2384: Set in the Present

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Set in the Present
She referenced Billie Eilish, so this must be getting pretty close to the pandemic. But we've seen the last two years in-universe, so if it's set in the future, they must be in at least 2023 by now. [*adds thumbtacks and string to wall*]
Title text: She referenced Billie Eilish, so this must be getting pretty close to the pandemic. But we've seen the last two years in-universe, so if it's set in the future, they must be in at least 2023 by now. [*adds thumbtacks and string to wall*]


This comic is another in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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, and rose to stardom 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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Although I've described the TV as being wall-mounted, a literal reading of the scenario is that it and Cueball are both floating in a featureless void (which has covid). Captain Video (talk) 02:09, 12 November 2020 (UTC)

Can I just say this is so true... GOOMHR! Anything even vaguely archival (repeats or first-runs of shows recorded before ~Marchish 2020) that don't have a prominent "This was recorded prior to..." announcement look... strange. Unsettling, even. 02:15, 12 November 2020 (UTC)

Just out of curiosity (because I mainly watch older stuff): are there any current, contemporarily-set shows that were filmed during COVID and where actors have (or have not) started wearing masks?
I think if I were a producer, I would simply add masks to the show in situations where people would wear them in real life, even if the script was written before COVID. You wouldn`t even have to mention it in the show. Would make it more realistic, safer for the actors, and would acknowledge that COVID is simply a reality in 2020.
Really really contemporary productions have famously made various concessions to make 'reality' film safely (not sure what they did about masks to film a 'safe reality', I don't watch that stuff myself). Anything that can be delayed seems to have been delayed, though, so we're yet to see 'new normal' pop up, and anything mid-shoot will likely start again with precautionary but pre-mask arrangements rather than reshoot the old shots to include face-coverings. It's going to be interesting to see what signs creep in (like radio dramas where clearly they Zoomed it in, just one character sounds like they're under a duvet, or ought to have been). 11:58, 12 November 2020 (UTC)
Like this? Láska v čase korony? Edheldil (talk) 13:22, 28 December 2020 (UTC)

Transcript has a typo for the year: " Is this story set in 2049?" should read " Is this story set in 2019?" 09:40, 12 November 2020 (UTC)

Easily changed. Done! ;) 11:58, 12 November 2020 (UTC)

Reminded me of this tweet thread from @qntm in June ("do you feel like in the past six months all contemporary fiction became period fiction"): https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1275909147729551360.html Arcorann (talk) 00:06, 13 November 2020 (UTC)

I'm not affected. In movies I'm watching, missing covid is NOT the most fantastic element. (Also, there is enough CGI that filming each real character separately won't change the movie production much.) -- Hkmaly (talk) 06:53, 13 November 2020 (UTC)

The problem with including masks etc. in productions is that it dates the movie/show precisely and makes it *about* COVID (qv.: chechovs gun) 00:34, 14 November 2020 (UTC)

You're just a bit ahead of the scheduling vs recording of TV-shows. I've seen in this week alone at least four shows where Covid-19 is a major player and everyone has masks... is this the late autumn-winter season of TV? :S -- 00:49, 14 November 2020 (UTC)

Wikipedia doesn't have a "COVID-19 in popular culture" page yet, but I bet it will by the end of the year. I considered starting one myself but material is still kind of thin. Captain Video (talk) 17:44, 14 November 2020 (UTC)

He was a year off. SilverTheTerribleMathematician (talk) 23:59, 2 January 2023 (UTC)