The world is streaming more than ever before as millions of us are living in lockdown and turning to television, films and gaming to fill our time. But immersing ourselves in tv drama and film is not just about relaxing or being entertained by our favourite shows, turning to Netflix or a drama boxset provides us with the opportunity to explore and evaluate our anxieties over the coronavirus and helps us to deal with the challenges of our new reality.
TV drama is the perfect cultural site in which to explore and work out our anxieties over Covid-19. As we are self-isolating, or consciously limiting the time we spend outside of the home, we are left with our fears and anxieties – could screen drama help us?
Television and film have always been a site in which we tell stories about the world around us. Watching and talking about those stories has given us many opportunities to build our own narratives and rehearse our thoughts and ideas. Many have argued our collective memories of key events such as the holocaust, have been in part, built through the screen representations of those events.
Facing a pandemic and fast-changing circumstances has made many of us feel anxious, fearful, uncertain and isolated. These feelings are not new, the screen industry has produced a lifetime’s worth of content that explores, exploits and engages us in these very emotions. Importantly, it has also created a safe space in which we can engage in ways that can help us understand the very things that frighten us.
Not surprisingly, many of us have been watching Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), Outbreak (Petersen, 1995) and Pandemic (Suits, 2016) alongside all the news and documentary productions exploring Covid-19. Documentaries and news provide us with facts, statistics and commentary on what is happening around us, but dramas give us the opportunity to explore how we feel. We are allowed to be scared and horrified as we watch.
While we may have to ‘keep it together’ for our family and friends in our day to day of lockdown life, these moments, when we deeply engage in the narratives of these films, provides the relief of feeling. We also get to see how it might feel to follow through different scenarios. What happens if I get sick? What happens if……
Screen drama is a safe space because it is a site of the imagination, of make believe, magic and the suspension of disbelief. We talk of ‘losing ourselves in a story’, of the ‘dreamlike qualities of a drama’ and often refer to the pleasures escaping into and through a complex narrative. Drama opens up the freedom for producers, actors, and audiences to go deeply into this space, to make sense of the world with no other obligation that to explore the story. In an era of fake news, drama doesn’t need to pretend to be anything other than it is. We are free to explore the narrative, the characters and the scenarios. Perhaps the relief is that we can watch and feel without any obligation to act.
Screen drama brings the world to us; places, people, events that we may not have experience of, or sometimes, even want. Drama reinvents the world every day, minute by minute, building screen worlds of fantasy and strangeness, alongside those that are more realistic and familiar. Costume dramas create versions of the past allowing us to imagine what was, and science fiction presents versions of our future and the possibility of imaging what could be. Every day, drama is creating a space to imagine aspects of our lives, and those of others in the world around us. Watching these dramas connects us with characters dealing with some of the fears and worries we are also experiencing. That is both a comfort, and the start of a journey to think about how we might cope with those fears. The beauty of these screen dramas is that we can do this in our own space, and at our own pace.
So as we face this new reality of Covid-19, watching those dramas about pandemics, the apocalypse, the end of the world, is not just about judging whether the dramatists got it right or not, but more about allowing us to feel the fear, and use it to help us understand how to get through it.
By Professor Jane Roscoe a television industry expert at University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)