How The Coronavirus Is Infecting Pop Culture

Published: Monday, August 3, 2020 - 1:55pm
Updated: Monday, August 3, 2020 - 1:56pm
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James Pickens Jr., Ellen Pompeo and Kelly McCreary in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" that aired in April 2020.

LAUREN GILGER: The new coronavirus has affected pop culture in many ways, from pausing production to giving us all the time to binge watch everything on Netflix. But now pop culture is starting to use the global pandemic as a plot point. The creators of the longest running medical drama on TV, Grey's Anatomy, announced recently that their [17th] season will tackle, you guessed it, the coronavirus. So how soon is too soon for pop culture to tackle this issue? Or is that exactly what we need to understand it better? For more on that, I got a hold of NPR's Linda Holmes, host of the popular podcast "Pop Culture Happy Hour.

LINDA HOLMES: Well, I think you already have a lot of live Instagram things and other things that very much acknowledge the world that we're living in. So I think in all honesty, I think it's not going to be a matter of waiting a particular period of time. I think it's going to be a matter of, sort of where do you find enough stability that you know how to tell the story? Because, you know, is Grey's Anatomy going to be referencing a moment where everything's very active and everything's going crazy, or are they going to reference a moment where, you know, it's relative calm? And so it's, it's partly that rather than the 'too soon' thing, although, you know, traditionally some shows — with other very difficult situations, some shows have gone really quickly. Some shows have waited a little bit longer. You know, it depends on the show and it depends on how much credibility they have with their own audience, I think.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Do you think that, because you, I think you kind of got at this there, do you think that social media sort of has changed the game this time around because, almost because of the nature of what we're living in right now, right? Like, big studios can't make shows right now, but everyone on social media and on TikTok and on YouTube and whatever can comment on this, and that's become a conversation already.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, you're not going to be breaking any ground by acknowledging in a television show that this is all happening because people know it's all happening, right?


HOLMES: I think the social media probably has made a difference in the sense that a lot of the kind of the things that would come up around this, for example, like the idea of like, you can't touch people, the idea that you can't have a birthday party, sort of those small day-to-day things that you might tackle on a television show, people have already kind of worked their way through and spoken about maybe on Twitter, Instagram.

GILGER: So dramas are one thing like Grey's Anatomy, right? But then there's this other question about comedy, I think, which is a little different. Like, I remember after 9/11 happened and SNL came back on the air at some point and everybody sort of said, "OK, we can laugh now," you know. Is there going to be a moment like that or is this much more fluid?

HOLMES: Well, I think for one thing, I think there's a big difference between something that has a concrete beginning and an end as 9/11 did, and something that is, that feels like it may be open-ended for all of us. I don't know that people are going to be in a mood to laugh a lot about the pandemic itself. I don't think we're in the position where nobody wants to laugh at anything. I think we're just in a position where maybe they don't want to laugh at this. So I would expect it to take a while before you see kind of COVID comedy that people want to watch.

GILGER: Yeah. So there's another side of this, though, that I was thinking about as I was prepping for this, which is sort of, you know, is this exactly what we need right now, though? Like, do we need pop culture? Do we need art, essentially, to help us interpret and understand this thing that we're all experiencing that we've never experienced before?

HOLMES: Yeah, I mean, my instinct is to say probably. But I think, there's such an interesting question because it's sort of, are you talking about art that directly kind of goes at the idea of the pandemic, which I don't think anybody really knows how to make right now, precisely because it's not something that we've been through, because of the open-endedness of it. Or are you talking about the ability of art to sort of come at it from a, from the side right? Talk about the, the ability of people to connect, even if it's not explicitly about a pandemic. And I do think it's important to stay connected to the things that reaffirm kind of your humanity. I think it's important to keep connected to the things that remind you what you think is important and what you want the world to be like. And so I do think there's a little bit more of a maybe you don't want the most depressing ending in the world right now. Yeah, it's definitely an open question. All these things are just going to be fascinating to watch, I think.

GILGER: Totally, totally. So you're getting at something there that I've wondered about as well. We've been in this era of like, the antihero being very popular in our pop culture. Do you think that, like, I'm thinking of like, like 1950s pop culture after years of war in which the hero was a real thing. And do you think we're gonna see some sort of shift in that just because of the mood of the culture and people wanting, you know, somebody to cheer for?

HOLMES: I do. I mean, I think you will probably see something of an interest in things that are maybe a little more, as I said, a little more, a little more hopeful. That's personally what I am more in the mood for. But there are also people who have responded to this pandemic by wanting to watch apocalyptic things, which I personally, I can't imagine wanting to do that right now. But people do. There are people who as soon as this happened, they went right out and watched Contagion. I will never, I will never be that person. But those people are out there. So I think everybody responds a little bit differently. For me, yes, I am looking for things that are, you know, a little less bleak than what I see when I look out the window.

GILGER: Yeah. So it sounds like because of the, the world that we live in, in which everything is very fractured already, you're going to see a little bit of everything here in terms of reaction to this and how we watch it play out in pop culture.

HOLMES: I think that's right. I think that there are, there is so much that's up in the air right now that what you get is going to be affected by two different things. You know, if you assume that people are going to go back into production, right? So I won't say post-pandemic, but post this phase, when people go back into production, assuming that happens. It's going to be affected by two things, right? One is, how do people feel and what do they want? And the other thing is, from a practical perspective, what is it possible to make? You know, what is it possible to make safely? And so perhaps you'll have something where smaller productions with fewer people, where it can be a little bit more confined will be made more. And you'll see kind of a, maybe you'll see growth in things with smaller casts and fewer crowd scenes just for practical reasons. You could see a variety of things. And it's going to be both. It's going to be how do we feel? And it's going to be what can we do? And those things are not necessarily going to be the same thing, and it's going to be finding something that hits both of those, those targets, I think.

GILGER: Yeah, well it'll be really interesting to watch for. All right. That is Linda Holmes, host of NPR's very popular and one of my favorite podcasts, 'Pop Culture Happy Hour' joining us. Linda, thank you so much for taking the time.

HOLMES: Thank you so much.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The  story has been updated to correct which season the TV series "Grey's Anatomy" will highlight the coronavirus pandemic. In the audio, the correct "Grey's Anatomy" season should be season 17. 

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