When the first wave of this pandemic era’s storytelling arrived, across many genres, the plague theme was dominant. Searching for parallels to an event unprecedented in recent times, the source material mined by writers was the impact of the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century. Societal change following mass death was a running premise.
Isolation then became a keynote topic. The new experience of lockdowns and the strange connectivity offered by technology formed a baseline for storytelling. HBO’s Coastal Elites was typical: A collection of linked monologues filmed in quarantine, it arrived looking like the work of theatre it was originally supposed to be. The BBC’s Staged was also archetypal, with actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen playing versions of themselves, trying to prepare a project while in lockdown and using video-conference technology to connect.
What we’re seeing now is the real and sometimes unnerving impact of the COVID-era on television narratives. An atmosphere of stagnation and fear has crept in. There’s melancholy all over the place, as characters worry about unforeseen change, isolation and the struggle to adapt to change. It’s not that the COVID-19 experience as illness or epidemic is being confronted blatantly. It’s more like an accumulation of moods, and a deep sense of vulnerability particularly, is washing over a set of TV dramas.
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An example is Severance (streams Apple TV+), which can be taken at its surface – a paranoid thriller about a conformist corporate culture, the enemy of individuality. But it has so many other underlying themes that resonate. The tiny group of characters who work together in an antiseptic office space are proxies for viewers who have tried to find genuine connections while in isolation. Key character Helly (Britt Lower) keeps trying to quit and leave the office, but can’t. That’s all of us, worried we’re trapped in isolation forever now, and trying to get back to normality, yet failing.
Barry (HBO, streams Crave) is now imbued with mind-numbing frustration about understanding the world we’re living in and its rules. The series was about to begin shooting its third season when the pandemic halted production. Co-creator and star Bill Hader had every episode script rewritten. Not to include masks and vaccinations, but to capture the morbidly unsettling sense of things left undone, of boredom becoming rage and the need to find a new role to play in this new universe of uncertainty.
While Barry the character is a hitman who wants to be an actor, and there’s very dark humour in that, Barry is also an everyman feeling defeated and depleted. He hallucinates the worst things, but we all do that in our own way, having seen our world turned around and made small with lightning speed.
There are elements of Single Drunk Female (streams Disney+ in Canada) that are clearly not just about a woman who has a drinking problem and must get sober. That story is there, but there’s terrible melancholy in the situation of Samantha (Sofia Black-D’Elia), a 28-year-old who used to have a career at a hip online media company. The melancholy is about what she has left behind, as her world becomes reduced to a supermarket where she works, a home with a passive-aggressive mom and sobriety meetings.
Who among us has not had that fuzzy, slightly depressing realization that our routine has become home, the supermarket and occasional encounters that only remind us of the pre-COVID era of friends, freedom and fun? The series is about alcoholism, but as a metaphor for the freewheeling pre-COVID past that we have left behind.
There’s great warmth in Somebody Somewhere (streams Crave), about a drifting, withdrawn fortysomething single woman, Sam (Bridget Everett), trying to find her bearings. But it is the loneliness of Sam that connects with viewers; her uncertainty about how to behave, her brittle happiness at home, alone, and that feeling that something unnameable has gone forever.
The most sinister kind of COVID-induced melancholy is found in Shining Girls (streams Apple TV+), with main character Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) seemingly in search of a mysterious serial killer who almost got away with killing her. Yet for all the serial-killer conventions, the overriding feeling is of gloom, which stains Kirby irreparably. The future was taken away from her, as it was snatched from so many by the pandemic.
The small details of her life (the original novel was changed substantially for the TV adaptation) are worrisome because the facts keep changing, and she is constantly on the alert for the sudden disappearance of banal, day-to-day structures. Ultimately, time itself is Kirby’s enemy, and there is stasis and grief to overcome. It’s not so much a killer as it is the universe that destroys expectations and optimism itself.
Some of these series mirror COVID-era misery and melancholia directly. Which is why some viewers will avoid them, seeking escape elsewhere. But most of this batch approach the ambience from the standpoint of living through COVID-19, in all its massive interruption and disappointments. These shows understand how we live now.
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