If it weren’t for technology, 2020 would truly have been the end of the world.
We’ve had plagues before. We’ve had calls for social justice and government reform. We’ve had elections, overthrown tyrants. But we’ve never had it all at once, with a population of over seven billion and endless news and communication at our fingertips.
TV and movies have no choice now but to incorporate technology and social media into characters’ lives and worlds, but even decades into the 21st-century this can sometimes feel forced, stilted, or inauthentic. You get a sense that the people making these stories aren’t necessarily engaging with whatever device or platform they’ve written into it, which can alienate the viewer or create something entirely unbelievable.
Everyone alive has lived through this.
But 2020 has made it impossible, or at least unacceptable, to go back to that life. This was the year everyone in the entertainment industry took meetings over Zoom, that director dads did Tiktoks. Phones and internet (or tablets, TVs, what have you) were our lifeline to the outside world, for instant updates on case numbers, local safety guidelines, must-try recipes, and how our friends and family were doing. That’s as true for you and I as for the people creating and producing our entertainment, and it’s starting to show.
Take for example, Shudder’s brilliant Host, which not only took place in a Zoom call (complete with a time limit), but was filmed through the video calling platform for maximum authenticity. How many times have we seen a phone or computer screen in fiction that simply did not behave like any existing device? There are legal clearances to put this stuff on screen, but if the alternative is so weird that it takes the audience out of your story, reconsider. I for one have never recovered from this moment in 2018’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which is the only thing I now remember about the movie:
To be fair, there were always some shows that got it right. Jane the Virgin made realistic use of texting (and sexting), sometimes opting to use those on-screen text bubbles for critical conversation instead of traditional dialogue and movement. It might not feel like the best use of actors in the moment, but it elicits a different kind of performance and depicts the reality of modern communication. American Vandal was so expert-level in its understanding of teen social media use that it regularly incorporated vertical video footage and had an entire investigation hinge on an actual iPhone glitch.
Works like these were the exception. That’s why Host seemed like an impossible feat made reality, why Never Have I Ever — filmed pre-COVID but released in May — felt so smooth. It’s why every second of Netflix’s Social Distance is a welcome surprise, whether the characters are on a Zoom funeral, security camera, FaceTime, or Discord.
Even This Is Us entered the fray (that show can’t resist a good fray); it gave us the ultimate trash fire of Childcare Emergency meets Political Livestream meets Viral Shirtless Moment when Randall accidentally undressed in front of his camera this season. It’s hard to believe any character who lived through Jeffrey Toobin headlines would be so foolish as to not check the stream status or at least close their laptop after going live, but this scene also gave us Sterling K. Brown’s adorable dance moves so we can’t fault it too much.
The thing about social media on this side of the pandemic is that both the tech and the trauma are now our great unifiers. Everyone alive has lived through this. You cannot capture this moment or any that follow without capturing the technology keeping us afloat. Media that chooses to ignore this moving forward will stick out like a sore thumb — the analog world is a thing of nostalgia, but it is long gone. A work without it might last forever, but we have to make the present count.
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