Critic's Notebook: Why '90 Day Fiancé' and 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Are Perfect Quarantine Viewing

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 90 Day Fiance, Carol and Kingdom Split - H Publicity 2020

The coronavirus crisis is altering viewing tastes and tendencies, turning stories of constraint and restriction — from claustrophobic reality TV to hushed lesbian period dramas — into small-screen comfort food.

Sometime in the past few days, I found myself unable to watch anything other than TLC's 90 Day Fiancé.

Ruts are a hazard for critics, as my dozens-long list of current, older and upcoming shows to watch can attest, but I couldn't tear myself away from the mega-popular, mega-cringey reality franchise about Americans marrying foreigners under brutal time constraints (under the K-1 visa, couples have 90 days from when the non-American sets foot in the U.S. to get wed). 90 Day Fiancé has long been a guilty pleasure of mine, but these compulsive marathons felt different. Few other shows seemed as relatable during these coronavirus-fraught times as the one about a couple, ostensibly brought together through the romance of international connection, forced into a suddenly endless — and endlessly squabbling — domesticity.

No such glamour attended the (thankfully much less TV-worthy) courtship between my husband and me, but our pre-COVID-19 lives seem practically jet-setting compared to the (necessary) house arrest of the last two weeks. With millions on the couch all day — working from home if we're lucky, unemployed if we're not — we're assumed to be consuming a lot more TV and movies to pass the time. But this unprecedented disruption to our lives — and its accompanying grief — is making many kinds of entertainment simply unwatchable, if we can even tear ourselves away from the news in the first place.

As fond as I am of Issa Rae's HBO comedy Insecure, I have to admit that the screeners for its upcoming fourth season, which finds best friends Issa and Molly restaurant-hopping and exploring new corners of Los Angeles as usual, blessedly ignorant in late 2019 of the pandemic to come, remain in my account half-watched. And I'm far from alone in my alienation from the pre-corona world of … a month ago. New Yorker writer Jiayang Fan recently tweeted about the loss of "predictably plotted medical dramas" as her TV comfort food, because she "can't focus on anything but the film set's enviable abundance of gloves, masks, gowns and ventilators." Hollywood Reporter senior editor Ben Svetkey griped via email about his inability to watch "normal TV" these days: "Seeing people hugging and hanging out together as if coronavirus didn't exist just doesn't seem right somehow." (Don't get him started on the commercials. "Who the hell is leasing a Lexus right now?" he asked. "And why are they inviting me to go to one of their corona-infested showrooms?")

It's cold comfort, but there's at least some intellectual appreciation to be drawn from the fact that our new sensibilities — anxious, paranoid, catastrophe-ready — as terrible as they feel in the moment, are exactly the ones we need to grapple with the spread of coronavirus. And if you need a distraction but the hang-out sitcom, workplace drama or city-set rom-com makes you break out in psychosomatic hives, there are plenty of other kinds of stories that are more relatable to these uncertain times.

Unsurprisingly, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, about an illness disseminated through international travel and the fake news that develops alongside it, became a hit on iTunes earlier this month, as reports about COVID-19 ping-ponged from China to Italy to here. At least on my timelines, Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (self-explanatory) and Todd Haynes' early masterpiece Safe (about a housewife, played by Julianne Moore, beset by a mysterious illness) appear to be making comebacks as well. Meanwhile, the season two release two weeks ago of Netflix's Kingdom, the Korean zombie costume drama and crossover hit, now seems serendipitously slated.

Also arriving at just the right time is Celine Sciamma's award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire, now streaming on Hulu. A slow-burning lesbian romance that appeared on countless critics' top-ten lists last year, the French film now plays a little differently, with its glance-based courtship and the house-boundness of its characters briefly transforming into a rare kind of freedom. (In short, they make an art out of social distancing.)

Indeed, viewers temporarily disgusted by eager touches between beautiful strangers — the stuff of traditional romances — might suddenly find themselves more sated by what writer Jill Gutowitz has termed the Furtive Lesbian Glance, which she encourages audiences to find in other recent films like Sebastian Lelio's Disobedience, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's Battle of the Sexes and Haynes' more recent Carol. That these movies all take place in bygone eras — or in the case of Disobedience, within a Jewish Orthodox community governed by more regressive rules — suggests that we're in a phase where older reluctances, especially when it comes to social interactions, speak more to us.

Perhaps that's why period dramas — a genre that encompasses nearly all the suggestions above — might feel more resonant than ever. Though we're intertwined with one another like no generation before us through telephone lines and internet connections, the coronavirus is also making many of us live the stuff of these historically set movies and series: stuck at home, in intimate and ceaseless contact with our families or other members of the household, with relatively little in the way of social stimulation. (Admittedly, our sweatpants might be a teensy bit less lavish than the costumes on Downton Abbey.)

In Autumn de Wilde's new Emma (now available for purchase), there's a scene where the titular character and her equally single best friend shriek in excitement when a ball is announced to take place in their small town. In a different time, we might have merely looked upon Emma and Harriet's squeals as girly excitability. After just two weeks of lockdown, I'm convinced they weren't loud or excited enough.