“Television does not help us understand any of that. Or if tries to, it sentimentalizes it. . . . TV is just a stream of replaceable, empty nonsense, even in its so-called prestige form. . . . If you can’t sleep, get up. Don’t lie there with this IV drip of images. . . . Whenever I couldn’t sleep and turned to my phone to watch comedy clips or something, I just felt bad after, like you might after cheap drugs. Do you think television executives like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman lie in bed at night watching TV shows on their phones? They don’t. They are the pushers getting wealthy off your depression.” —A. S. Hamrah
“This Is 40,” the fifth entry in the Rome Coronavirus Dispatch limited series, centers on Francesco Pacifico’s little sister’s 40th birthday. But instead of mining that situation for drama and reconciliation, the episode spreads itself too thin, forcing viewers to also endure a parallel plotline misguidedly focused on the opening up of Rome under the government-christened “Phase Two,” following the successful flattening of the curve.
The claustrophobic opening plunges us into the main character’s sense of expectation preceding his sister’s milestone birthday. This gesture suggests that the show is about to subject us to its fifth straight bottle episode, a format that has become at once a blessing and a curse. But then, halfway through, we discover that there’s way more to the episode—but also, way less, since prestige TV rarely succeeds when it trades away its core components for a sheepish shot at the Zeitgeist. (See season three of Westworld for proof of concept.)
For those who, like me, have, up to this point, enjoyed the show’s narrative arc–averse approach—valid for a moment when so much is unpredictable, when the future is literally unwritten—the belated attempt at an actual arc is a litmus test for the show’s ambition. The shows that have defined the golden age of Peak TV, like Atlanta and Master of None, have typically chosen ambience over storytelling or have gone in the exact opposite direction, firm in the knowledge that you can’t Netflix and Chill if you’re feeling tangled and unmoored. This is “This Is 40”’s big gamble.
We start the episode with Pacifico anticipating his sister’s birthday. At 43, he’s well into his forties, but isolation has made him feel 40 for the first time since his own milestone birthday. Quarantine, he notices, is a reference to the quaranta (forty) days of isolation travelers were subjected to in the past. So, forty—both in terms of days and years—becomes the measure of painful maturity and patient preparation for what’s to come. (Of course there’s also the forty days of Lent, Jesus’s non-intermittent fasting in the desert.) For Pacifico, the quarantine marks a clean break from the fifteen-odd years of reading, writing, and bar-hopping that have taken him from young man to grumpy, gray-bearded creative-writing teacher. Dressed in athletic shorts and Jordan 1s, he’s starting to see that he’s not sexy, if he ever was. Instead he’s just a relic of a bygone era that young people these days might easily confuse with the Boomercene, though to him it feels like the era has barely ended.
And now his little sister is also approaching the same threshold, and the awareness of that fact, which he has all the time in the world to consider, is hitting him hard. Is she happy? Is she crossing the boundary with some degree of satisfaction? Weeks ago she wrote to him to say that she was proud of having survived the family, proud of being able to experience life, at least to some extent. What have the two of us survived? he muses to himself in voiceover: is it true what both his shrink and their shared naturopath said at one point, that he and his sister have the mental structure of people who were psychically abused? Is anyone ever going to explain to them what that abuse amounts to? These are questions I can relate to, in theory, but what Pacifico does with them is flawed and overstated. Even though the show ostensibly revolves around his relationship with the Wife, for obvious historical reasons it is his Sister, who lives on the other side of town, next door to the Parents, who has been summoned thus far as a kind of shorthand for his and her secluded childhood and youth.
In this episode we get to delve into that dynamic in greater depth. We see the siblings on the phone as she tells him she feels like she was born for quarantine, that she’s managing better than anyone she knows. She now lives in the apartment where the two siblings grew up in the ’80s. She takes the kids out to play in the isolated private parking lot where Pacifico’s mother would always bring the two of them because she disliked public parks and the amount of dogshit and boring acquaintances she’d have to wade through on behalf of her children. All this is very easy for his sister to manage, she reports, because their childhood already felt like quarantine. On the phone call both of them acknowledge that they still have the muscle memory. Here RCD alternates between the lushness of Pacifico’s house and the stark, flat light of the parking lot at midday, but cinematography seems like an afterthought: we might as well be watching the siblings through FaceTime.
The sadness that brother and sister share seems to foretell some big change ahead—a moment of shared recognition leading to some kind of breakthrough. Otherwise why bring it up? But apparently that’s not in the cards, because at this point the episode pivots. The camaraderie between the siblings may be strong, but Pacifico shifts his focus toward his connection with his older niece. We learn that the only person Pacifico really misses is his sister’s 8-year-old daughter, who comes across as funny, fluid, glamorous, quirky, neurotic, and adorable. She paints and writes short stories. Though the character shows up only briefly throughout the episode, taken together her appearances still add up to its breakout role.
