This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
I don’t know what curse Sarah Palin put on us.
On March 11, 2020, a year ago this week, Palin dressed in a fever-dream teddy bear costume and rapped along to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” on an episode of The Masked Singer, while Nick Cannon twerked next to her and famed anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy cheered.
Almost simultaneously, it was reported that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive for the coronavirus, the first celebrities to publicly confirm a diagnosis. The NBA halted its season. A European travel ban was announced. Across the country, offices, restaurants, schools, and public spaces began to close. As if by lightning strike, for so many people, it was the day that the pandemic became real.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The band played on the Titanic as the ship went down. The end of America? We got fucking Sarah Palin rapping about big asses while dressed like a bear.
I’m an insufferable Musical Theater Gay, whose first baby steps were a step-ball-change and whose heart ticks in time to “The Witch’s Rap” from Into the Woods. And yet, Rent singalongs be damned, I don’t know how to “measure, measure a year” when it comes to the one we’ve just experienced.
Even things that are supposed to make us feel better—silly reality TV like The Masked Singer, or Real Housewives—have, in some cases, only made us feel crazier and more miserable.
I don’t even want to do the thing where I type out the laundry list of traumatizing experiences we’ve all gone through as a country together and I’ve gone through as a person alone—“alone,” that definitive word of the last year that may never stop haunting us. Doing so will just make me cry and, in a small victory, I haven’t cried yet today.
Yet... vaccines! Reopenings! There’s a small light at the end of the tunnel and, my god, is it glorious to see. But now we’re running towards it like a nation of Icaruses speeding at the sun, or a swarm of moths to a flame. I don’t know which analogy works better. Either way, in the end of both stories, the fools got torched.
This anniversary is an occasion for the surreal emotional experience of looking back at this terrible year, feeling relieved to finally be able to look forward again but, really, still being stuck where we are. (Except now you can actually buy toilet paper.)
I don’t know if it’s possible to sleepwalk while having every sense and emotion acutely aware at the same time. But that’s what it’s felt like to go through this year: a shell-shocked drifting through existence, like I’m haunting my own life, while also feeling every intense pang of horror, sadness, fear, dread, and regret as things happened around—and to—me.
We’ve spent the year watching “get things back to normal” and “things are extremely not normal” do an Avengers-style battle in the sky, which is to say it’s been violent, confusing, and endless.
I’ll continue to filter things through a pop-culture lens, since that is basically my existence anyway. There was, for example, the almost dystopian American Idol pivot to contestants filming themselves at home while competing for the title; not even a year later, they were back in front of Katy Perry and the judges singing in person, and Kellyanne Conway’s daughter was one of them.
We started the year marveling at how prescient a show like Love Is Blind was, with its cast dating in what were basically quarantine pods. Now we’re enraged yet again over the racism of The Bachelor franchise. Also, while most of the country is still confined to their homes, this show was somehow given priority in returning to business as usual: a few dozen people in a house together constantly making out. Kissing? In this climate?!
I cannot begin to express what a balm it was to have my favorite comfort TV series return when I needed them most, specifically the Real Housewives. But it quickly became icky. In a pandemic, do we really need to pull out all the safety stops so these women can have a boozy brunch on camera?
More, the cameras revealed mask-wearing policies and COVID testing protocols to be uneven and haphazard. I still instinctively gasp every time I see people on these shows hug each other. And besides, these were supposed to be our escapist series. Now, there’s not a show airing on Bravo that hasn’t had to acknowledge the reality of the pandemic.
It was at first inspiring to see the ways in which Hollywood created content remotely. Until it reached the point where if I saw one more celebrity Zoom into my living room from their mansions, I was going to stage a pyre of Us Weekly magazines in the town square.
The rush to put shows and movies back into production was one of the biggest stories in Hollywood history. It was fascinating and invigorating—and entirely questionable. The returning series that acknowledged the pandemic were a disaster. The ones that didn’t seemed to exist on another planet. You were damned for dramatizing either version of “normal”: the current one in which the world is a nightmare, or the wistful fantasy of the one without it.
The pop culture that always moved me and calmed me instead drove me absolutely crazy. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s as if my SleepyTime tea was laced with Adderall. Or if someone massaged me with poison ivy. Or, hell, if something as beloved to me as Real Housewives started to make me feel anxious.
Everyone is so damn pleased to feel normal again, which is the thing that makes me feel the most unhinged. Again, the light is still at the end of the tunnel. But the tunnel is not that close, and we certainly are not in it. We’re not basking in its glow yet!
I can’t believe I’m giving it this kind of significance, but it’s the Golden Globe Awards—and, in tandem, the upcoming Oscars—that drove this point home for me.
There was no novelty left in airing a remotely filmed award show. There was no “show must go on” gumption that endeared the production to viewers, especially considering the scandal the organization was facing. A year into this pandemic, it is not reassuring that, no matter what, the Golden Globes will still happen. It just felt stupid. We are still in a crisis and this is not normal, no matter that Catherine Zeta-Jones is wearing a ball gown and handing out an award.
I can’t bear to do this again with the Oscars. I feel insane.
Part of me is, like, of course it would represent every unscrupulous, unjust, and crass instinct our country holds to just give vaccines to the celebrity nominees so they can have a normal Academy Awards. But also... maybe we should do it? The Snowpiercer train is basically leaving the station at this point anyway, so we might as well get on board.
I hate that I’m saying that! I’m just kidding! Sort of! But this tango between pretending things are normal again and still having to deal with the remnants of our disastrous reality has gotten too complicated. I’m not a good dancer. I’m not getting the choreography. I can’t do this anymore.
This last week has seen many people memorializing their “lasts,” the last event they attended, restaurant they ate at, or people they saw before the first pandemic shutdown.
I can’t even remember my “last,” because in my mind it was so inconsequential. We were going to have a weird month of being at home, and that was going to be it. I bought a bunch of frozen pizzas, like I was stocking up for a snow day. The drama of it all was terrifying but also kind of exciting. It was a time in my life where I felt like I had to be everywhere, constantly, and I was failing at it; what a treat to be nowhere—and as a civic duty, to boot.
But that means I also can’t remember the last time I wasn’t this frustrated or this confused by everything and everyone. And so this is actually a first for me: the first time I don’t know what to turn to in Hollywood or pop culture to fix that.