Too Soon

When will it be the right time to watch shows about the pandemic? How about never?

Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It took a year and three months for a film to confront that reality; Spike Lee released 25th Hour on December 16, 2002, with a scene set near Ground Zero that managed to explore everything America was feeling at that time. Many people at the time still thought that was too soon to start processing that attack through popular culture.

Now, in 2020, a mere eight months after coronavirus arrived in America, multiple works exist about the current political moment and COVID-19. Host was the first; while it isn’t actually “about” COVID-19, it uses the disease as a way to probe into our fears about the unknown.

There’s no such subtext with Jay Roach and Paul Rudnick’s monologue film Coastal Elites and Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona miniseries. There’s just blunt text, hitting the audience over and over and over.

Both pieces of media attempt to distill everything going on in the country right now–COVID, Trump, Pence, the election, police killings, racism, sexism, discrimination, Zoom, drive-by birthday partes, the economy–and comment on “the current moment”. But Coastal Elites is a cringeworthy series of rants that preach to the elites of its title and Love in the Time of Corona is a series of surface-level observations about people that just uses the pandemic as a backdrop. As pop cultural artifacts, they’re a curiosity; as actual pieces of work, they’re opportunist and boring.

A liberal fantasy
Coastal Elites
Sarah Paulson in ‘Coastal Elites’.

Coastal Elites is the more interesting of the two. Rudnick originally wrote the series of monologues (performed by Bette Midler, Daniel Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Dever) as a theater piece, but that got shelved because of coronavirus, so it was shot remotely during the pandemic. All five performances are fantastic, despite the material. There’s nowhere to hide when your face is in closeup on a Zoom call, and these actors give every word their all. The writing is what’s wrong.

The monologues range from the over-the-top (Midler) to the tragic (Dever). None of them are particularly funny, though the film is apparently “a socially distant comedic satire.” Most of it comes off as masturbatory rhetoric shouted in an echo chamber. It’s the Imagine video made flesh.

Paulson’s monologue plays like a liberal’s fantasy of hearing their Trump-loving father change his vote and Midler’s monologue is riddled with enough NPR and New Yorker grandstanding that it ensures nobody who disagrees with this film would willingly watch it. This line from Book & Film Globe’s review of Bombshell, Roach’s last film about a topical subject, also applies here:

“I wonder who the production team imagined would want to see [this movie]. Did they think it would be liberals seeking schadenfreude? If so, it was an unsatisfying offering.”

A weird nostalgia piece
Tommy Dorfman and Rainey Qualley in ‘Love in the Time of Corona’.

The four episodes of Love in the Time of Corona (all apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez) don’t do much better to analyze the times we live in. While it’s much less political, it is intent on rehashing everything that has happened in 2020. Dressing up like a HAZMAT technician to go to the grocery store? Check. Taking refuge in the fact that lockdown will “only last a few weeks”? You got it. Jokes about practicing TikTok dances at home? Of course.

The narrative structure of Love in The Time of Corona is a bit like Love Actually or Crash, where all but one of the four storylines intersect with each other.

James and Sade (real-life couple Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson) are quarantining at home now that James’ career as a film producer is on hold. They’re debating having another kid. Meanwhile, James is talking with his mother Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell) about what to do with his father Charles (Charles Robinson), who has Alzheimer’s and has to stay separated from the family in his nursing home. Nanda is trying to plan their 50th anniversary party, but Charles’ mental state is too much to bear. She still sends out invitations, including one to her old first-grade student Sophie (Ava Bellows) who is now in college and is quarantining with her parents after her boyfriend dumped her. Oh, and Sophie’s parents (Rya Kihlstedt and Gil Bellows) have secretly separated but haven’t told her yet.

Meanwhile, in the unrelated storyline, best friends and roommates Oscar (Tommy Dorfman) and Elle (Rainey Qualley) decide to put themselves out there on the Zoom dating scene. They pick each other’s dates, and when Oscar’s goes well but Elle’s doesn’t, Elle starts to voice all the pent up pining feelings she has toward Oscar, all while trying to get over her gay roomate by talking to the hot bookworm next door (Emilio Garcia-Sanchez). This is the most blatant “how do you do, fellow kids” move of the whole series, as this plotline also involves nonbinary gender identity, TikTok and a forced love triangle just because the plot demands it.

The thing about Love in the Time of Corona is it’s just a typical Freeform show with COVID-19 as the inciting incident. Take the disease out of the picture, and not much changes. Some jokes wouldn’t work, but overall, the show seems to be content to be a weird, opportunist nostalgia piece that makes you pine for ye olden days of March, when we all thought we would only be home for a few weeks.

It starts to show some life once it wades into the ways the recent protests against police brutality have affected the nation. A scene where James talks to Nanda about his misgivings about bringing another child into the world when police are still killing innocent Black people prompts his mother to tell him that “we had to claim our joy in this world.” That’s the closest this show comes to having a point of view. Well, that and “you can’t quarantine love.” Most of the show operates in “you can’t quarantine love” platitudes; it would have been interesting to see it delve deeper and get to more ”claim our own joy” moments.

The issue plaguing both of these works is not that it’s too soon for pop culture about COVID-19. The issue is that it’s too late for surface-level observations about the virus. We won’t know how these events have shaped our national psyche for years to come, but it’s too late to make shows about current events that don’t observe more than the surface level. There’s also the matter of viewers not wanting to watch something that reminds them of Zoom meetings and quarantine and disease. We’re all already in it; we don’t need visual reinforcement for everything.

Pop culture doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) insightful or meaningful all the time, but if a piece of pop culture invokes current events and purports to have something to say about “the way we live now” but doesn’t actually have much to say other than “this sucks,” then it’s not going to stand the test of time long enough for people to look back at it as anything worth remembering.

There’s going to be a whole lot of media made about this year and this pandemic. So far, none of it has been good. Maybe Peacock’s new show Connecting… or Netflix’s upcoming Social Distance will fare better.

On second thought, maybe not.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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