2384: Set in the Present
Cueball is watching a wall-mounted television set that's showing either a movie or a TV program, and notices that none of the characters are taking the recommended precautions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. This leads him to speculate on the timeline and internal logic of the show.
On-screen, people are talking face-to-face without face masks, and other maskless people mingle in the background. Cueball notes that, if the story takes place in the same reality and time as us, the absence of precautions should mark the characters as reckless or irresponsible (which impacts the story). Alternative explanations he comes up with are that the show might be set either prior to the pandemic or far enough in the future that the impacts are no longer visible. However, these possibilities are be difficult to square with era-specific cues like technology and popular culture references.
Billie Eilish is an American singer and songwriter who first became active in 2015, released her first album in 2017, and became culturally prominent in 2019, so a reference to her implies a show set within the last few years, and likely only one year in the past. The presence of "modern" phones (presumably a late model smartphone) has a similar implication. But in a TV show or film series where time passes in-universe, this also creates problems. If it's set in the recent past, and the series continues for a few more years, then the characters should encounter the pandemic in later seasons. If it's set in the future, then the entire series must be set in the future (because none of it included the pandemic). If the series has gone on for several years, the current episode must be at least several years in the future, which raises the question of why all the technology and pop culture shown is familiar to us.
The simplest explanation is that COVID-19 doesn't exist within the program's universe (an idea Cueball briefly considers as an "alternate timeline," but doesn't dwell on). Perfect consistency with the real world in fiction is hard to achieve, and how accurately stories track to current events varies widely. Movies and television productions are enormously complex, and months, if not years, can pass between when a screenplay is written and the finished product is released. This means that rapid changes in the real world are rarely reflected promptly in fiction. Alternately, the production might have taken place in the COVID era but the creators consciously chose not to include the pandemic in the story. Some viewers can ignore these inconsistencies, but for others, they make suspension of disbelief impossible.
Cueball has previously been distracted by minor details in film or television in 1451: Background Screens. The idea of using thumbtacks and strings (usually accompanied by newspaper clippings and photographs) to study a problem is pop-culture shorthand for a conspiracy theory. Randall has previously mentioned this in 2244: Thumbtacks And String.
- [Cueball is standing and watching a presumed typical wall mounted flat-screen television. There is no background, nor other physical features, just Cueball and the obliquely aligned screen positioned to also let us view its foreshortened image. In this, Megan and Ponytail are seen talking face to face with hands almost or actually in contact. Their faces are sociably close together and they are not shown as wearing masks. In the background of the scene are several other Cueball-like figures, not notably masked up or distanced from each other, and two may be holding hands. Cueball himself is given a large thought bubble above him, within which is written his current, distracted train of thoughts:]
- Cueball: Okay, they're hugging, and no one has masks, but she has a modern phone. Is this story set in 2019?
- Cueball: Or is this a post-vaccine future? Or an alternate no-COVID timeline?
- Cueball: Or are we supposed to think these characters are irresponsible?
- [Caption below the panel:]
- Movies and shows that are vaguely set in "the present" will be awkward for a while.
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