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Our TVs are full of characters spreading germs – and now we can never unsee it

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in “Homeland,” filmed before the time of social distancing. (Sifeddine Elamine / Showtime)
Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in “Homeland,” filmed before the time of social distancing. (Sifeddine Elamine / Showtime)
By Elahe Izadi Washington Post

Maura Quint’s self-isolating days in Pennsylvania are packed with full-time work and home-schooling her two young children. So, exhausted one evening last week, she put her kids to bed and mindlessly flipped on the television.

A character walked out of a building and onto a busy street packed with people, getting lost in the crowd. It shocked Quint.

“Without even noticing it, I was panicking in the same way as watching a horror film and you have that tense feeling that you’re about to be murdered,” she said. “I had to check myself: Why am I upset? Oh, now I’ve conditioned myself to see that as a threat as much as I’d see Freddy Krueger or some terrible beast as a threat.”

On television, scientists, journalists and chyrons keep warning us that the most important, civic-minded thing to do in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is to stay away from other people. And then we change the channel or queue up Netflix for a reprieve, and all we see are friends hosting big parties, shaking strangers’ hands and oh, dear God, touching their faces. There is no Purell in sight and a shocking lack of hand-washing.

The contrast between our reality and our entertainment captures how swiftly life has changed. TV shows, movies and commercials filmed and finalized just months ago are now artifacts of a simpler time, one in which the term social distancing sounded less like a way to save lives and more like a Goop-approved retreat. “Spend a weekend social distancing at this rustic solarium outfitted with a dehydrated caviar bar!”

TV and streaming services “provide an important health benefit by allowing people to get away from the crisis they’re experiencing … and go into this fantasy, fictitious world for a couple of hours,” said Paul Levinson, a communications and media professor at Fordham University. “But to some extent, that’s now even being undermined” because viewers notice the absence of the coronavirus on shows they watch.

“It’s very hard to switch from, ‘You’re not supposed to be too close to anyone’ to ‘here’s a show where everyone’s frolicking in a pool or bar or on the street,’ ” Levinson added. “That’s diminished the value of television as a vehicle of escape.”

People experiencing such dissonance have embraced the need to put public health first. They are staying home to isolate so they can slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and not overwhelm the health care system.

It’s a message that Steve Carbone, who has been socially isolating in Texas, “Can’t not think about it right now,” even as he caught up last weekend on episodes he missed of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “This Is Us.”

“It’s just clear that these shows were taped before the guidance. Yet every single scene where it seems like social distancing is being violated, I think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t look right.’ Or I wonder what it’d be like if they filmed it now,” he said. “That’s all ‘This Is Us’ is: people being together and hugging.”

Carbone tweeted about the surreal experience, and more than 6,000 people liked it.

David Cohen in Pennsylvania has been having a particularly difficult time watching commercials right now. He and his wife find escape through shows such as “Homeland” and “This Is Us,” but then he’ll see ads for cars or cruise lines.

“It’s almost feels like every commercial where you see lots of people together doing things that are a lot of fun feels tone deaf,” he said. “They’re meant for another time when we had the freedom and bandwidth to spend money on frivolous things or things that would bring us into such close contact with other people.”

Cohen understands that commercials are needed to support programming, but it’s jarring in the same way as it’s jarring to sit on the porch on a nice early spring day, “And then have to bring yourself back to remembering we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and much of this country is in the middle of social distancing and shutting down.”

Shows that pride themselves on realism can be especially unsettling. Last Wednesday, Levinson and his wife sat down for their weekly viewing of NBC’s Chicago-themed block of dramas, including “Chicago Med” (which has since shut down production and announced it will donate its medical supplies to Illinois’s health department). The show takes place in a hospital with a medical team handling emergencies, but it had nary a word about COVID-19. “It was bizarre,” Levinson said.

Fictitious shows and movies that are far removed from reality, such as science-fiction programs set a thousand years in the future, might offer viewers more of an escapist retreat, Cohen said. “The less realistic the television show, the less that kind of discordant effect sets in.”

It might be annoying to not be able to forget the counsel of public-health experts even when we watch stuff like “Love Island.” But there is a small glimmer of comfort within this: As a society, we are capable of changing our thoughts and behaviors when needed.

“It’s fascinating to see how quickly we can adjust to what we consider normal,” Quint said. “And I’m sure that shows us as well that we will be able to readjust back when it’s time.”

But for now, we’ll continue to keep six feet apart and just deal with cringing at fictional characters who aren’t doing the same.

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