Say Goodbye to Movies Filmed During Quarantine. Say Hello to Movies About Quarantine

"The Bubble" and shitty plays about 9/11

Welcome back to Going Downs, a newsletter about the intersection of celebrity and politics.

Hey Everyone! It is Claire’s husband Brenden back for another mid-week edition of Going Downs! Today I want to talk about what I’m calling “Too-Soon Entertainment.” 

Over the past year, I’ve found myself in a moral quandary. Like many workers in America, I have found myself between a rock and a hard place. The industry I work in is continuing on full-force, despite the raging pandemic, and complaining about that obviously short-sighted decision too much could cost me much needed work.

Even at the height of lockdown, film and television productions across the world were deemed by their governments to be more or less “essential” work.  As a nation, Americans chose new episodes of The Connors over the safety of the people who make them. 

With the vaccine rolling out and space in ICUs clearing up, America has decided it is time to move on, though it will be months before most people are vaccinated. Globally the process will take years. This means reopening schools, shoving thousands of fans into the stadium for the Super Bowl, and, yes, making film and television about an event that hasn’t even ended yet. 

Yesterday, the Hollywood trades announced that Judd Apatow is helming a film called The Bubble. And, it’s about precisely what it sounds like: “The film follows a group of actors and actresses stuck inside a pandemic bubble at a hotel attempting to complete a film.” The script is rumored to be directly inspired by the Jurassic Park sequel that was famously shutdown mid-pandemic. 

Variety notes that this will not be the first time the pandemic has been addressed on screen, as “Several films and TV shows have already started incorporating the pandemic into storylines, including the HBO Max movie Lock Down with Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, K.J. Apa’s dystopian thriller Songbird, the Netflix series Social Distance, Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, and Grey’s Anatomy.

From the sounds of things, however, The Bubble will mark a departure from these previous efforts. Most of the mid-pandemic film and TV fare attempted to strike a tone of “we’re all in this together,” while Apatow’s effort seems poised to send up the pandemic era.

I am not trying to clutch my pearls here. In my view, anything is fair game for the artist’s gaze. For all we know, there may be winking jokes in the film about how ridiculous it is to film during a pandemic. We may get biting satire. But, the more interesting questions here are “Will viewers want this?” and “What will art be like when we return to our lives?”

I was in high school during the September 11th attacks. About five years later, it seemed like every New York City playwright had whipped up a show with the same horrible premise: two WTC workers having an affair find themselves at a hotel or some other location they aren’t supposed to be in during the attacks. They face having to come clean to their spouses and the world why they weren’t in the buildings or risk lying about it.

These inane Off-Broadway shows premiered nearly simultaneously with lower-brow films about WTC’s heroes that were quickly forgotten, including World Trade Center (dir. Oliver Stone) and Flight 93. There was so much of this stuff, and so much of it sucked ass. 

I’d argue that the only good art about 9/11 was the Spike Lee film 25th Hour and the Denis Leary show Rescue Me. But these didn’t just portray the events; they meditated on the repercussions of the attacks in the New York psyche. Even with a decent bit of distance, these works hold up.

It is a sure thing that we will see a lot of movies and TV about COVID-19. The floodgates have already opened. But, it will be interesting to see if any of it will be interesting or even good. 

The Bubble has the makings of a funny premise: a bunch of people shoved into a location they don’t want to be in for an indefinite amount of time has worked before. That’s why so many sitcoms do a “stuck in an elevator” episode. And there is plenty of dramatic and comic material to mine elsewhere. The other day, a friend told me about how he chanced into getting the vaccine early, and now his front-line worker neighbor who hooked him up keeps asking him to do little chores for her. Sounds like a perfect episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Of course, most of the art about COVID-19 will be terrible. Most film and television is grating, and almost all rushed cash grabs end up sucking. It is a safe bet that most dramas that tackle the pandemic will be maudlin and overwrought, while most of the comedies will be described as tone-deaf or in poor taste.

There will be a couple of works of art that get it right, but they will be outweighed by the mass of media that gluts the market, prompting many Twitter comedians to snidely remark, “I would have just gotten COVID if it meant I could have missed all this shitty COVID art.”

Whether the work is good or bad, however, isn’t really the point. There are plenty of reasons that film and TV get produced so soon after a traumatic moment that don’t have to do with quality. There is the promise of profit from being “topical,” which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There is the artistic desire to “make a statement” or “do something important.” (I subscribe to the old adage, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”)

The most important motivator, I think, is the particular American obsession with quickly moving on. In the United States, we love nothing more than to put events in the rearview mirror, moving from trauma to commemoration to nostalgia to forgetting as quickly as possible. In Europe, by contrast, if you mention an obscure battle from seven hundred years ago, you might start a barroom brawl.  

Whether it is good or bad, this art will serve this purpose. In America, art about recent events doesn’t have to be good. It just has to move us quickly past our failures, numbing us to the possibility of learning any lessons and preparing us to fall blissfully into the next national failure. Just think about how often you heard “Never Forget” about 9/11 while most Americans probably don’t know that we still have troops in Afghanistan and continue to hold prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Producing tons of content about something but staunchly refusing to learn anything is the American way. And Hollywood will be happy to help numb our pain into the sweet glow of nostalgia as quickly as possible. 

Going Downs is a free weekday newsletter, supported by readers like you, written by @clairecdowns and @brendengallager. There are monthly and annual subscription options available, or you can just keep enjoying this freaky free premium content at no additional burden to your wallet whatsoever. Venmo is also always a perfectly acceptable option.