We can feel the showrunner taking a risk when the episode cuts from a lingering shot of Pacifico after he’s hung up the phone to him in bed later that night, clearly on the verge of a dream sequence. Pacifico is sleeping in the basement, where he’s been relegated due to his clogged sinuses, which have led to near-constant sneezing that’s keeping the Wife awake. She is out of work at the time, and upset about that fact; the lack of sleep is aggravating and exhausting. She’s weaker than usual and thus perhaps more prone to the virus. He wakes up crying because he’s been dreaming about his apple-cheeked niece. In the dream their faces are so close together that the Niece’s balloons to the size of the baby’s in The Tree of Life. It’s a choice that may be mystical in some ambiguous way, but what it definitely is, without a doubt, is very creepy. When Pacifico realizes that he’s been crying because he misses her, and his cheeks are wet, he starts crying IRL, sobbing uncontrollably.
The dream and its aftermath don’t go anywhere, like much of the material here. It’s as if Pacifico is so at peace with his central formal premise—that no narrative arcs are possible because everyone is in a state of shock—that he’s given up trying to explain things. I thought that the whole thing about refusing to explain your meaning had died with Louie, but then I don’t really want to be rude to anyone.
Then we get a second dream. This time, the Sister is going on and on about something—the content of whatever she’s saying is so muddled that we can’t make it out—and the Mother is getting more and more riled up. Then, in a Philip K. Dickian twist, the Mother is revealed to be nothing more than a disembodied voice on the radio. She’s reading the news, and trying to communicate important updates about the pandemic to anyone who will listen, but she fails, because she ends up having a heart attack provoked by her agitation. The message here is garbled and confused.
After this strained introductory sequence (all this overwrought content, and we haven’t even gotten to the main story!), the viewer is dying to get to the main course. The elegant and topical solution would be a contemporary twist on the big family scene: maybe a Zoom birthday dinner? But that would be too easy, too pleasurable. Instead, the night before the birthday, we’re back upstairs. Pacifico is his usual guarded and asbestosed self. He’s working on his laptop when he feels a surge of blood rushing up to the head. He thinks he’s dying. It’s a panic attack. “I think I’m trying not to think of my sister’s birthday, but it’s actually a lot for me,” he tells the Wife at dinner. “She’s my little sister.”
This recapper predicts that Rome Coronavirus Dispatch’s unwillingness to believe in people’s ability to change, and to connect, will ultimately be its demise. Instead of exploring its premise, the episode starts to wither almost as soon as it begins, trapped and suffocated by detours that feel like excuses. The main detour is a confession Pacifico makes to the Best Friend, who briefly appeared as a pleasant distraction in the previous episode but was nonetheless given very little room to do much of anything. Before the virus hit, Pacifico had penciled in a work trip that was going to take him away from Italy on precisely the fateful week of his sister’s birthday. “When all the countries closed their borders, I thought, thank God, I’d completely forgotten and I’d have missed the birthday.” It’s “maybe the strangest kind of relief I’ve ever experienced,” he tells his friend. Which isn’t exactly how we’d sum up a worldwide tragedy with financial and social implications so massive that they’re only beginning to take shape.
After the conversation with the Best Friend, we get a brief video chat on the Sister’s birthday—a production with chaotic Hito Steyerl energy, degraded and jumpy. The Sister is having lunch at their parents’ place—they’re not freaking out over the virus, since Rome is almost virus-free. (The hard lockdown has worked; good for them, bad for Trump.) The chat offers no highlights of any kind, no memorable lines of dialogue. The only takeaways are the Niece’s loving smile—which suggests that she knows that she and the protagonist have a real connection—and the bittersweet and conspiratorial look the Sister wears throughout the video chat. For the siblings, it seems, even the Pandemic and the awkward Zoom toast feel like a consequence of the family’s unspoken original sin.
What this original sin actually is is left unspoken, because it is at that point that Pacifico pivots to “Phase Two.”
A week has passed. Pacifico and the Wife hop in their car and drive to Rome’s deserted center. They cross their fingers in hopes of not getting stopped by the police, who are tolerant and understanding (or maybe just sloppy), but that doesn’t change the fact that people can’t just drive around town without a pragmatic reason and a signed form.
