How To With John Wilson, and (hopefully not) The Future of Covid Cinema

Ah, America, the country where you can get feature-film coverage of a crisis almost as quickly as it happens. (I’m looking at you, HBO Max).

Which begs the question: when, and how, will the mainstream cinematic world become saturated with Covid-themed stories? When will we see a feel-good Spielberg drama about a young boy losing his grandmother, or a Wes Anderson comedy about a quirky family stuck in lockdown together? Or even a Michael Bay movie about the shredded Fauci-nator and his patriotic army of virus-slaughtering scientists?

As to the when, my answer is a resounding ‘NOT UNTIL IT’S OVER’. Now, more than ever, movies need to help us escape (say what you will about theaters reopening, Tenet was a fun diversion). And maybe once this is over, and life goes back to normal, then we can fantasize about the bygone days when the world was in crisis.

Nobody asked me though, so, this being America, and Hollywood being Hollywood, the saturation has already begun (once again, looking at you, HBO Max).

Granted, this is not the first Covid-inspired content to be released. But it has big names attached to it, so assuming it does well, I suspect the Spielberg blockbuster is just around the corner.

At least it’s obvious about the tie-in though. I watched a Netflix series (Grand Army) which was released mid-pandemic. Even though the series had literally no connection to the virus, JUST BEFORE THE FINALE, there was a 10-second radio soundbite to the effect of: ‘Happy February 2020, New York! Covid-19 cases are on the rise, could this be a big news story?’. This sort of tie-in is more amusing than frustrating, but it still boggles my mind that the producers felt compelled to include it.

So… how does this relate to How To with John Wilson? Let me tell you…

This time, it’s just HBO’s fault

I went into this series with high hopes. It’s a six-part documentary, each episode only half an hour, about a quirky guy named John Wilson exploring New York. All the reviews said something to the effect of: ‘mind-blowing ending’, ‘jaw-dropping finale’, and ‘wait until the end – you’ll be amazed’.

I was hooked, and for the first 5.5 episodes, the series was fantastic. John is either genuinely neuroatypical, or he’s playing a convincing yet self-aware character. But either way, his commentary, the topics he discusses, and the footage he captures were a delight to watch. This man has a gift, and he absolutely deserves his own show.

But the ending… Imagine my dismay when the ‘bombshell final act’ turned out to be, you guessed it, a Covid tie-in. One day, John wakes up to a pandemic, and all the themes, topics, and lessons from the previous five episodes magically related to life in the ‘new normal’. I nearly threw my laptop at the wall, I was infuriated.

Partly because I felt duped – I had no expectation this would be a Covid show, and NOTHING ABOUT IT is Covid-related until the last 15 minutes. It’s obvious that they tailored the footage (which I suspect there’s a lot more of) to accommodate a parting message of: ‘we miss the old normal’, and the series would have been perfectly fine without said message.

At least we KNEW this would be a Covid-film, and at least it was funny

More than that though, it was the sinking feeling that this sort of storyline will become ubiquitous. The ‘end with characters waking up to the pandemic’ plot twist. And as the studios and streaming service continue to deplete their supply of pre-pandemic content, it will only intensify.

Like I said, I don’t think most people want to watch this sort of content – they want to escape. Ask yourself: do you watch movies to be reminded of the pandemic, or to forget about it? Do you binge a series because they discuss Covid, or because you know they won’t?

I hate to say it given their monopolistic tendencies, but props to Disney for releasing WandaVision right now. This is unironically the sort of escapist entertainment people crave. None of my friends have talked about John Wilson, all of them rave about WandaVision. So, note to Hollywood – stop making Covid stuff! It’s too soon! Save it for the next decade!

And in the meantime, here’s hoping that WandaVision won’t end with an episode of Parks and Rec where Wanda Knope has to have a Zoom call informing Vision Swanson and staff that they need to socially distance (that video was beyond embarrassing…).