Guest post by Amil Niazi, cultural critic, writer and showrunner for CBC’s Pop Chat.
This is a transcript of a presentation by Amil Niazi on October 28, 2021 as part of MediaSmarts Presents The Walrus Talks: Our Digital Lives (a Media Literacy Week event).
You know usually as a critic I have some distance from what I’m writing about but when the pandemic hit, that all collapsed, and it felt like we were all instantly connected — both by our fear and anxiety of the unknown but also by what we turned to for comfort and community.
Some experts called the pandemic the great equalizer because rich or poor you were suddenly forced inside, living and working in much the same way.
I don’t necessarily stand by the notion that what we all experienced was equal over the past year and a half, but certainly one thing that did connect us was the media we consumed.
We went from Schitt’s Creek to Squid Game over 18 months and tweeted and posted about it all online. What does that trajectory say about our collective state of mind? About how we’re feeling and where we’re going?
If we go back to March 2020, we were reaching back, seeking out nostalgic remnants of the before time: we rewatched New Girl and The Office, and as things worsened, we sought solace in slower, tender shows like Schitt’s Creek — a perfect distillation of simplicity and optimism in the face of massive change
That show in particular became a touchstone — The Rose family suddenly became a necessary source of joy, a way to break up the sense of panic, a reason to stop doomscrolling for at least 30 minutes
Speaking of doomscrolling, Twitter became a living document of our experiences, a way to dissect and disseminate new information, people shared their harrowing experiences with the virus, checked case counts hourly, posted photos of our ever-increasing screen times clocked by our iPhones.
I spent hours on the app every day, sharing my fears as a freelancer, as the mother of a toddler, and of my anxiety of giving birth in the middle of a pandemic.
Social media and WhatsApp helped connect me to other pregnant people, where we shared updates on who was allowed into the hospital with us, the protocols at birthing centres and what extra precautions we should be taking.
Strangers on Twitter sent me postpartum aids I couldn’t get in Canada — one even mailed me a care package for the hospital.
After I gave birth to my daughter in the summer of 2020 I was compelled to share a photo of the two of us on Twitter, something I never would have done pre-pandemic, but the people on this app were as close to me as anyone else last year, part of my community of care.
And once the summer came, we started to turn away from nostalgia. As Black Lives Matter protests took over city streets following the murder of George Floyd, it suddenly felt necessary to engage with media in a different, more urgent way. People posted black squares and demanded allyship in a very visual, present way on social media.
Reality TV got a big dose of reality and was forced to reckon with everything happening in the world and because of that engagement with reality, it suddenly became some of the most compelling television. Real Housewives and rich trust funders on big Bravo reality shows like Below Deck and Southern Charm that were previously mindless diversions had to have uncomfortable but meaningful conversations in real time and it was incredible to watch.
The winter was bleak but enter Ted Lasso, which premiered in August but took off closer to the end of the year when we were desperate for optimism and hope, when we again sought out tenderness
The emergence of a vaccine turned social media into a critical resource. In Ontario, intrepid Twitter accounts made it possible for thousands of people to find appointments and obtain their jabs in a timely way. Social media was now a lifeline, a survival mechanism.
And now as we make our way back to the old world and attempt to reclaim the past there is a cynicism that has dominated our consumption. Last year at this time we were embracing Ted Lasso, a year later we’re asking ourselves why we ever fell for the show in the first place, as the rejections of the show’s second season reveals the looming collective anger, frustration and exhaustion with what the pandemic has revealed.
The inequality that we can no longer ignore is the elephant in the room. So it makes sense that as we closed out a second year of this pandemic, a show about desperation, inequity and the fight for survival in a cold capitalist climate was the most popular show in the entire world — yes, I’m talking about Squid Game — which hit number one in 90 countries reaching hundreds of millions of households.
The show came at a time when the pandemic was changing again, and we confronted the world and ourselves with new eyes.
What we watch has changed us, but in return we’ve changed the content we consume, demanded it be more reflective of what we’ve experienced, and I’m excited to see where this will take us and how it will not only inform the media we make but how we make it.
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