The TV Shows (And Characters) Helping Us Through Troubled Coronavirus Times

With our ability to see friends more limited than a Trump kid’s vocabulary, television and its familiar set of characters is playing an important role in keeping us sane. And yes, I am writing about John Oliver yet again

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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John Oliver (screenshot)
John Oliver (screenshot)
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the concluding season of "Homeland."
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the concluding season of "Homeland."Credit: Sifeddine Elamine / SHOWTIME /

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I need to update my cultural references.

Every single time I sneeze, cough or feel a slight twinge, I hear the voice of Edward G. Robinson in my head whimpering, “Mother of mercy, is this end of Rico?” And literally every time I visit the local store, Ronald Reagan urges me to go in there with all I’ve got and “win just one for the Gipper.”

Given that these two film quotes have a combined age of almost 170, by rights they should be running for president of the United States. But unlike the actual candidates in that race, I’m trying to retire my references so that, yes, it is the bloody end of Rico. The sooner I can get Buffy’s “I’m the thing that monsters have nightmare about” embedded as my daily mantra for this Grave New World, the better.

What else have I learned as the lockdown enters its fourth week in Israel, other than the fact that my long-gestating mash-up of “Jane Eyre” and “The Silence of the Lambs” – working title, “Reader, I Marinaded Him” – still needs at least one more draft?

This: With the ability to meet up with friends now more limited than a Trump kid’s vocabulary, television’s familiar faces are meaning an awful lot to an awful lot of people right now.

These are people we have invited into our homes for many years, nay decades: total strangers who nonetheless feel like part of the family. And where we once put them in the corners of our rooms, we now grant them center stage – no screen size too small, no close-up too unflattering in all its 4K-ing glory.

These are the faces bringing comfort to millions, “friends” who’ll be there for you when the rain starts to pour, like they’ve been there before.

Just look at the enormous efforts TV stations are making to keep your favorites on the air, guiding you through the worst shitstorm the world has ever seen – or at least since a tornado ripped through an Oklahoma sewage treatment plant back in the day.

Yes, it is scary to realize that some viewers will hold Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity in the same light as others once regarded Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite. But we all have our own comfort blankets, the people we trust implicitly to deliver our news, our analyses, our sports commentaries and, yes, our entertainment.

Yes, him again

The good news – for me, at least – is that the likes of John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and Seth Myers are still out there (“in there” would be more accurate) broadcasting from their makeshift home studios, voices of comic reason providing the commentary as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse saunter into view.

Trevor Noah with his audience during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" during pre-coronavirus times.
Trevor Noah with his audience during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" during pre-coronavirus times.Credit: /AP

Of course, not one of these “emergency” shows are as good as their normal selves, deprived of the energy that recording a show in front of a live audience generates. But some are more adept at adapting to the new restraints than others, channeling their inner-Norma Desmonds to glare into the camera and defiantly declare “I am big. It’s the strictures that got small.”

I almost hate to mention him yet again (and, yes, thanks, I am fully aware of my obsession), but Oliver is the one who’s somehow managing to function closest to normal with “Last Week Tonight.” Who else would have had the chutzpah to end a show about the coronavirus and President Donald Trump’s inept handling of it with a segment on rodent erotica – or as I prefer to call it, “eratica” – and set the world on a quest to find a ridiculous artwork called “Stay Up Late”?

Then, of course, there was the description of Jared Kushner as an “alt-right Pinocchio” in the most recent edition, in which he slated the president’s son-in-law for his handling of the coronavirus – in particular the government’s stockpile of medical supplies.

“Wait, our stockpile? It’s not your stockpile. It’s a national stockpile for use by the United States, you fucking moron,” Oliver responded. “And here’s the interesting thing about the United States: it’s almost entirely made of states. There’s states everywhere. I’d say more than 40 of them, Jared. And some parts of them badly need supplies right now, like the city you used to live in, and I pray you never show your polished fucking face again.”

John Oliver, we continue to salute you. Jared Kushner, we await confirmation that you have escaped from the set of “Westworld.”

Yet while it is no shock that we look to television for soothsayers and truth-tellers, we also look in some strange fictional places to find those balms that will get us through rough times.

