A nation and its TV culture are united in spirit and disunited by stuttering WiFi signals, in a conspicuous and continual demonstration of heroic degrees of isolation. TV provided the pure oxygen to the celebrity class that the Internet can only approximate. The two mediums merged to provide emergency respiration, in the form of the now-ubiquitous Zoom display or an otherwise jury-rigged home studio setup.
For some, like the languidly droll actor Leslie Jordan, it took nothing more than a phone and an Instagram account to make viral magic in this new world; others, not so much. The comedian Jim Gaffigan keeps showing up everywhere (YouTube, “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” CBS’s “Sunday Morning”) to remind us — in that grating, derpy-dad style of his — that he is stuck in his New York apartment with his wife and five kids and, boy, is he antsy about it. He somehow makes things a little worse, not better.
The commercials, meanwhile, dropped their overt sales pitches to instead remind us how much they truly care, a stab at authenticity that initially seemed responsive and thoughtful (Walmart employees singing “Lean on Me” a cappella) and then became redundant, even bathetic. The lasting sound of this crisis greets you the minute you turn on a TV: sonorous piano chords with a patronizing voice-over about these uncertain times.
At first, TV’s improvised solutions provided an intriguing aspect of the coronavirus pandemic — the rare opportunity for viewers to watch the creative class snap into action and come up with some notable workarounds.
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which is so often looked to for its reassuring grip on the cultural and political zeitgeist, emerged April 11 as “SNL At Home,” replacing its live energy with prerecorded, unadorned sketches and other short bits that both acknowledged and parodied the shared sense of Internet-only confinement.
The experimental effort was a renewal of faith in one of SNL’s founding principles — the low-stakes magic of improv comedy and the notion that there is great reward in the pretty-good try. Liberated from its usual ideas and setups, SNL delivered one of its most intriguing (which is not the same as funniest) episodes in years.
For a moment, it felt like a glimpse into what the series might look like in the inevitably approaching era of After Lorne — an SNL stripped of decades-long rules, conventions and ironclad sensibilities. Sad to say, the “SNL At Home” episode that aired two weeks later, on April 25, had ironed out those appealing wrinkles, delivering a more polished episode that resembled the usual show. The pandemic was still Topic A, but the sketches about it had fitted to the format, instead of the other way around.
On that same Saturday night, MTV carried out a painful experiment in resurrecting its old “Club MTV” dance show from the 1980s and ’90s — this time as a live, virtual dance party. It might have worked better as an SNL sketch.
Even with cameos from celebs such as Usher, Tiffany Haddish, and Donnie and Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, “Club MTV’s” hoped-for national groove got lost in its own transmission, always several steps behind itself as signal delays traveled from the Internet to the TV signal and then back again. Meant to unite viewers with an intimate sense of communal fun, it instead emphasized a shared sense of Saturday-night imprisonment.
As the days turned to weeks and now turn to months, the improvised effort has lost much of its allure, which isn’t news to all the students, office workers and others who now spend a large part of their days participating in Zoom meetings ad infinitum.
The melding of TV and the Internet is not as exciting as the futurists once promised. Rather than interactive, it feels interpassive; as the novelty wears off, the technology turns out to be a lousy substitute for conversation, intimacy, love — the things that are truly worth watching.
Still, it’s the very attempt to both acknowledge the crisis and innovate a way out of it that will form a permanent archive of what TV looked like during the pandemic.
Life is noticeably more different over at Jimmy Fallon’s eclectically decorated homestead, which includes a restored barn where a playful indoor slide connects one floor to another. The hyperactive NBC “Tonight Show” host, who built his persona as a giddily regressive extrovert, has discovered his calmer and more attentive side, at long last. It’s the more subdued presence of a grown-up — a father and husband trying to break some of the household monotony.
The breakout star on this version of the show is Fallon’s pleasantly chillaxed wife of 12-plus years, Nancy Juvonen, who is now “The Tonight Show’s” chief phone-camera operator and front-line producer. In a new and refreshingly tranquil recurring segment, Fallon and Juvonen take a walk around their pretty neighborhood and answer viewers’ questions (sent via hashtag), which are mostly about their relationship,
How did they meet? How did they fall in love? How did they work through infertility issues? How did he propose marriage? They giggle and meander through the answers, presenting very much as two people in love.
In one episode, during an afternoon rainstorm, they sat inside a restored vintage VW bus and answered a question about what they were like at age 5; she seemed surprised by his description of himself as a quiet and religious child, one of those rare moments in which a spouse gleans some fresh sliver of insight. With viewers, Fallon and Juvonen have stumbled into a bright spot of the coronavirus: a surplus of time to fill and a willingness to just listen to those around you.
Might a new kind of “Tonight Show” emerge from this? A quieter, nightly wind-down instead of the frenetic, high-decibel, celebrity recess playground that it became?
That’s probably just one critic’s wishful thinking. Post-pandemic TV, including “The Tonight Show,” will almost certainly rush back to whipping studio audiences into a noisy froth, interrupting its own conversations and kowtowing to the celebrity-industrial complex. Like any other profitable industry, it is desperate to go back to the way things were.
TV’s standouts in the coronavirus era, so far, are few. Last week’s sentimental reunion of NBC’s beloved “Parks and Recreation” cast for a special episode, told entirely in a Zoom-like conversational format, became an instant classic of the era. CBS’s courtroom drama “All Rise” will try a similar approach Monday night as a legal procedural reduced to Internet connections — for what else can a show do right now but simply try?
Criticism is about as welcome as it would be at an elementary school talent show. If, say, one finds actor/director John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” segments on YouTube overly smarmy; or if one senses that there might have been something a little too facile in the way the “Parks and Rec” special had everyone on Twitter bleary with tears — well, friends, it’s a lonely time to be a crab.
Viewers (and many critics) tend to grade on a favorable curve right now. So many clickbait headlines insist, hyperbolically, that this or that show is “everything we need right now.” When our nerves and emotions are so precariously exposed, the more acidic among us are tempted to scurry under a rock and wait for real TV to return.
But, as with all things coronavirus, things will have to get worse before they get better.
A few days ago, I received a notice that this summer’s TV critics’ press tour has been canceled, mainly because California will still likely be banning large gatherings, but also because there won’t be many (perhaps any?) fall TV shows for the networks and streaming providers to promote. Pilot season is already a washout; season renewals are on hold. Writers can assemble virtually to create a whole season’s worth of scripts, but the actual sets remain closed.
Which means, of course, that the grand waterfall of peak-TV content that viewers have come to expect will soon enough reduce to a trickle.
What happens then? More improvising and, unfortunately, more Zoom.