Covid-19 woven into television history

I was watching an old episode of Magnum P.I from the 1980s the other night. Thomas Magnum had ended up in hospital (as he often did). The doctor came to Magnum’s bedside to talk to him. Said doctor had a cigarette dangling from his lip and as he spoke, clouds of smoke billowed around him. The patient in the bed beside Thomas Magnum was also smoking. This clearly cements the show as a product of its time. You would never see that today. If you do see someone smoking, it is usually a baddie.

I also recently watched someone on social media brag about meeting Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain circa 1990. This (probably very young) person apparently went outside to have a cigarette at the same time Cobain also went out for a smoke break. Commenters in the thread immediately called the person out as a liar, purely because there was no such thing as having to go outside if you wanted to smoke in 1990. You just smoked wherever you were. I remember in the 1980s when I worked in a student bar and someone came up to ask for an ashtray. My boss said ‘you’re standing in it’

Similarly, I watched an episode of NCIS New Orleans which not only starred the Covid-19 pandemic, but featured – across many episodes – characters wearing masks.

The first thing I realised was how much I relied on looking at facial expressions and mouths moving. The makers of the series had overdubbed the sound so there was no mask-muffle but it was very distracting. I wonder if this is because Sweden never had a mask mandate so I was never used to listening to and looking at people in masks? I have worn one myself on public transport, in airports, on airplanes, and in Spain. But watching it on television really bothered me. Sweden does not dub any foreign-language television shows or movies into Swedish. They are left in the original language and have Swedish subtitles. This makes it easier to understand the dialogue despite the masks, but I really missed the facial expressions as social cues.

Several television series I have watched lately – Greys Anatomy and the Good Doctor – wove the pandemic into storylines so that mask-wearing was not surprising. But for other series that chose to film during the pandemic, there was no storyline connection to the masking. The characters were just masked. I wonder if parents in future will have to explain that to their children?

I wonder if Covid-19 will feel really long-ago and strange? It already does. I hope that continues because I, for one, would not like global pandemics to become par for the course.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

4 thoughts

  1. For me Covid is very present in everyday life. I still see many people wearing a mask in public transports, many cases of the disease among my co-workers and students at university and at the Parliament. I also wear a mask everyday in the underground and I will do until the end of the summer.

    I am not a person at risk but having been infected in May 2021, spending a couple of weeks at the hospital, contaminating my dearly mother (she didn’t survive) made me realise that anyone had a part to play in protecting oneself and the others around.

    I don’t find it difficult to read people’s expressions when they are wearing a mask. I guess working in a hospital for many years got me used to it and I focus more on the eyes than the mouth when I talk to someone. As long as people speak clearly, loud enough and articulate, I’m fine.

    1. Thank you for this Nathalie. I guess many countries are still affected by the pandemic. I am so sorry about the tragic loss of your mother.

  2. Interesting!

    For me, Covid-19 (and RSV, MPX, Pneumonia, Influenza, etc.) is still very real and very deadly. I have yet to get it, am extremely immunocompromised (recently had an organ removed & have several open wounds in the process of healing) so it does not seem very far away for me, nor do I think it ever will be. I still mask when outside around people/in buildings (still deeply distressing to me to see medical personnel without masks) & will continue to for as long as respiratory viruses exist. I was in the process to get my second Covid-19 booster early when I was hospitalised before my most recent surgery, which I will get as soon as I am healed enough to. It’s not just for my safety; Covid (and other airborne illness) is still killing & disabling people. It’s just not the immensity of numbers as before.

    Not to mention climate change & wildfires necessitating filtered masking – NYC & the East Coast right now. I’m in NorCal, the air was unbreathable & it was apocalyptic those couple years ago. I am thankful I still have access to inexpensive KN95 masks & will keep/wear them as long as I can access them. No shame, no apologies.

    An aside regarding reading expressions or understanding words with masked onscreen actors – I also always enable captions because I can’t read people’s expressions/words even without masks! 🙂

    1. Thank you for this comment. My best wishes for a speedy recovery for you, and you go girl with the masks! The understanding of the importance masks and the selection available to the general public has increased, even in Sweden, so I hope you are able to get your masks way into the future. I always have a couple of boxes of masks and also covid tests at home, and will continue to do so. At my age, I am not taking any chances if things start getting bad again!

      I did not realise how much I relied on facial expressions, particularly on television. As a teacher, I don’t mind mouths being covered, as long as I can see the eyes of my students. On television though, I battle if I can’t see mouths.

Leave a Reply