I wrote recently about how the world is turning to Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” and I noticed the long-canceled CW show “Containment” – tag line “Hope is Contagious” – resurfacing on torrent feeds this past week. But long-standing fictional characters are also an essential part of our survival toolkit, illusions we invest an awful lot of time and emotion in, and welcome unconditionally into our lives.

I was surprised to find myself compelled – I can find no better word – to tell my two daughters recently how the character of Alex Karev exited “Grey’s Anatomy” after 15 long years. Both my kids watched the show obsessively for a while, devouring the first 11 seasons in less than a year, only bailing when McDreamy ended up sleeping with the fishes.

We haven’t talked about “Grey’s” in quite a few years, but I felt the need to update them about Alex’s fate in much the same way I might inform them about a distant relative. (Shit! Note to self: Remember to tell the girls the sad news about there Great-Uncle Bill.) After all, Karev was a big part of their lives for quite some time, and the actor Justin Chambers played the character for the exact same number of years my youngest kid has been alive.

Life revue?

When actors play a single character for such a long time, I wonder if, during a life review, the exploits of their fictional selves flash before their eyes alongside their own experiences, the two welded somehow together, impossible to separate out. You could call it a life revue. If so, Claire Danes is sure going to have some interesting “memories” when she’s on her deathbed many years (one hopes) from now.

I’ve been thinking about her best-known character, Carrie Mathison, a lot recently and how typical it is of Carrie that, just when we need her the most, she is about to disappear from our screens forever as “Homeland” concludes later this month. (I haven’t seen the finale yet, but am already impressed that they titled it “Prisoners of War” – a nice nod to the Israeli show it is based on.)

I’ve dipped in and out of “Homeland” over the years, never quite sure of the sequence of good seasons. Indeed, Carrie is probably the only person who could decipher a pattern among the “Homeland” seasons to work out which ones are genuinely worth watching.

And although President Trump may not be a fan of Endless Wars in far-flung places, they sure as hell have been a godsend for the makers of “Homeland.” For season eight, Carrie is back out in the field – this time in Afghanistan. Yet like all the previous seasons, the show is at its singular best when it turns Danes the actress into a bipolar explorer.

“Homeland” quickly recognized that the secret to its success lay in the relationship between Carrie and her mentor, Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson. It was able to play fast and loose with real-life terror threats, and kill off key characters, safe in the knowledge that it was grounded in this enduring friendship between the world’s worst mom and the intelligence community’s uber-mensch/grinch.

Actors Claire Danes, left, and Mandy Patinkin attending Showtime's "Homeland" eighth and final season premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, February 4, 2020.
Actors Claire Danes, left, and Mandy Patinkin attending Showtime's "Homeland" eighth and final season premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, February 4, 2020.Credit: Evan Agostini/AP

“Homeland” may have been, like a drunken cartographer, all over the map during those eight seasons, but Carrie and Saul will be much missed going forward.

Talking of much missed, I was among the many to be devastated at last week’s news of Adam Schlesinger’s death due to coronavirus complications.

Adam Schlesinger pictured after winning the awards for outstanding original music and lyrics for "Crazy Ex Girlfriend," at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, September 14, 2019.
Adam Schlesinger pictured after winning the awards for outstanding original music and lyrics for "Crazy Ex Girlfriend," at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, September 14, 2019.Credit: Richard Shotwell/AP

Schlesinger, 52, was a prodigious songwriter, first with Fountains of Wayne – whose six albums have helped soundtrack my life for the past 25 years – and latterly as a writer of songs for stage and screen, most notably for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” How sadly apt that the first Fountains of Wayne track I randomly heard after the tragic news was “Troubled Times.”

Others have written far better than I ever could about Schlesinger’s work, most notably Jody Rosen in The New Yorker, so I will just sum up his career in a single word: tunesmith. Or maybe songsmith would actually be more accurate, to reflect his ability to paint a picture about a character or a place in a melodious three-minute song. If you need a pick-me-up in these troubled times, here are three Schlesinger songs guaranteed to put a smile on your face: “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” from Stephen Colbert’s “A Colbert Christmas” novelty album; “It’s Not Just For Gays Anymore,” Neil Patrick Harris’ showstopping number at the 2011 Tony Awards; and “What’ll It Be (Hey, West Covina)” from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The man’s music, at least, will endure.

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