Well, it took awhile, but I now understand the This Is Fine dog. Yes, the hottest meme of 2016—so hot, it generated its own Funko Pop—has finally found a proper context. At the time of its peak rotation, the This Is Fine dog, calmly perched on a stool within a flaming tavern, seemed to be an avatar of absurdist apathy. Anyone who couldn’t be spurred into action by the prospect of a Trump administration might as well be ordering another round at the bar from hell.
A new possibility occurred to me over the weekend, however. Maybe the dog wasn’t lounging in the fire out of borderline-nihilistic ennui. Maybe the dog was just too exhausted to do anything else. There’s only so much sustained panic one can endure, after all, until neither mind, body, nor soul can summon the will to panic any longer, and all that’s left to do is go watch Spider-Man fight Doctor Octopus in record numbers as the fifth (?) wave of the pandemic begins to crest.
Over the weekend, more than 20 million people went to see Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters across America. It was, by a vast margin, the biggest box-office opening of the pandemic. With an astounding $253 million haul, it was in fact the third-largest opening weekend of all time. Ordinarily, it would be an encouraging data point in the path toward post-pandemic America, our fabled return to normalcy.
Considering that it happened the same week as the breaking of a very different pandemic record—most new COVID cases in a single day in New York—the box-office news had a surreal feel. The pandemic has taken a turn for the worse again, and we’re all going to see Spider-Man.
This is fine.
The alternative to going to see Spider-Man is panicking. Laying low and waiting for better news. Masking up, staying home, and tipping well for takeout. But everyone is exhausted from doing that for nearly two full years, aside from those who could never be bothered to do it in the first place. Everyone else has panicked, got vaccinated, panicked some more, got boosted, panicked even more than before, got their kids vaccinated, and have now begun to panic yet again. No wonder we’re all going to see Spider-Man at the precise moment that Omicron’s terrifying contagiousness makes itself understood! What’s the worst that could happen—we’ll have to panic?
Anyone who didn’t go out to the movies over the weekend might have gotten another taste of surrealism from home. The wildfire-breakout of Omicron in New York last week made NBC studios an unsafe environment for live TV. Did that stop Lorne Michaels and company from putting on the final Saturday Night Live of 2021? Technically yes, but not exactly.
Instead of just taking the L and airing a rerun, Michaels dismissed most of the cast and crew and put on a zombified version of the scheduled production. Host Paul Rudd was on hand to deliver a monologue; musical guest Charli XCX was not. High-profile friends of the show Tom Hanks and Tina Fey made it to the studio—wearing hazmat suits, one can only assume—to help introduce digital video shorts taped earlier in the week, along with some favorite holiday-themed sketches. Cut and pasted together with slapdash indifference, it was the most that an episode of SNL has ever resembled a lower-tier posthumous 2pac album.
Was it a case of the-show-must-go-on spirit gone wrong? Or was it a case of capitalism triumphing over merited but deeply unwanted panic? Either way, it was certainly a far cry from SNL’s first response to pandemic acceleration, back on March 16, 2020, when it suspended production indefinitely. (The show resumed about a month later, with its first fully remote episode.) This time, instead of pulling the plug, SNL had Tina Fey and Michael Che reading Weekend Update jokes off of printed pages on the main stage.
This is fine.
One of the rerun sketches on this episode is called The Global Warming Christmas Special, a satirical look at how civilization perseveres through an existential crisis instead of thwarting it.
The sketch originally aired in 1991. We’ve been ordering drinks during a slow-motion fiery apocalypse for 30 years.
As if the sight of that old sketch couldn’t be any more surreal or bleak in context, it was followed, mere hours later, by a senator who personally benefits from not fighting climate change announcing he could not support a bill that puts billions of dollars toward fighting climate change. Worse still, he made this announcement the same week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed that members of Congress simply must be allowed to enrich themselves in ways that present ethical conflicts with the way they might vote.
Everyone who has been panicking about the government’s lack of urgency on climate action and everyone who has been panicking about the Democrats’ lack of urgency in reforming the filibuster to overcome insurmountable resistance and everyone who has been panicking about whether Omicron’s arrival would be as ferocious as delta’s—when faced with horrible news on all three fronts, all those people could only do one thing: Go see Spider-Man.
And it was fine.