Is lockdown ending? To borrow from Churchill, this probably is not the beginning of the end for social distancing, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning.
Most of us will have spent much of the last few weeks developing co-dependent relationships with our DVD collections and streaming services. Will this have an effect on our cultural consumption once we’re free to hit the cinemas again? That’s yet to be tested, but there are plenty of precedents for pandemics leaving their mark on a society’s engagement with art and culture.
The plague of Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BC) permeated the themes and performance of Greek tragic theatre for a generation. The Black Death devastated 14th century Italy. But it also led to seismic socio-economic, cultural and religious changes and a new social mobility that unleashed forces in Italian society which made the Renaissance possible.
COVID-19 has been nowhere near as devastating as the Black Death, but its sudden descent, catastrophic in some cases, has had a profound social impact in affected nations.
We should expect to see this reflected in how we engage with the cultural medium that had its defining moment during lockdown – television. So what’s in store?
More prestige dramas
Binge watching has been a singular feature of lockdown as people at last find themselves with sufficient time to catch up on water-cooler programs everyone else is talking about.
Binge watching commonly focuses on multi-season prestige HBO and Showcase dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad (I overheard a blow-up last week in a Zoom meeting when someone gave away the plot of Breaking Bad’s climax).
It’s difficult to see how that won’t generate further appetite for such programming. Top-tier television is not cheap, and the devastating effect lockdown has had on funding for the arts sector is a separate discussion for which there isn’t sufficient space to do justice here.
Nevertheless, although slumming it with sitcoms like Modern Family has its place, it’s difficult to see how audiences will happily re-engage with franchise shows like CSI when they have dined on prime fillet like The Wire and True Detective’s first season (although if they hung around for Season 2 they might happily revert to watching repeats of Matlock Police).
The zeitgeist surrounding addictive dross such as Tiger King perhaps argues against this.
In a way, however, it also enforces the point. Tiger King is prestige junk TV that allows snobs like me to wade into voyeuristic reality programming and still feel above it all. The Venn diagram of viewers who watch Tiger King and Keeping Up with the Kardashians may actually have a relatively small intersection point.
An emphasis on family comedies
Families have been spending a lot of time together in their living rooms, leading to complex negotiations over programming that would rival Middle East peace talks. Teenager daughters might contend for Love Island and teenage sons for The Last Dance.
But everyone has engaged happily with edgy Netflix comedies like Schitt’s Creek, Derry Girls and Never Have I Ever. History teaches us that people emerge from life and death situations seeking laughter, even through gallows humour.
Never Have I Ever in particular was a charming, engaging coming-of age-comedy that also dealt with grief and loss, themes with which audiences are becoming sadly familiar.
More direct-to-streaming movies
Major studios made it through cinema closures by offering audiences premiere product at home. Universal led this charge by offering first release thrillers like The Invisible Man and The Hunt for roughly $20 for subscribers. Families could weigh up the prices of the various elements of cinema attendance and do the maths themselves.
The nascent Solstice Studios is hoping to carve a niche in the market on the assumption that freed-up audiences will flock back to cinemas. Accordingly, it has moved up the release of the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged from September to July ‘to test the waters as theatres try to rebound.’ Disney, however, has read the new wind and has brought its Hamilton movie forward to stream on Disney+ from July 3.
Expect more Disney films to debut this way, as the studio backs its belief that the optimum family viewing experience no longer relies on sitting together in theatres (indeed, the last time my family managed to assemble in numbers at a cinema my daughter spent the first hour laughing at my horrified expression as Cats unfolded before us).
Family viewing is now firmly centred on the living room, a 65-inch screen and access to multiple streaming services. If history has taught us anything it is never to bet against the mouse.