Why Is Hollywood So Afraid of COVID?

The pandemic shows no sign of disappearing, but what about fictional films and series about it? So far, they’re playing it for laughs and leaving the heavy lifting to documentaries

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A scene from the COVID documentary "In the Same Breath."
A scene from the COVID documentary "In the Same Breath."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

It takes a lot for something to stand out as “ironic” in an age where some choose cattle deworming medicine over a scientifically proven COVID vaccine. 

But watching a behind-the-scenes promo for the upcoming National Geographic series “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” in which there are more face masks among the crew members than among the actors reenacting the U.S. anthrax terror attacks in 2001, definitely forced a wry smile. 

“The Hot Zone” is actually that rarest of beasts: a film or show about a deadly virus that earned a follow-up. The original season, which came out in 2019 (just prior to SARS-CoV-2’s own release), focused on the Ebola virus scare of 1989. Now there’s talk of it becoming an anthology series featuring a different “guest” virus every season. But let’s circle back to that later.

Generally, it seems we like our deadly virus movies/series the way we like our deadly viruses: one-shot deals that disappear as quickly as they arrived, and preferably set far from our own neighborhoods.

There is no chance of a “Contagion 2,” for instance, in which Jude Law’s character parlays his anti-vaxxer celebrity status into a lucrative career on Fox News, declaring that hydroxychloroquine is the new Forsythia (the worthless homeopathic cure he’s peddling in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie). 

There was never any hope of a sequel to 1995’s dumb-as-a-rock “Outbreak” – which is a blessed relief for those of us who prefer to remember Dustin Hoffman from the time when he wasn’t phoning it in as if already practicing an early form of social distancing.

There was no “Andromeda Strain” movie or TV sequel (author Michael Crichton clearly thought dystopian resorts featuring gunslinging robots and dinosaurs were far more rewarding) or “Pandemic 2” – but kudos if you can even remember that nondescript U.S. miniseries about the bird flu from 2007.

The CW drama “Containment” (a 2015 U.S. remake of the Belgian show “Cordon”) never got beyond its original 13-episode run, which is frankly more than it deserved for its BS tagline “Hope is contagious.” If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past 18 months, it’s that “hope” and “pandemic” are oxymoronic, with the emphasis on “moron” for too many people.

‘The Hot Zone: COVID’?

All of this begs the question: Will the world ever be ready for a movie or TV series about the coronavirus and its devastating impact on the world (4.5 million deaths and counting)? Will there ever be a good time for “The Hot Zone” to announce that its next season will recount the tale of Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and the White House’s own answer to Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede character, Donald Trump – though, thinking about it, Alex “The pandemic’s wrongest man” Berenson is probably the closest we’ve got to Krumwiede in real life.

We’ve already seen a few feature films and shows inspired by the coronavirus, but these have by and large focused on lockdown, looking at the micro rather than macro. Films like “Together,” in which a couple (played by James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan) are forced to reevaluate their failing relationship when they’re forced to spend lockdown together with their feelings and young kid. There’s also the upcoming French film “Stuck Together,” directed, written by and starring Dany Boon, which will debut on Netflix this October.

We also have series like “Staged,” in which actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen rehearse their West End play via Zoom while COVID puts their lives on hiatus. Fair play to co-creator and director Simon Evans for cranking out two seasons of the comedy at a time when most of us consider it an achievement to merely watch two seasons of anything.

There have also been special episodes of ongoing series dealing specifically with lockdown – such as the “Mythic Quest” episode “Quarantine,” which may serve as the perfect “time capsule” moment for those seeking to explain what 2020 was like.

The common denominator in these works is that they’re all comedies, giving audiences a chance to laugh at their predicament in this otherwise most tragic of times. They are all reflecting on by-products of the virus – the isolation, the confinement, the sense of life being on hold – rather than the disease itself.

We’re forever being told that one of the main reasons Hollywood doesn’t create – or indeed need – movie stars anymore is because today’s big hits feature actors performing behind superhero masks (honestly, I wouldn’t be able to pick out “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland from a lineup of Dutch men). So, does that mean it’s ready to green light a big-budget movie where those masks are light blue and disposable? History suggests not.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Hollywood has ever sought to specifically tackle the Spanish flu (aka H1N1) – despite it killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide a century ago – though it did briefly disrupt some wedding plans in an episode of “Downton Abbey.” (In a bid to incorrectly use the word “ironic” more times than Alanis Morissette, I should point out here that, ironically, H1N1 actually helped Los Angeles become the epicenter of the movie world in the 1920s, since New York and Europe were more adversely hit by the pandemic in those crucial post-World War I years.)

The truth is, we only like our virus movies and series when their side effects involve vampirism and zombie hordes, not sore arms and mild headaches. That’s how Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain” stuck around for four seasons, Danny Boyle’s brilliant “28 Days Later” zombie flick spawned a sequel and “The Walking Dead” begat an empire of spin-offs.

