This column was originally published on our sister blog down in Oregon, Blogtown. Follow them for all things Portland-related.
In the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was tempting to think the whole experience might be some weird temporary blip, a month-long virtual slumber party in which the worst long-term effects would be the hacky standup jokes it spawned.
Of course, we were disabused of that notion quickly, as it became clear that initial four-week lockdown orders would actually be more like four months, and then another month after that, and, well, you know the rest. Everything has been changed by the pandemic, probably forever to some extent—and the things we stream, listen to, and read have been no exception.
Pop culture produced in the last year has been shaped by the coronavirus, both in subject and in form. Creators still seem to be getting a handle on what works and what doesn’t, and how deeply audiences want to see their current hellspace realities reflected back to them by the screen. Major studios and record labels, happy to keep churning out the same safe stuff in fresh packaging in pre-pandemic times, have been forced back to the drawing board. And we’ve endured so, so many unfunny jokes about the pandemic being actually amazing—sweatpants and wine and all that. And while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer some light at the end of the Gotthard tunnel, we’ve still got at least a year before Hollywood gets fully “back to normal,” whatever that will mean.
This new column, Streaming the Pandemic, will be my attempt to parse through this new, post-viral pop culture landscape, one TV show, movie, podcast, album, meme, or other project at a time. If you come across a pandemic-influenced piece you think should be considered in a future column, I want to hear about it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We'll jump in this week with reviews of the film Locked Down, and the podcast Home Cooking.
Locked Down (Film)
Locked Down has a heavy hand with the quarantine tropes. Set in the early days of the pandemic lockdown in London, the film references: frozen Zoom calls; loved ones taken in by COVID-19 conspiracy theories; bulk toilet paper purchases; wealthy people fleeing cities for more comfortable living; a uniform of formal tops and PJ bottoms; and baking bread. And that’s just the first 15 minutes.
But beyond these already tired references, Locked Down seems to have trouble knowing what movie it wants to be. Centered on a couple who broke up at the beginning of quarantine but are forced to live together until the pandemic ends (Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who both make the most out of the material they’re given), the film meanders between introspective romantic drama and fantastical heist caper, and never quite nails either one. The first half of the film’s runtime is mostly eaten up by drawn-out theatrical dialogues about why the pair broke up—until, suddenly, a plot to steal a $3 million diamond from luxury department store Harrods materializes.
With better writing, that pivot would be a fun twist, but Locked Down fails to pull it off. That said, the last 30 minutes of the movie are imminently more fun than what came before it—which makes sense, because director Doug Liman is most known for popcorn thrillers like the Bourne series and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
It's fair to say that Locked Down was uneven. But there was something else I found off-putting about watching it, and I think it had more to do with myself than the movie. The protagonists are living through the early days of quarantine, back when we were all still getting used to wearing masks. But almost a year in, that initial flurry of figuring out life during COVID-19 has long since passed, and most of us have found some level of adaptation. To watch these characters navigate novel conditions that now feel almost second-nature is to be reminded how far we are from our March 2020 selves—literally and psychically—and how still-uncertain we are about when the pandemic will end. Watching Locked Down, I felt like a veteran employee at a shitty job, rolling my eyes at the new hire who still has the energy to approach it like one big joke.
The film did manage to successfully incorporate one quarantine trope, however, and effectively turn it on its head. There’s a scene when Linda (Hathaway) is mid-emotional breakdown and suddenly hears a ruckus outside. Her neighbors are taking part in the ritual nightly cheering for healthcare workers, and Linda seizes the opportunity for release.
She joins them, banging pots and pans wildly. She’s showing her gratitude, sure—but she’s also using the display as a cover for her own tantrum, a permission slip to temporarily drop the social conventions that stubbornly persist through the pandemic. Everything’s gone to shit, but at least she can rage undetected.
You can stream Locked Down on HBO Max. Subscription required.
Home Cooking (Podcast)
The pandemic fucked up the supply chain, and there was a month or two there when trying to acquire white flour, kale, flour tortillas, tofu, white rice and other staples was a roll of the dice. This was an especially cruel time for this to happen, because a lot of people suddenly found themselves with less money for takeout, and more time on their hands to cook from scratch.
That was the context in which Home Cooking, a cooking advice podcast hosted by acclaimed cookbook author Samin Nosrat and expert podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway, debuted in spring of 2020. The concept is a simple one: Listeners and celebrity guests ask questions about cooking with limited resources: Can I bake this cookie recipe using whole wheat flour? What are some quick, healthy lunches I can make in between Zoom calls? What do I do with all these beans I panic-bought? Nosrat offers her expert advice, while Hirway acts as a stand-in for all us amateur cooks, asking clarifying questions and finding ways to make recipes a little easier.
Eventually, grocery store shelves went somewhat back to normal. But Home Cooking kept succeeding, because its core conceit—that you can cook delicious food without spending a ton of time or money on it, and that doing the best with what you have can be a treat in and of itself—has an evergreen appeal. If there’s one “good” thing about this pandemic, it’s that it’s forced some of us to slow down and re-evaluate how we define success. Home Cooking’s vibe is about pulling people into the fun of cooking and eating, rather than being elitist or pandering. As Nosrat advises one guest: If simply roasting a sheet-pan of vegetables is a new experience for you, then you should consider it a win, and revel in how good veggies from your own kitchen can taste.
Home Cooking released its final episode at the end of 2020, going out on a high note. But I’m still carrying the spirit of it with me each time I open my fridge to figure out what’s for dinner.
You can listen to all episodes of Home Cooking on its website, or wherever you get your podcasts.