What John Oliver Taught Me About the Coronavirus

If you are forced into quarantine to avoid Covid-19, self-medicate with TV

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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A screenshot of the "Last Week Tonight" episode in which John Oliver discusses the coronavirus.
A screenshot of the "Last Week Tonight" episode in which John Oliver discusses the coronavirus. Credit: Screenshot
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I don’t know what’s unhealthier – the new coronavirus, or the amount of time I’ve spent planning what I’ll watch if I have to self-isolate. 

Let’s be honest, quite a few of us have probably grown strangely attracted to the idea of 14 days of home quarantine. Sure, you or your loved ones may ultimately contract the disease – especially if you live in a country with a level of preparedness only matched by Mike Bloomberg at a Democratic debate.

But just think how many shows you can get through on your Netflix watch list before that sad day arrives. (In America, the authorities say that if you can’t self-isolate in your own home, the safest place to go is a Tulsi Gabbard election rally.)

>> Coronavirus quarantine reading list: 15 apocalyptic books to read now

Of all the crazy conspiracy theories about the origins of the new coronavirus, the most compelling is this preposterous one I have just made up: That Covid-19 was created in a laboratory by scientists working for Netflix.

Hear me out: This is a disease that could ultimately force millions of people to spend two weeks home alone, where they will have little to do other than read books or watch television – and we all know what most folks will do in those circumstances. And whose shares are most likely to buck the market trend given people’s sudden need for home entertainment? Other than face mask manufacturers, I mean.

Then there’s that name: Covid-19 – or as those scheming execs at Netflix no doubt call it, Covideo-19. By the way, if you’re wondering why a TV critic is writing about the coronavirus, you can thank my editor: She’s always nagging me to write something that goes viral.

Before I offer some tips on how to prepare for home quarantine, I’d like to point everyone in the direction of the most recent episode of “Last Week Tonight,” in which John Oliver discussed Covid-19. Here is a very informative, very levelheaded, very funny and very – well, fairly – reassuring 20 minutes of television that could also double as a public service announcement.  

It left me with three thoughts: First, it’s OK to be afraid of this pandemic. In fact, that’s probably our best defense against it right now (although Americans, please do not regard bleach as the answer to anything other than “What was Nirvana’s debut album called?”). Second, where do they park Donald Trump’s clown car at the White House? If only we could get this guy self-isolated until, say, November, the world would be a much safer place. And third, when did comedians and teenage Swedish girls become the adults in the room on such life-and-death situations? When John Oliver becomes a more reliable source of information than the White House, we’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

One thing you will definitely do after watching “Last Week Tonight” is wash your hands more frequently, with soap and water for 20 seconds. Luckily, regular readers of this column always wash their hands immediately after perusing it.

The 14-day program

In the same way that others have started stockpiling tinned foods and bottled water, I have been gathering together the shows I intend to watch on lockdown. And yes, I’ve already convinced myself I’ll be among the 70 percent who might get the disease at some point in the next year: Touching my face and rubbing my eyes are pretty much my only pastimes, and I already exhibit most of the coronavirus symptoms whenever I walk up a couple of flights of stairs.

Basically, you should be looking at a 14-day program of programs that encompass as many genres and moods as possible, preferably set in far-flung locations. Also, look at this as an opportunity to finally see that show you never got around to – the series that, were you to tell people you had never seen it, they would be amazed you hadn’t already died of shame. Let’s call it the “bucket watch list.”

For me, there are two shows that fall into this category: “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under.” Given the current circumstances, I’m sure you’ll understand if I say I’d prefer to watch a show about undertakers when the world isn’t threatened by a global pandemic – which means I will belatedly catch up with Det. Jimmy McNulty and Co. on Days 1-6 of my home quarantine (60 episodes, or a reasonable 10 a day). I already have the DVD boxset, but it’s also available on Amazon Prime if you’d prefer to waste your time buying provisions in advance.

By Day 7, the Netflix list will be calling – and I shall answer, swiftly. (Heck, these guys have already invented a killer virus; can you imagine what they’ll do to us if we aren’t watching their shows?) I’ll definitely be in need of some light relief after “The Wire” – and what could be more appropriate than “Medical Police,” a knockabout comedy about a couple of doctors trying to save the world from a civilization-threatening virus? Wow, Netflix, now you’re just trolling us.

Because things aren’t bleak enough already, Day 8 will be spent with a drama inspired by another real-life disaster: climate change. Australian show “The Commons” is an eight-parter set in the near-future, starring Joanne Froggatt as a neuropsychologist desperate to bring a baby into the world – despite all those wildfires and viruses presumably presenting minor obstacles on the way to the kindergarten. 

While visiting Down Under, I will also start the six-part Cate Blanchett drama “Stateless,” about detained immigrants. It just started airing in Australia and officially arrives on Netflix later this year, but I’ve been rubbing my eyes in disbelief so much already this year, I’m not sure if I can afford to wait that long. 

Day 9 will take me to Japan and England for the acclaimed thriller “Giri/Haji,” in which a Japanese detective arrives in London looking for a missing brother accused of murder back home. That’s also eight episodes, giving me time to conclude the day by listening to a few episodes of my favorite podcast, “Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin” – in which Trump’s favorite actor proves a dab (well-washed) hand at interviewing fellow actors and some smart folk.

The destination on Days 10 and 11 will be Norway, which always seems like the perfect place to escape the horrors of the world – unless you’re a character in a Jo Nesbo thriller, anyway. Nesbo is one of the brains behind the thriller “Occupied” (also on Netflix), in which the Nordic state’s efforts to go green cause neighboring Russia to see red. I really enjoyed the first season a few years ago, and there are now two more seasons to catch up with.

If there’s still time left on Day 11, I will try to squeeze in the British thriller “Baghdad Central,” a six-parter set against the backdrop of the U.S. occupation of Iraq following the 2003 war, in which an Iraqi cop collaborates with the occupying forces while searching for his missing daughter. I know, cheery stuff.

By Day 12 I’m going to be going stir crazy and will need to see a reassuring face or two. I have a couple of plans for that: “Paddington 2” (Amazon Prime), which is without doubt the finest confinement movie ever made; and “Stumptown,” the ABC crime drama starring Cobie Smulders. This one debuted last fall and I’ve been meaning to see it ever since. One reviewer called it a modern-day “Rockford Files,” making its 18 episodes a very tempting guide to bring me to … Day 14.

If “The Martian” has taught us anything about abnormal life, it’s that I’m going to be eating some very weird-tasting potatoes by the end of two weeks, and that a spell in isolation can do strange things to a person. So I’m going to prepare for my reintegration into society by watching a couple of documentaries. First up will be the Oscar-winning “American Factory,” in which a Chinese billionaire opens a high-tech plant in Ohio. That will be followed by the four-part doc “The Pharmacist,” also on Netflix, in which a small-town pharmacist tries to bring his son’s killer to justice. Oh, and one Netflix doc I will be avoiding? “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak.” 

Finally, I will conclude my viewing with the Apple TV+ drama series “Little America” – eight uplifting stories about immigrants that will hopefully allow me emerge with a little hope for the future.

Stay safe out there, people. As James Bond himself would tell you if he hadn’t already placed himself in quarantine for six months, this is no time to die.

Postscript: Damn, this Covid-19 knows our weak spot: