the Same Breath, starts in the middle of a crowded New Year’s Eve celebration in Wuhan and follows the Chinese government’s handling of this and other superspreader events, before pivoting to show how the Trump administration reacted as the crisis worsened. Weaving personal anecdotes and interviews with archival news footage, this sometimes-heartbreaking work deals with hope, loss and botched government procedures. The panacea to policies of misinformation is a new Dr. Anthony Fauci documentary in the works from National Geographic Documentary Films. Fauci plans to offer novel glimpses into the life and work of “America’s Doctor,” who’s advised seven presidents and dedicated his life to fighting pandemics, starting with AIDS in the 1980s. Bill Gates, Bono and former President George W. Bush are among the easily recognizable who’ve been interviewed for this documentary.

When normalcy resumes, the entertainment industry may be forever changed. From new production practices to evolving characters and plots, the effects of Covid-19 on TV and film could be noteworthy for years to come.

Caitlin Armstrong
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