In this pandemic, the only truly escapist TV is set in another universe
Thanks to social distancing, the wildest sci-fi universes are now found in soap operas and crime dramas
In my regular job writing about Sci-Fi and Fantasy for RadioTimes.com, I’m used to transporting myself to other universes through the medium of television – but over the past couple of months, I’ve been struck by the differences to my own life I’m seeing on screen.
Every day I’m witnessing strange worlds, far from what we know – societies with strange alien rituals, pastimes and experiences that could not be more foreign to the world as I know it. And that’s just Line of Duty.
"Why are you standing so close together??" I find myself hollering at the TV.
"Wash your hands, Steve Arnott!"
Yes, watching TV in the time of corona is a strange experience. For every shoestring at-home lockdown production which can’t help but remind you of the dire straits we’re in, there’s a lush pre-filmed drama, or soap, filled with people performing everyday actions that are now about as distant to us as all our friends and extended relatives.
Seeing characters go to restaurants, meet new people, share food, hold hands, go to work – it’s sometimes hard to immerse yourself in the story without being reminded of what we’re all currently living without. Which is perhaps why, more than ever, I’m finding more comfort in TV that isn’t supposed to reflect real life.
When I tune into The Mandalorian, it doesn’t seem strange that Pedro Pascal’s bounty hunter isn’t maintaining a strict two-metre distance from his targets – aside from the fact that he’s fully encased in Beskar steel PPE, my brain accepts that there’s no coronavirus in a galaxy far, far away.
Because we don’t have easy interstellar travel, lightsabers, telekinetic powers or (sadly) Baby Yodas in our universe either, I’m used to suspending my disbelief for a Star Wars story. And it’s the same for a show like Game of Thrones (as unpleasant as Westeros seems to be to live in, at least you can get close enough to somebody to disembowel them) where the rules and setting are already so different from our world that it’s easier to lose yourself in the action.
Period dramas work too – it’s not hard to get sucked into something like The Last Kingdom or Belgravia, both of which again are supposed to be in a different society – even as ostensibly present-day stories begin to resemble a past we’ve left behind.
Going forward, TV dramas face a difficult challenge beyond that posed by trying to restart production. In new stories, how do we address what we’ve all been living through? Do we pretend that nothing ever happened and society continued as normal, or is there a need to address it? To return to Line of Duty, will AC-12’s investigations continue as normal – or will we also find out how well Ted Hastings got on with his Zoom pub quizzes over the past few months? Will lockdown have "happened"?
Obviously everyone wants escapism, and it’d be tedious to have a million lockdown-themed dramas arriving – but for better or for worse, the coronavirus pandemic has affected every living person in the world, billions all at once. It shouldn’t have to dominate everything forever – it’s arguably canonical in every kitchen-sink drama that World War II happened, but it doesn’t come up a lot in The A Word – but in the near future, it’d be strange to pretend nothing had changed at all.
Evidence now suggests that to some extent, we could be living in a changed world for years to come, a "new normal" where we’re still forced to keep our distance in one way or another. Unless they actually are living in a parallel universe, how could TV characters ignore it?
The answer is a tricky one, and I’m intrigued to see how dramatists cope with it. Already, Coronation Street producers have promised the coronavirus pandemic will be reflected in storylines when filming returns. Perhaps others will follow their lead, or go a different way and create a world where COVID-19 just isn’t a major issue, in the hope that soon enough that’ll be our reality too.
Personally, I still find it easiest to retreat to TV worlds where physics, biology and science are already so different it’s not a wrench. Anyone for a hand of Sabacc?
The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney+