Too soon: Hollywood can’t capture the COVID-19 crisis yet, and should stop trying
You cannot capture a crisis in the middle of a crisis, but that isn't stopping some Hollywood studios from trying.
The creators of The Good Wife announced last week they are making a limited series for Spectrum Original about the COVID-19 pandemic titled The Second Wave. It’s billed as a drama about the outbreak in New York City as seen through the eyes of several characters including a top CDC official “stuck between the medicine he knows and the politics thrust upon him” and others dealing with telemedicine and Wall Street. The project joins pandemic-themed shows like NBC’s comedy Connecting (pictured above) and Netflix’s dramedy Social Distance (reviews of both can be found here). Many ongoing hit shows are scrambling to incorporate the pandemic into their storylines too.
First, let’s add some perspective, something these projects unavoidably lack.
One of the strangest things about the current pandemic is that very few of us have any kind of handle on the magnitude of the ongoing tragedy.
The numbers are difficult to grasp, if not impossible. We are not, as a nation, even remotely close to processing the fact that roughly 1,000 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19 and that far more than 230,000 have perished in total. Frontline health care workers likely feel that weight, as do many of the families who have lost their loved ones. But most Americans are not emotionally absorbing the reality that the number of people who die from this virus every few days is equal to the number of all who perished on 9/11. We go about our routines, working and tweeting and Zooming, numb to the fact that we're in the middle of a colossal tragedy. This doesn’t make us apathetic or insensitive, but human — our minds evolved to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, not to remain fixed in a state of perpetual shock and grief. It's only much later, probably years from now, that most of us will be really struck by what's transpired here.
Another reason for the lack of national mourning — not to take a political detour, but to point out a fact — is that President Trump has repeatedly sought to downplay the virus and its death toll. Trump is not the type of president who is going to, for example, lead the nation in a period of mourning over a crisis when a study by experts concluded that his lack of action and mismanagement has cost at least 130,000 lives.
Which brings us to the limited series from producers Robert and Michelle King: A TV drama series about the coronavirus pandemic made during the coronavirus pandemic (it supposedly begins filming this week). That it’s titled The Second Wave is particularly audacious as, according to many health experts, we are still technically in the first wave.
The Kings are very talented writers and this project is doubtlessly well-intentioned. But at the admitted risk of prejudicing a show sight unseen, there’s just something that feels opportunistic about making an entertainment product about mass death while people are still dying.
Also, with the pandemic raging around us, few want to watch a fictionalized version of our current reality.
But perhaps most importantly: Nobody can correctly make an authentic drama about this pandemic right now. It’s been noted many times before that you cannot make a great movie about a war until years after the war has ended. No film captured the Holocaust until decades later, with 1985’s Shoah. No film captured the horrors of the Vietnam War until 1979's Apocalypse Now. Titles released about wars or similar events while they’re still ongoing are heavily influenced by current political and social sentiments. Plus, there’s always a significant lack the knowledge about a tragedy while it's still unfolding (our knowledge of COVID-19 seems to evolve every week). There is also, most crucially, just a deficit of overall perspective.
It’s hard to imagine Connecting, Social Distance, and now The Second Wave being viewed with much regard in the years to come. They’re far more likely to be seen as curious time capsule artifacts — tone-deaf, factually ignorant, and just wrong-feeling in ways that we cannot yet realize or understand (comedies, in particular, could eventually be viewed the way we look at the World War II POW sitcom Hogan's Heroes now).
Judging by its description, The Second Wave seems to be poised to dive into the politics of the crisis. The Kings are quite political in their writing (The Good Fight became an anti-Trump polemic) and, one supposes, the duo feel they Have Something Important to Say about the pandemic that People Just Aren’t Getting and they cannot wait until the dust has settled before they express it in dramatic form. But the major elements in the description of their show — how local health care professionals in New York City, traders on Wall Street, and the officials at the CDC responded to the pandemic — will be further exposed and clarified for years to come.
Every movie or show about a war or a tragedy is also strongly defined by how the tragedy ended and its consequences. Great Vietnam War movies reflect the fact that U.S. incursion into Vietnam was a futile lost cause, while the best World War II movies reflect the noble and high cost of heroism against a great evil. But imagine watching an Iraq War movie made in 2003 when U.S. forces believed there were still weapons of mass destruction to be found, not yet realizing such claims were inaccurate. Or imagine HBO trying to make its terrific limited series Chernobyl while Reactor 4 was in the middle of melting down and the Soviet Union was scrambling to cover up its mess.
Because obviously, the COVID-19 crisis isn’t over, and far from it. The Second Wave’s description reflects this: “When an unexpected, deadly second wave of the virus arrives, we follow these two women as they face unprecedented times while still juggling their careers, their loved ones… and possibly… the end of the world?” So it’s about their careers, but also their loved ones, yet also possibly the end of the world? Wouldn't knowing how this crisis ends make a difference in how that story should be told?
Sure, the pandemic can, and absolutely should, inspire Hollywood to tell stories about what happened here. We are going to have books, movies, and TV shows being released for the rest of our lives talking about the events of 2020. Such projects are not just inevitable, but actually necessary as they will help us process history, honor heroes and the dead, and serve as eternal reminders not to make the same mistakes in the future.
But right now is a time for facts about the crisis, not premature attempts at turning the pandemic into a comedy or drama.
To all these projects, one can't help but want to ask: What's your rush?