Processing the Pandemic Through Art

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Processing the Pandemic Through Art


Deep in the pandemic-onset year of 2020, an idea circulated widely that great art would emerge from the horrors the world was collectively experiencing: Shakespeare, after all, wrote King Lear and Macbeth amidst a plague! And Edvard Munch painted himself while actually suffering from the deadly influenza outbreak of 1918. The pressure was on. It was time for artists to step up and be geniuses at a time when many of us could barely get out of bed (which had also become our office). But the trajectory of pandemic art wasn’t quite as smooth as Shakespeare made it look from the distance of five hundred years. The first wave of pandemic-related works were mostly journalism and memoir, as vital reporting emerged and front-line workers shared their experiences. And great future COVID-themed works will likely emerge years in the future, incorporating the perspective that only comes from the passage of time. This year’s selection of Peabody nominees, however, captures a unique moment in pandemic history as artists and journalists grappled with the ongoing, far-from-over crisis in a variety of ways—through comedy, podcasts, and grand drama that addressed everything from lockdown-induced mental illness to the healing power of art. We still saw some important documentary works such as In the Same Breath, an extraordinary examination of the earliest days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and across China before reaching American shores. But plenty of works also captured the awkward, in-between mood of 2021. Away from the pure shock of 2020, we could laugh (and cry and rage) at the absurdity of quarantines and botched vaccine rollouts and relate to the importance of human bonds in times of catastrophe. There’s no doubt we’ll be processing this collective trauma for decades to come. (Obligatory reminder: It’s not over yet.) Here are a few Peabody nominees that gave us solace, and unlikely hope, in the past year—and here’s to the King Lears and Macbeths of the future.

Comedian/actor/filmmaker/musician Bo Burnham brings all of his talents to bear on the impossible task of making a comedy special during COVID. He succeeds at showing us how much our criteria for such a work changed during lockdown. Handling every part of the production himself as he films various sketches throughout the year, he captures the loneliness, desperation, and existential dread the pandemic evoked. (See: “How the World Works,” in which a sock puppet explains the horrors of history, or “That Funny Feeling,” quite directly about existential dread.)  And, yes, he’s still pretty funny much of the time. (See: “FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight),”“White Woman’s Instagram.”)  The final product plays as a meditation on what it means to express yourself in isolation, as well as a document of an historic moment we hope never to return to.

Where to Watch: Netflix

At a time when pop culture is rife with true grifter stories, from Elizabeth Holmes to WeWork to Anna Delvey, this WHYY podcast reveals how the pandemic provided the perfect landscape for another such charlatan to emerge. Conflicting and confusing health information combined with public officials’ lack of preparation for such catastrophe, as well as citizens desperate need to feel safe, resulted in one overconfident 22-year-old with no healthcare experience taking charge of Philadelphia’s vaccine rollout. It did not go as planned, and that CEO is now facing legal consequences. Half Vaxxed tells this incredible story.

Where to Listen: WHYY

Station Eleven turned out to be the right thing at the right time through pure happenstance. It is drawn from Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel that follows two timelines: the outbreak of a flu virus that wipes out most of humanity, and a traveling band of survivors who are theater performers who travel the bleak landscape 20 years later, only performing Shakespeare in a circle around Lake Michigan. The novel came out at a time when such a disaster seemed impossible, and HBO ordered an adaptation in mid-2019, when such a scenario also still seemed impossible. By the time it finished production in 2021, however, such a story felt much closer to reality. Seeing the shock of early COVID refracted through this fictional version makes the payoff all the more cathartic. The story offers a poignant reflection on the human need for art and community in a world where any stranger can be deadly. And while it might seem cliche that Shakespeare’s texts, and the troupe’s performances of them, provide the moral center for post-apocalyptic survivors, this limited series movingly demonstrates precisely why great art is necessary in reconstituting community and humanity after almost everything else we treasure is annihilated.

Where to Watch: HBOMax

The New York Times‘s Jason Zinoman writes that Burnham’s Inside “feels as if he has created something entirely new and unlikely, both sweepingly cinematic and claustrophobically intimate, a Zeitgeist-chasing musical comedy made alone to an audience of no one. It’s a feat, the work of a gifted experimentalist whose craft has caught up to his talent.”

Where to Read: The New York Times

Cast and crew discuss how they brought Station Eleven’s traveling Shakespeare company—and its stunning Hamlet scenes—to life.