So, given that creatives have avoided the Spanish flu like, well, the plague, and COVID has been reduced to a disease where we only become short of breath because we’re laughing so much at Michael Sheen, it’s hard to imagine lines of writers rushing to turn the coronavirus into a big-screen entertainment anytime soon.

David Tennant and Michael Sheen in "Staged."Credit: HOT

Post-pandemic world-building

The small screen could be a different story, though. In Britain, Michael Winterbottom is currently working on “‘This Sceptred Isle’” (yes, those are two separate quote marks), looking into Boris Johnson’s government’s handling/mishandling of the coronavirus.

Of course, Johnson (set to be played by Kenneth Branagh) was one of several world leaders who failed to treat the virus with the utmost respect and ended up hospitalized as a result. Expect his infamous quote of “I was at a hospital where there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody,” weeks before he became seriously ill, to generate knowing laughs among viewers.

We may also see an increase in stories about post-pandemic worlds. For example, HBO is currently adapting Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel “Station Eleven,” about the survivors of a deadly swine flu epidemic, while Rawson Marshall Thurber is adapting the video game “The Division” for Netflix, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain starring in the smallpox-“inspired” thriller.

But any writer seeking inspiration for a COVID storyline should look no further than the set of U.S. soap “General Hospital.”

To recap: Ingo Rademacher, the actor who plays Jasper “Jax” Jacks on the eternal ABC daytime show, is opposed to COVID vaccinations being mandatory on the set, while many of his co-stars are not. One of those co-stars, Steve Burton (who’s played Jason Morgan for the past 15 years), recently tested positive for COVID and believes he caught it while filming.

Rademacher has taken his crusade to social media, accusing critics who are calling for him to be fired of “dragging down the human race.” Anyone who’s not seeing this as a “Tootsie” for the COVID age just isn’t paying attention.

No less heated is all the speculation about where COVID originated: a Wuhan wet market, a Wuhan virology lab or, as the Chinese would increasingly have you believe, a U.S. military lab in Maryland.

Much like U.S. military intelligence, I don’t have the answer, but I’m increasingly convinced the virus watched “Contagion” and “The Usual Suspects” before stepping out into the world – the former because it always appears to be one step ahead; the latter because it seems to be inspired by the Kevin Spacey line that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Until it met Pfizer Söze, at least.

Man-made disasters

For me, the pandemic won’t truly be over until that great chronicler of American life, Ken Burns, does a definitive 10-part documentary about it for HBO. This is, after all, the man who has already given us series on such man-made disasters as the Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War, and country and western music.

What’s already clear is that documentaries have played a vital role in capturing the horrors and the heroes who have fought on the front lines against COVID. In years to come, I think the 2020 film “Totally Under Control” will serve as a vital bulwark against revisionists seeking to claim that the Trump administration did everything it could to combat the pandemic. And Nanfu Wang’s HBO documentary “In the Same Breath” will do a similar job to rebut Chinese claims it had COVID totally under control.

“In the Same Breath” is the second Chinese documentary I’ve seen in the past year about the pandemic. But while “76 Days” focused on the medical profession’s battle to save lives in Wuhan early last year when the Hubei Province capital was in lockdown, Wang’s film adopts a far more probing approach.

The Chinese-American director wasn’t prepared to accept the (communist) party line that “China’s superior system” handled the coronavirus in an exemplary fashion that was beyond reproach, so she got three different camera people to shoot footage in Wuhan hospitals from the start of 2020.

What those cameras captured was amazing: doctors admitting they couldn’t say anything negative while they were being filmed; relatives of COVID victims refusing to remain silent about what they believed really happened during those 76 days (even secretly filming visits by the local police ordering them to desist with their accusations); funeral directors saying the actual death toll was 10 times greater than the official figure released by the authorities.

The COVID documentary "In the Same Breath."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

There are also citizen journalists fearlessly speaking out, even while risking their own lives – please google the name “Chen Qiushi” to see what happens to those who refuse to sing from the China-uber-alles hymn sheet – and a level of hasbara even Israel might consider excessive.

While “In the Same Breath” is far from perfect (an attempt to contrast Chinese patriots and American libertarians falls flat, for instance), it features some amazing moments – like when a doctor who runs a private Wuhan clinic struggles to contain her emotions following the death of her husband.

“My personal interest has to come after the national interest,” she sobs, overwhelmed by grief but still unable to voice criticism of the “motherland” that failed to find a hospital bed for her doctor husband in December 2019, after he had tended to patients coming in with strange symptoms from the nearby Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

And you would struggle to create a more cinematic ending to any fictional work about COVID than these haunting words of a Wuhan resident, delivered off-camera as a drone shot captures a sprawling apartment block: “Do you know what the saddest moment was? It was when you suddenly heard a heartbreaking cry. We all knew that person must have just learned about the sudden death of a family member. The building was filled with that cry. I’ll never forget it.”

“In the Same Breath” is available to download now in Israel on Yes and Hot VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom TV, and on HBO Max in America.

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