What Makes the Perfect Watch — or Read — for Pandemic Times?

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I mean no disrespect to director Spike Lee, but I watched his 155-minute-long movie Da Five Bloods during four consecutive days breaking it out into 40ish-minute bites. I loved it. From the music choices to the amazing performances from Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman and its inclusion of historical events and figures. The thing is, I don’t know if I’d like it that much had I done the right thing and watched it from start to finish in one sitting.

It’s been almost a year since we had to first seclude ourselves at home. Movie theaters, concerts and live performances have been out of the question. So have parties and other gatherings with friends and family. Long gone are the days when I eagerly lined up at 9 am for an early press screening of the harrowing 12 Years a Slave (2013) at the Toronto International Film Festival. In part because the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) celebrated its 2020 edition virtually. But also because of the shift I’ve noticed in my patience and endurance as a viewer (and reader).

With the first anniversary of pandemic times around the corner, I took inventory of some best practices when it comes to consuming entertainment at home. Right now reading and watching films and TV shows have become our rare source of escapism. Let’s make it worth it.

Revisit Some Comfort Shows and Reads

2020 taught us some lessons regarding viewing and reading habits. We enjoy the old classics. The Office and Grey’s Anatomy topped the list of most-streamed content in 2020. Ozark, Lucifer and The Mandalorian — all of them with several seasons on-air and/or being part of an existing franchise — were among the most-streamed original series. The sequel Frozen II was the most-watched at-home movie in 2020. And the majority of people decided to read (or reread) Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and To Kill a Mockingbird during the pandemic.

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If you know you like something — or that it brings you joy — don’t shy away from it. That doesn’t mean just sticking with comfort or preexisting entertainment — that would have prevented us from discovering new propositions like the supernatural horror show Lovecraft Country and Kaley Cuoco’s foray into the international mystery genre with The Flight Attendant.

But it also means this might not be the ideal time to be too adventurous when you choose what to watch or read. Unless it’s by André Aciman or Donna Tartt — or it’s one of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels— I never commit to a book blindly. First, I need to check that it has more than four stars on Goodreads — meaning it’s been out for a little while and people have already read it and liked it. I also like sampling it, using the “Send a free sample” tool on Amazon. Only if I like those first pages do I decide to actually read it in full. And even then, there’s no law against dropping a book at a 70% reading completion rate if you no longer enjoy it.

Genre Matters

Historical fiction, mystery and romance are the genres I read for pleasure. In regular years I also enjoy science fiction, memoirs, and heady scientific books about climate change. I might even dabble in poetry. Not lately. I stick to the classics and try to mix things up only by discovering new authors in my preferred genres.

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I do the same for movies and TV shows. I watched The Invisible Man in a movie theater right before everything closed back in February 2020 but — even though I actually loved it — I doubt I’d have watched it at home during the lockdown. I’m terrified of horror movies. Plus, the collective experience of watching a film in a theater with other people reacting to it is very different from the one you can have home alone.

I’m trying to honor films in the best way possible when I consume them at home. I watch them on my medium-to-biggish-sized TV, at night, with the lights off — and I try to stay away from other devices. But I no longer force myself to finish something if I’m not enjoying it.

If I’m trying to watch a movie and I catch myself aimlessly checking my phone while looking for a party dress or a blazer that I won’t be able to wear anywhere, it’s probably time to call it a night and stop watching. The same goes for a book. If, instead of reading, I’m looking for excuses to check my Twitter feed, it’s time to choose another novel.

Abide by the Less Is Less Mantra

I know there’s not that much going on in terms of entertainment right now. But beware of the whole “binge-watching” experience.

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Take your time, space out your enjoyment. Make it special, precisely because finding the right fit is tough. Instead of gobbling the next episode of WandaVision the minute it drops on Disney Plus, make it a date — with yourself or with your cohabitants. Dress up for the occasion — extra points for decade-appropriate outfits — and savor the experience.

And make your own rules. I really think 90 minutes is the ideal length for a movie but filmmakers don’t always agree. In a movie theater, I indulge their artistic choices. But at home, I get to decide. So instead of the Da 5 Bloods feature film, I decided I was watching Da 5 Bloods, a four-episode miniseries. It just worked better for me that way. And it allowed me to enjoy one of 2020’s best movies.