Why Are So Many People Watching ‘Contagion’ During the Coronavirus Lockdown?

With millions confined to their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are making some interesting viewing choices to take their minds off the health crisis

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Jude Law in "Contagion."
Jude Law in "Contagion."Credit: Warner Bros.
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

These are testing times for everyone, even TV critics. Right now, we’re practically the fourth emergency service as the world is forced to hunker down and turn on its TV set for distraction.

Yes, as World War C rages outside, TV viewing figures have skyrocketed, with the public either consuming the news at an unhealthy rate or seeking sanctuary in the comforting world of make-believe – all while searching for answers to the big questions: Have they found a vaccine? Has the government mailed that damned check yet? Grandpa is coughing: Is this a good time for the kids to watch “Coco”? And, last but certainly not least, what’s worth watching?

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70Credit: Haaretz

Sure, we critics are not at the same level as the true heroes – the doctors, the nurses, the food delivery workers – but give it a few months and we’ll get there.

And so, before recommending some television shows, I feel I must use this newly elevated platform to share a few coronavirus tips with you...

1. If you need to go outside, please, please, please wear a mask. I’m alternating between my Trump and Bibi Purim ones – and they’re proving an absolute godsend for social distancing. All I have to do is put one on and start shouting about making America/Israel safe again, and no one comes within 20 feet of me. (Don’t use the Putin one, though – that really scares the kids.)

2. If you have a dog, be a mensch and let the pet-less residents in your block take it for a walk as well. Sure, your pooch will be burned out after a week, but it could probably do with shedding a few pounds anyway. And don’t be that schmuck who rents your mutt out for profit: You may be just a few hours from Judgment Day, so this is the perfect time to cram in those mitzvoth.

3. If you’re working from home – and if you’re a forklift truck driver, please stop – try to finish your day at exactly 6 P.M., just as everyone starts applauding from their balconies. Sure, they’re really saluting the valiant health workers, but it’s fun to pretend they’re cheering your efforts too. Then go outside, join in the clapping and try to start a communal rendition of “Poor Jud is Daid” – both a killer show tune and a potential public announcement.

4. If you’re in lockdown, try to use the time wisely and pursue that lifelong dream. I, for example, can now write that long-gestating comedy about a divorcing couple whose plans to split are upended when a pandemic forces them to spend the coming months together in quarantine. Working title: “Till Death Do Us Part.”

5. What does it say about a country’s health preparedness when TV shows, including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Resident,” are having to donate surplus medical supplies to actual hospitals that need them? (This is not fake news, by the way.) I guess the time to really worry – or not, depending on your perspective – is when you see Dr. Doug Ross in scrubs coming in to check on you.

Anyway, that’s enough indispensable advice. Now onto the small matter of television and some shows that I guarantee will stop you thinking about pus clogging up your lungs...

1. ‘Contagion’

OK, I lied. First, “Contagion” is a film, and, second, its sole purpose is to make you think about pus clogging up your lungs (relax, cat lovers, that’s not a typo). Yet as I write this column, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller is currently the third most watched thing on Netflix Israel.

This begs the thought: Wow, some people really are sick – and not in a coronavirus-type way. Are they viewing it as some kind of “how to” guide for surviving a pandemic? Because, spoiler alert, things do not end well for most of the characters in the film. In fact, it’s such a bleak experience that I fully expected to find the remnants of the Statue of Liberty washing ashore at the end and apes becoming our new masters.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like “Contagion.” But I saw it in a cinema where the only reason people were coughing was because they were choking on their popcorn – and as far as I’m aware stupidity isn’t contagious (outside of political circles, anyway).

Each to their own, but the only way I will be watching Kate Winslet get the sniffles is when, like poor Jud, COVID-19 is daid.

2. ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

Once you overcome your disappointment that this eight-part Hulu series is an adaptation of the best-selling 2017 Celeste Ng novel and not a pyromaniac’s memoir, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Sure, this is a show where so much is happening below the surface, you will have a strong urge to sanitize it. And sure, with the participation of Reese Witherspoon as star-producer, it never attempts to hide its desire to be the next “Big Little Lies” – swapping wealthy Monterey in California for idyllic Shaker Heights in Ohio (“Mover and Shaker,” as local bumper stickers proudly proclaim).

The biggest ostensible difference is that “Fires” is set in 1997, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice that except for when Annie Lennox shows up on the soundtrack or when pop culture references to Rachel from “Friends” and Drew Barrymore are shoehorned in.

This is a quietly addictive, unashamedly soapy show – and you can’t have enough soap in your life at the moment, right? – aided by strong performances by Witherspoon as Elena Richardson (a journalist and mom of four with the most regimented sex life in the history of television) and Kerry Washington as Mia, an artist who has just arrived in town with her 15-year-old daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) and far more baggage in tow than just that atop their jalopy.

At the show’s heart is a mystery about who burned down the Richardsons’ home. That’s compelling enough. But it’s also further proof that the United States has a never-ending conveyor belt of young acting talent: The pick is probably Megan Stott as Izzy Richardson, a 14-year-old with a rebellious streak wider than the Mississippi. As a father of two – apologies for the tautology – headstrong teenage daughters, I particularly identified with the moment where she writes the words “Not your puppet” on her forehead in a very public act of defiance against an overbearing parent.

And finally, if you thought the beachside homes in “Big Little Lies” were to die for, just wait till you see the Richardsons’ mansion in “Little Fires Everywhere.” Now there’s a place a person could really enjoy a spell in home quarantine.

3. ‘Noughts + Crosses’

Malorie Blackman’s series of books (five so far) offer up an idea so brilliantly simple it’s hard to believe it’s not been mined more often: An alternative reality in which Albion (Britain) and the rest of Europe were conquered by the Apricans (not a typo but, yes, you should read “Africans”) over 700 years ago, resulting in a continent in which white people were enslaved by their black colonial masters. (I could only find one similar example: the low-budget, U.S.-set 1995 thriller “White Man’s Burden,” starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.)

Fast-forward to the 21st-century and, while slavery has been abolished, segregation laws still exist in a distinctly black and white world where the crosses (dark-skinned people) rule over the noughts (fair-skinned people).

This six-part BBC adaptation has aged the novels’ two protagonists, presumably in order to broaden the show’s appeal: In the original book they’re high school students; here Sephy (Masali Baduza) is preparing for university, while Callum (Jack Rowan) is trying to get into an elite army training camp, Mercy Point, thanks to a new quota system that allows a handful of noughts in.

Although it can be a little too obvious at times, what I really enjoyed about “Noughts + Crosses” is how quickly it allows us to accept the role-reversal as the new norm: White folk are in menial jobs and living in tenement blocks, while the Aprican elites have strolled the corridors of power for many generations and black culture dominates the public sphere. It also has fun playing with the power of words, in particular how the term “blanker” has become the new N-word.

It’s also interesting to note how some reviewers characterize “Noughts + Crosses” as dystopian – yet that is only the case for the white population. The whole point of the show is that only one thing has flipped in this society, yet it creates a seismic shift that it is truly revolutionary.

Overlying all of this is a “Romeo & Juliet”-esque love story between Sephy and Callum, complete with a touching balcony scene that may lack the poetry of “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks,” but does achieve its own poignancy.

At a time when parents may well be stuck at home with their kids, this adaptation is perfect viewing for adults and teenagers alike, offering a smart, accessible, alternative history that at its best reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” – and I have no higher praise for any drama than that.

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