Arts & Culture » Television

Televised images of pandemic fear

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Scene from "Coronavirus: Outbreak" on ABC-TV. Photo: ABC-TV
Scene from "Coronavirus: Outbreak" on ABC-TV. Photo: ABC-TV  

Welcome to the dystopian apocalypse, friends. Where to begin? We watched ABC's two-hour fright-fest special on "20/20," "Coronavirus: Outbreak," and it was flat-out terrifying. A smart and science-heavy live show with questions tweeted in and answered by experts, it was hosted by ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir and Dr. Jennifer Ashton, chief health and medical editor for ABC News and "Good Morning America."

It was solid, serious and packed with news, data and staggeringly unnerving clips from Asia and Italy via veteran reporters Bob Woodruff and Ian Pannell, as well as reports from out gay correspondent James Longman. If you've seen "Contagion" or "Outbreak," or like us, lived through the AIDS pandemic that killed a massive number of our friends and colleagues, you know rudimentarily how pandemics work. A virus jumps species via zoonosis and infects humans, just a few at first. Then the number of cases doubles every few days. The disease crosses continents via air travel, and soon everyone knows someone who has been infected.

Fear sets in quickly, as does paranoia. Dr. Ashton tried to allay irrational fears, but said it is critical to note that not everyone will be infected, and that we are just learning the basics about coronavirus COVID-19. She said she wanted to tell people the best things to do until we know more.

Her dictates were simple but essential. Wash your hands. Even if you haven't done anything dirty, you should wash your hands every 90 minutes to eradicate unwanted bacteria that we don't even think about. Wash them up to and over the wrist line for 20 full seconds.

Don't shake hands, don't touch surfaces, wash your phones (use an alcohol wipe on your computer keyboard and mouse as well as any remotes). Don't touch doorknobs or sink faucets.

Dr. Ashton measured the distance that droplets from a cough or sneeze travel, and it is a shocking six feet. She also noted that the germs from coronaviruses can live on surfaces anywhere from two hours to nine days. The best disinfectant is a bleach solution. The next, alcohol. If you don't want to buy a $350 bottle of hand sanitizer on Ebay, then just get a box of alcohol wipes and stick them in your pocket.

The time to go to the ER, Dr. Ashton said, is when you are short of breath and/or you have a fever of above 100.4. She recommended working from home over the next few weeks if that is possible. Dr. Ashton also said that some people will be more at risk: people 60 and over, people with lung disease like asthma or COPD, people with auto-immune diseases like HIV, pregnant women. She said that eating well and regularly as well as sleeping an extra hour each night would help bolster your immune system. She also said exercise was both known to build one's immune system and lower one's stress level. Critically important, Dr. Ashton noted, was to stay home if you are sick: self-quarantine. It's a lot.

But the scenes of Pannell walking through Wuhan, China, population 11 million, was enough to give anyone pause. It is a veritable ghost town. Utterly silent. Shops are closed up. No one is on the streets. Pannell mostly reported from his apartment, but went on a walkabout outside, mask in tow, to give viewers a chilling look at what might befall us, next.

The scenes from Italy's streets were equally barren. Soccer games held with no spectators. An Armani showing in Milan with no viewers, just models on a catwalk with no one to see them.

There were a host of virologists talking about how virus outbreaks occur and which animals (curse you, bats!) are most likely to carry them. Wet markets in Asia become a perfect breeding ground for such transmissions.

Most unnerving of all, at the beginning of the show, two new cases in Florida were announced. By the end of the show, those two people were dead.

One thing missing from "Outbreak" in discussion of the global economic impact was the personal economics of this epidemic: How many of us can afford to take days off from work? How many can afford to order in food and supplies? How many can afford to stockpile anything? As is always the case, it will be the poor who suffer most. And as was true during last year's extensive fire season and the enforced power outages, disabled people's lives will be most at risk. Oh, and what about the homeless?

After that small Boschian glimpse into the coming hell, "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" opened with a moment of levity, a priceless revamping of the theme from "The Love Boat," with Trump and Pence. "Corona: exciting and new. Come aboard: it's infecting you." Be sure to watch it on YouTube or CBS.com, it's hilarious.

Another parody we watched on CNN was not so funny. Trump toured the Centers for Disease Control on March 6, all decked out in a MAGA hat, as befits a sitting president. In the midst of his press conference on COVID-19, there was a discussion of the current numbers on COVID-19. Trump asserted that compared with the flu, which has killed about 20,000 people thus far this season, it wasn't bad. Then he decided to check on his TV ratings.

"As of the time I left the plane with you we had 240 cases, that's at least what was on a very fine network known as Fox News, don't you love it? That's what I happened to be watching and, how was the show last night? Did it get good ratings, by the way?" Trump asked the Fox reporter.

"I don't know," the reporter said, seeming to be caught off-guard. Undaunted by his own inappropriateness, Trump continued, "Oh really, I heard it broke all ratings records, but maybe that's wrong." Well, something's wrong, that's for sure.

Trump then proclaimed the coronavirus testing kits "almost as perfect" as the call to the Ukrainian president that triggered his impeachment. But the pièce de résistance was when Trump declared he didn't want the infected passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in San Francisco to leave the ship because it would raise the total number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. "I like the numbers being where they are," he said. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship." But her emails, right?

Public woman

Mere hours after that mind-numbing exchange of Trump's, "Hillary" debuted on Hulu. In a grim irony, the four-episode documentary series about Hillary Clinton dropped not 24 hours after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suspended her campaign for president. No woman president again for you, America.

