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The rise of 'PanCon'
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The rise of 'PanCon'

As we fast approach the end of Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed a notable rise in pandemic-related — or pandemic-adjacent — content, or what I’m calling "PanCon."

Not unlike CanCon — the content quotas on radio and television aimed at preserving our very Canadian culture and identity by ensuring we hear Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway hourly on the radio* — PanCon often feels shoehorned in, a box to be checked.

Sometimes the pandemic is breezily mentioned in passing via a bit of dialogue that suggests COVID-19 has happened but is now over (Sex Lives of College Girls; Workin’ Moms; the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That). Other shows obliquely reference pandemic restrictions without saying the word “COVID” (Curb Your Enthusiasm; Insecure; Nine Perfect Strangers).

From left, Amrit Kaur, Alyah Chanelle Scott and Pauline Chalamet in HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls.

Others have had full-on COVID-19 storylines to wildly varying effect. The treatment of the pandemic in the second season of The Morning Show, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, was cringingly bad. Meanwhile, The Good Fight, the spinoff of The Good Wife, starring Christine Baranski in a reprisal of her role as lawyer Diane Lockhart, handled it in a canny way in its fifth season premiere, titled “Previously On…” in which the year 2020 is summarized in a series of flashbacks meant to look like season recaps.

Even novels are starting to mention the pandemic. I’ve encountered references to the pandemic — or at least to lockdown — in a few 2021 releases now. Sometimes it works: I’m currently reading Douglas Coupland’s new short story collection Binge, and there’s a very funny piece about lockdown flouters. Other times, it adds precisely nothing (Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall).

I… don’t love this. I understand the temptation — it’s hard to not talk about The Thing Everyone Is Talking About — just ask anyone on Twitter. But if you’re creating worlds of fiction, you have the unique opportunity to jettison the pandemic all together — especially if your show or book is not explicitly about the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are building worlds of fiction, even those set in the vague present, you can jettison COVID-19 altogether. It's fine!

That’s not to say people shouldn’t make art about pandemics, which is much different than adding in a single line about that time you couldn’t go for brunch or a joke about social distancing. The kind of PanCon I tend to gravitate towards is that of fictionalized pandemics, such as the ones at the heart of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion or the recent HBO Max adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — which I’ve actually put off watching, I think because it’s like, “enough pandemic, thanks.”

Jeevan (Himesh Patel) becomes the default guardian to young actor Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) when the world nearly comes to an end in Station Eleven.

But reading about a quarantine aboard an interstellar ship in Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land didn’t bother me, nor did reading Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, historical fiction set during the 1918 flu pandemic. Perhaps it’s because, in all of those instances, the pandemics were recognizably fiction or recognizably historical (and still fictional). Fictional pandemics are also reliably more dramatic. They are prescient and timely, sure, but they tend to be a lot more apocalyptic.

Or perhaps it’s because I’m not actively living through — nor chronicling, through work — those pandemics. Maybe it’s because a lot of au current PanCon ends up being hackneyed references to toilet paper hoarding.

Or maybe it’s just because I don’t want COVID-19 to find me on the pages of my books or in the scenes of my shows. I look forward to the eventual and inevitable historical fiction about the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, though, I still want to be able to escape the inescapable.

*Absolutely no shade to Life is a Highway, which is not only a banger but a near-perfect song. The hooky chorus kicks in at 50 seconds, which is the hallmark of a hit. It’s got a breakdown designed for clapping along. The mere mention of its name puts it directly into your head, like an aural Beetlejuice. You’re humming it right now!

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti, Columnist

Jen Zoratti


I mentioned that I’m reading Douglas Coupland’s Binge, which I am thoroughly enjoying — his 2006 novel JPod is one of my favourite books — but I also really liked Cheat Day by Liz Stratman, which I finished a couple weeks ago.

It follows a woman named Kit who is trying to take control of her life by going on a restrictive diet — conspicuous, as she works in a bakery — and ends up having an affair (hence the double entendre of the title). It’s a funny, smart look at modern wellness and how we miss out on what we have by always wanting more.



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