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Surge of interest in TV series and films about viruses is weird

Pat Stacey


Viewers are causing a pandemic pandemic, writes Pat Stacey

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Gwyneth Paltrow as a virus victim in Contagion, which is enjoying renewed popularity as a result of Covid-19 and is on ITV4 tonight at 9pm

Gwyneth Paltrow as a virus victim in Contagion, which is enjoying renewed popularity as a result of Covid-19 and is on ITV4 tonight at 9pm

Gwyneth Paltrow as a virus victim in Contagion, which is enjoying renewed popularity as a result of Covid-19 and is on ITV4 tonight at 9pm

History tells us that in times of great trouble, what people want most is escapist entertainment. They seek refuge from the woes and worries of the real world.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Americans who could still afford the price of a ticket to the picture house flocked in their millions to the witty, exuberant and — at least until the Hays Code came along in 1934 and spoiled the fun — sexy and suggestive musicals of Busby Berkeley.

The comedies of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy were also hugely popular, as were gangster movies like Scarface, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Their protagonists might have been thieves and murderers, but at least they weren’t bankers and stockbrokers.

In the early years of WWII, morale-boosting movies about heroic British and American soldiers sticking it to the Germans and Japanese, or plucky civilians foiling the dastardly plans of enemy agents and quislings on their home soil, went down a storm.

But as the war dragged on, audiences grew weary of them. If you’d lost a loved one to the conflict, probably the last thing you’d want to watch is John Wayne — who stayed in Hollywood while fellow stars like Clark Gable and James Stewart were off flying bomber missions — fighting the war on a studio backlot. War was out; musicals, comedies and Westerns were back in.

This was understandable. Who wouldn’t want to escape, even for a few hours, from the awfulness of a global crisis? Who wouldn’t want a little respite or distraction from the constant worry and fear?

Well, us, apparently.

We’re in the middle of a global Covid-19 pandemic. You’d imagine the last thing anyone would say right now is: ‘You know what I’d really love to watch tonight? A film about a deadly virus that sweeps the planet.’

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Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion (2011)

Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion (2011)

Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion (2011)

But that’s exactly what some people are saying. Rather than turning audiences off fictional accounts of deadly viruses infecting the world’s population, Covid-19 is having the opposite effect.

Last week, the ninth most-rented film on Apple’s iTunes store in the US was Contagion, made nine years ago. Some of us had actually forgotten that Contagion, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a businesswoman who brings a deadly flu virus home with her after a trip to Hong Kong, even existed.

This is not just some strange, masochistic cultural quirk from the country that regards Hershey bars and Kraft cheese slices as edible. ITV4 is showing Contagion tonight, a scheduling decision that a few years ago would have been criticised as tasteless and insensitive.

As of yesterday, the fifth most popular film on Netflix in Ireland was another deadly virus flick, Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman.

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Dustin Hoffman (R) in Outbreak which released 25 years ago.

Dustin Hoffman (R) in Outbreak which released 25 years ago.

Dustin Hoffman (R) in Outbreak which released 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, the top 10 list of TV programmes included the documentary series Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak and the drama series Containment, which features a cast of impossibly good-looking Americans trying to survive an epidemic in Atlanta.

The first question that comes to mind is: what the hell is WRONG with people? The second question that comes to mind is: no, really, what the hell is WRONG with people?

You wouldn’t dream of watching a film about a plane crashing while flying over the Atlantic in a plane, so why watch these things now?

Do people expect to pick up some useful tips on how not to die from Gwyneth Paltrow (spoiler alert: she dies). Do they think that noted scientist Professor Dustin Hoffman will tell them something the World Health Organisation and the HSE forgot to mention?

This is all reminiscent of what happened after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which tells of a populist demagogue who becomes US president on a promise to make America great again, shot to the top of the bestseller list. It’s a pity Americans didn’t read the book before voting, rather than after.

Herald