Face-touching, communal snack plates — watching and streaming pre-coronavirus TV amid a shutdown, there's always something there to remind you.
I could always count on Bob Belcher.
My younger son and I have been making our way through the entire run of Bob's Burgers for about a year or so. It's our reliable go-to, a feel-good nightcap. So when we sat down a few days ago to watch the Season 9 premiere, Just One of the Boyz 4 Now for Now, I wasn't really looking for an escape from coronavirus anxiety. But I wasn't not looking for an escape, either. That's what TV's for now, right?
In the episode's B-plot, the hamburger slinger Bob is entrusted with caring for an adorable baby rat that his friend Teddy has been keeping in a cardboard box. This presents some complications, given that Bob prepares food for a living, especially when he learns that he has to give the ratling an intimate therapeutic massage. "Fine," he says. "I'll just wash my hands really, really well, like how surgeons do."
I'll just wash my hands. Really, really well. Like how surgeons do. Ha ha, where have I heard that lately, I wondered, as I stared glumly at the soap-ravaged mitts in my lap.
But never mind! This was still just a fun, silly, distracting comedy, with no relationship to our current anxious reality. Set in a beachside town whose tourism business would no doubt be drying up right now. And at the sort of small, family-owned restaurant that would probably be shuttering right now if it weren't drawn by animators …
Sigh. Even our escapes, it turns out, aren't entirely escapes anymore.
Once officials advised people to avoid public spaces, practice social distancing and self-quarantine if necessary, it seemed clear that TV, particularly streaming, would be the art form of the moment.
Binge-watching wouldn't just pass the time. It would be a kind of emergency shelter. The streaming services and their libraries were like vast tunnel networks, carved into the cultural bedrock over decades, a chance to hunker down in a psychically protected zone and visit more carefree, or at least more hands-on, times. Plenty of news outlets, like this one, offered guides to stress-melting quarantine TV.
But it wasn't long into the outbreak that I began to find that anything I watched, be it an upcoming critics' screener or a beloved rerun, could slap me back to reality unawares.
The problem wasn't necessarily pandemic-specific material, like my screeners of The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the latest spinoff of the AMC drama about — well, you know. Some viewers have even sought out such stories, like the recent rush on Contagion, as a kind of cathartic psychological inoculation.
No, it's the once ordinary behavior that's most triggering, the casual, off-handed references to now-verboten acts that fill shows shot before 2020.
A family watch of Derry Girls finds the Northern Irish teens excited about a school trip to Paris, a city I was going to fly to next week that now seems as distant as the moon. What sitcom about young people in the city doesn't involve constant apartment drop-ins, brunches, inadvisably close partying? During a cheese commercial, friends grab at a communal plate of quesadillas and I wince. I watch an episode of Australian Survivor, and I can only think, "Stop. Touching. Your. Faces!"
How did I never notice before how much TV was a decadent Saturnalia of facial self-exploration? Casual eye-rubbing and breaching the 6-foot radius: This is our porn now, and a cruel reminder. What would have been the most minor behaviours a week ago — the unprotected high-five, the leaned-in whisper, the detective getting in a suspect's face — now seem as otherworldly as wights and flying dragons.
You might think there would be a safer mental refuge in science-fiction or fantasy series, far removed from our physical realities. This would be a great time to rewatch Lost— although there is the whole storyline about the Dharma Initiative working on a vaccine for a mysterious illness. Or Pushing Daisies, starring Lee Pace as a man who can never touch the woman he loves, lest she die.
Even HBO's Avenue 5, about passengers stranded in close quarters, on an interplanetary cruise ship with questionable leadership, suddenly hits unintendedly close to Earth.
Of course, we're still going to turn to a lot of TV to get us through this period. At least I am. But we ought to be realistic about what it can and can't do.
The words "escape" and "escapist" are built into our language for entertainment. But that's always been the wrong way to think of it. Art doesn't exist to make you forget your life. It has all of life in it — the good and the bad and the awkward reminders. Art isn't an anaesthetic. It makes you feel things. This isn't a failing, it's the point.
This is true both in ordinary times and extraordinary times. Even the lightest entertainment is really a way of engaging with your world on a metaphorical level. All the more so when your world is tightly, if temporarily, circumscribed.
The other day, I rewatched some of The Office with my wife. Both of us are exiled from our own offices. (I usually work from home, but once it's mandatory, you still feel it.) And yeah, it's a little weird to deal with an enforced home stay by watching other people punch the clock.
But it's also perfect. The whole creative engine of The Office, after all, is that big ensemble of characters showing how the enforced closeness of a group of co-workers can drive you nuts. In the precorona era, you might have watched it as a funhouse mirror of your own workplace and its neuroses. Now, it summons a kind of odd instant nostalgia for weeks or even days ago.
Then and now, though, it was the same show — a collection, like so many workplace sitcoms, of the ways that human contact can be sustaining and maddening. All this time, TV has been amassing a gargantuan visual history of handsy, shoulder-to-shoulder life in the Before Times, of all the enviable, boring activities we once took for granted and that we will someday enjoy, and then take for granted, again. (Maybe with cleaner hands.)
Maybe it's wrong to think of TV as a shelter in this moment after all. Maybe it's more like a quarantine pantry: a set of experiences and ways of living that we gathered, preserved and shelved when they were in season.
Now they'll have to tide us over until the day — coming, eventually, even if we can't see it — when we can once again enjoy them fresh.
Written by: James Poniewozik
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES