The COVID-19 pandemic has put much of the entertainment world on hold, with every television show and film in progress having halted production. With the exception of various blockbusters that have delayed their theatrical releases, though, this hasn’t yet created a tremendous vacuum in the pop culture space. Plenty of TV shows had shot and finished entire seasons well before quarantine set in, and were able to air on time (or ahead of their original schedules). Whether the current delays will create a hole in the networks’ schedules in the future remains to be seen.
But traditional film and television production account for only a fraction of the media many of us consume today. Various online video makers have had to adapt to the pandemic in their own ways. One obvious avenue for traditional journalism outlets is producing content concerning issues directly related to the crisis. Hence we have Wired doing an explainer on face masks:
And a special Atlantic video on researches quarantined in the Arctic:
Meanwhile, independent YouTubers have adapted their various beats to the circumstances. Popular dressmaker Bernadette Banner, for instance, took on the viral Met Gala challenge, recreating Ariana Grande’s dress from last year’s Gala … with toilet paper:
And despite the constraints of being unable to leave one’s home or interact with anyone you aren’t quarantining with, some enterprising creatives have even made short films in quarantine. YouTuber Austin McConnell rounded up a few of the more outstanding examples in a recent video:
Another genre heavily impacted by the quarantine is the cooking tutorial. Normally working in professional kitchens, different chefs are now bringing us into their own kitchens.
This might actually be a boon for this particular category. The online recipe industry is based heavily on parasocial attachments between audiences and chefs. There’s a reason every blog recipe has a lengthy unrelated preamble before it gets to the actual ingredients and process. It’s as much about forging a connection between the creator and the audience as it is about purely conveying information. The video arms of outlets like Tasty and Bon Appetit thrive on the popularity of their chefs with watchers. Bringing viewers into chefs’ homes like this feels oddly natural, rather than a rushed adaptation to changing outside circumstances. Tasty took this to the next level by hosting a video chat Seder for Passover.
On that note, celebrities have put in their own efforts to keep up the show even in quarantine. Some of these, like the much-mocked group rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” have fallen horribly flat. Others have gotten a more mixed reception, like Saturday Night Live‘s attempts to keep its format working with the cast riffing from home. A lot of people liked the nostalgic hug of the Parks and Recreation reunion special, but it left me cold, demonstrating the limits of trying to create traditional TV narratives within these unusual parameters.
In my book, the most impressive major program made in quarantine so far is the star-studded at-home fundraising concert put together for Stephen Sondheim. While missing the energy these performers would normally be able to harness on a big stage, it’s hard to go wrong with a roster of supremely talented actors putting all of their pent-up energy into one of the stage’s most venerated composers and lyricists.
Scant exceptions aside, digital native creators have adapted much more easily to these conditions. A good example is the YouTube channel for the popular video game site Polygon. Used to operating with polished studios, the various contributors have adapted quickly, making many of the last few weeks’ worth of videos from home, including those for their series Overboard, in which groups of site writers and creators gather to play board games. For the most recent episode, participants play together over video chat, using a mobile game instead of a physical one. Discussions of game enemies that relentlessly chase players or the odd preponderance of monsters with eyes in their hands are captured via microphones at home, often giving viewers glimpses of the domestic, instead of anonymous “professional” environs. In many ways, these shifts feel like a return to the earlier days of YouTube and other video sharing sites, when having an internet show just meant you’d sit down in front of a camera in your apartment and put on a show with whatever you had nearby.
Quarantine has even inspired Polygon producer Brian David Gilbert — who had previously attracted a sizable online audience with his … unique comedic sensibility — to return to those roots with this masterpiece of having-too-much-time-on-your-hands:
As the pandemic continues, will we continue to see more of this DIY cinema of barely disguised desperation masquerading as irony? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, many of us are acting out our own versions of The Decameron, swapping stories while isolated from a world in epidemiological turmoil. Quarantine cabin fever may be indistinguishable from regular “Because I felt like it” fooling around on TikTok, but seeing what professionals do when forced to downgrade is an interesting case study in creativity under constraint.