Hulu describes the original series as "a remarkably intimate portrait of a public woman. 'Hillary' interweaves revealing moments from never-before-seen 2016 campaign footage with biographical chapters of her life. Featuring exclusive interviews with Hillary Rodham Clinton herself, Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, friends, and journalists, the series examines how she became at once one of the most admired and vilified women in the world."

"Hillary" is culled from 2,000 hours of campaign footage from Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, archival footage from her life and many personal interviews, including with Barack Obama. It's as much a cautionary tale as it is a biography. Warren's early and untimely exit, which followed those of Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, as well as that of lifestyle guru Marianne Williamson, is in some ways a postscript to the story it tells.

For many, "Hillary" will feel too soon, salt in a still very fresh wound, as America narrows the most diverse Democratic primary field in history to two white men nearing 80 who have run for president three times previously between them. But directed by Nanette Burstein, "Hillary" is incredibly good, an emotionally wrenching biography cum political history. The series weaves between Hillary's early life — her feminist activist college years, her marriage to Bill — to her life in politics with fascinating archival footage. Even though we think we know everything there is to know about the first female presidential nominee of a major party in U.S. history, "Hillary" is revelatory. There are layers peeled back on the former First Lady, senator and Secretary of State herself, but it is the reveal of America's deeply imbedded misogyny that is most disturbing and damning.

That thread runs through every nuance of "Hillary," but it is very much a show-don't-tell prescriptive. Men yelling at Hillary to make him a sandwich or iron his shirt: it's shocking. Harris said the day Warren withdrew from the race that women face challenges men can't imagine. Watching "Hillary," those challenges are writ large and come at the viewer with the velocity and weight of an asteroid. It is difficult to watch many of the scenes of the 2016 campaign. The sense of impending menace and possible violence that overlays the Oct. 9, 2016 debate between Hillary and Trump is especially disconcerting. Viewed from the distance of several years, it's a scene we have witnessed on "Criminal Minds," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and so many other women-in-jeopardy drama series. A man stalking a woman with an air of malevolence.

What Hillary says in the documentary is so telling: "He was stalking me, he was leering over me, he was sort of preening like an alpha male," she said. "I knew he was doing it. I was well aware of it. So I was trying to figure out, what do I do? If I wheeled around and said, 'Back up, you creep. You're not going to intimidate me,' would I sound angry? And would people recoil from that? Because all he's doing is just standing there."

Why didn't the moderators instruct Trump to step back? Why was he allowed to creep up on her in such a way? And why are women obligated to run through a checklist of variables when under threat of how their response will be perceived?

The series is not just about the campaign, but it is very much a deconstruction of how no other American woman could have made it to that pioneering and iconoclastic role. Hillary had already broken so much ground for women. She was the first working First Lady, the first female senator of New York, the most traveled Secretary of State.

But Hillary was not to be president, despite winning three million more votes that Trump, the second most votes of any nominee in U.S. history, after Barack Obama in 2008. It is difficult to watch "Hillary," to witness this accomplished woman, overly prepared candidate and deeply committed civil servant bested in the end by the most simplistic sexism and the most corrupt and dull-witted of reality TV stars. It's hard not to envision how different the past few years would have been had Hillary won 2016 instead of Trump. "Hillary" is a personal and powerful testament not just to arguably the most important female political figure of our time, but of this nation and how it views powerful women.

Trans romance

AMC's magical new series "Dispatches from Elsewhere" is low-key political and absolutely charming. It proffers love and magic and the sweetest of trans romances. Set in Philadelphia, PA, "Dispatches from Elsewhere" follows a group of ordinary people who stumble onto a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life.

There are four main characters: Jason Segel plays Peter, an emotionally shutdown millennial who works for a Spotify-ish company where he aligns musical choices for subscribers. Simone (Eve Lindley) is a hip 20something trans woman who favors miniskirts and short boots and works as a docent at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Andre Benjamin (hip hop's Andre 3000) is Fredwynn, an impeccably dressed, tightly wound conspiracy theorist; and Janice Foster (Sally Field) is an eager retiree who is used to following the rules of the game. The series is based on "The Institute," a 2013 documentary directed by Spencer McCall reconstructing the story of the "Jejune Institute," an alternate reality game set in San Francisco.

Peter lives in a grim apartment where he watches old episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" while eating ramen. He's seeing a therapist who is trying to get him to expand his life, but he tells her that he is settling into the notion that this is it, there is nothing more. Simone lives with her bed-ridden grandmother, who is her emotional lifeline. Nana adores Simone, who allows herself to be held and comforted by her grandmother, even as she keeps the rest of the world at arm's length.

The opening episode explains how Peter becomes involved with the Jejune Institute. Peter watches the induction film and is reduced to tears by the emotional well it taps in him. Later he is drawn to a mass meeting of other inductees, and Simone, Fredwynn and Janice become his partners for the game. The game zeroes in on people who feel displaced in their own lives, giving them hope.

"Dispatches from Elsewhere" is too delectable a delicacy to divulge spoilers, but the relationship that develops between Peter and Simone is sweet and deeply moving. Simone has a difficult time navigating the world in her transness: she thinks people are staring, and she feels her difference acutely. In a scene where she happens upon a Pride march, she listens to other trans women calling for trans lives to matter, but when they hand her the bullhorn, she feels exposed and runs away. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Lindley praised Segel for how he allowed her to work with him to create Simone as a character. "It was one of the best depictions of a character, of a trans character, that I had ever read."

"Dispatches from Elsewhere" may not be for everyone. It demands some suspension of disbelief, as well as an acceptance of the radical notion that people can in fact find each other and joy in a world fraught with anomie and isolation. But Lindley is a revelation, and Segel's beautiful, restrained performance is heartbreaking. Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

So for the end of the world as we know it, you know you truly, truly have to stay tuned.

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