Because it’s Rome—Rome—boom, here come the giant aerial shots of the empty boulevard abutting the Imperial Forum. The lonely Colosseum cowers at the end of the road. Pacifico is channeling his inner Sorrentino here (or maybe just nodding, or quoting, or copying), but in a way he seems to want to reclaim the kitschy grandeur of the place for an altogether different purpose. He wants all this trampled-on history as a backdrop for the Jarmusches of the world, rather than the Scorseses. He aims to give us a monumental city that’s been brought down to earth, to the mumblecore. Less New Pope, more Ghost Dog. All of this is innovative for TV, but writers’ rooms exist for a reason—to fill the dead space, instead of pursuing every opportunity to meander wordlessly.
The couple is in awe of the way the city’s big, touristic heart has been hollowed out by the invisible travelers. The Airbnb economy is on hold, and so is the entire tourist-oriented ecosystem of the city center. The few Romans operating small shops behind half-shut roll-up gates—open for delivery only—are all numb, or kinder than their usual gruff selves. It’s far from the bustling portraits of Italy as depicted by the Neapolitan greats, like Saviano, Ferrante, and, again, Sorrentino. When Sorrentino shoots the monuments, at wide angles, his cinematic statements are as satisfying as ASMR, some kind of cross of Philip Rothian seriousness and Wes Andersonian art direction. Pacifico, on the contrary, puts all the scenery he has at hand to the shallowest possible use. So the Forum, and Via dei Fori, shrink to the size of Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento, but without her trademark light touch.
I understand what Pacifico is up to here. He’s just giving us the hollowness. He’s echoing the previous episode, which was all about Antonioni, and he’s avoiding gathering conclusions. The way I see it, he doesn’t want to be preachy when he’s in no position to be. Wife loses job, stay-at-home Sister is stuck with the kids, Parents are old. All the while he’s just his careless male self, lying in bed all day. So then why is he so ungenerous when it’s time to give the less fortunate characters their due?
Case in point. After the city cautiously reopens on Monday, May 5, he finally gets to see his family again. He waits until Friday to pay them a visit. Why take five full days? Work reasons, deadlines, adjustment to the new reality, maybe his Wife needed some time to get comfortable going out again. Finally, early Friday morning the two drive over to the street where he grew up, but when they get there they won’t be persuaded to go upstairs. They stay outside on the sidewalk and inside the piazza to minimize risk. The scene as a whole is strained and confounding. He waits five days, then shows up at a random time? What are the stakes? It’s always so unclear. This reunion, which the entire story of the birthday was supposed to be building to, proves shockingly underwhelming—an irredeemable flaw for the episode and perhaps the series as a whole. Pacifico takes some pictures of the 5-year-old twins playing with strangers’ dogs. The new homeschooling regimen has made them more balanced, more confident, and warmer than he was at their age, or than most kids are today. (Is Pacifico endorsing the weirder fringe theories from the right re: the harmfulness of public education? I’ll have to put a pin in that.) He plays hide and seek with his 8-year-old niece, who has a hard time keeping herself from giving him a hug, and he feels sorry when her aunt, the Wife, jokingly criticizes her for this. But the Wife is uneasy because the Niece is being careless about social distancing. This scene takes place in a public square that looks like a rendering of a New York City urban redevelopment from the 1990s—vague and not totally realistic. A soldier strolls around with his machine gun, taking a break from his post outside some important person’s building.
Is this supposed to be some kind of big statement about the fundamental unhappiness of the rich? Is what we’re seeing a post-apocalyptic version of what used to be called the neurotic comedy of manners? Don’t these people have any redeeming qualities? Does this show owe too much to Succession’s worst European tendency, its mistrust of its own characters? Is it ideology, or does he just hate his family? No questions are answered; the episode plods along.
The only person who seems to escape Pacifico’s judgment is the Niece. “You know, I was so excited for today,” we hear her tell her uncle. She is the only person in the family who’s allowing herself any unguarded emotion. The twins are also cute, especially in the way they choose animals over humans. The barrenness of the yard and the situation is more reminiscent of Israeli show Shtisel—the public spaces, the sadness, the alternation of maddening adherence to quixotic social norms and regulations and then the burst of disobedience—than the aforementioned ecstatic Neapolitan wave.
Also, where are the Parents? Do they not care? It takes them two more hours to get ready, and they only come down at the very last moment. We learned about the Father’s hip replacement surgery in the first episode, and now he’s on the street with his crutches and is happy to see his son and his daughter-in-law. But they are all just standing in the street—the grandchildren and the Sister are gone—and they have the most normcore conversation ever standing next to a parked car, as if a very unusual couple of months hasn’t just come and gone.
Maybe this is a Caro Diario for the pandemic era. But then Caro Diario, Nanni Morretti’s erratic yet endearing ’90s film, was a movie about the end of history, about sleepy post-communist left-wing life in Italy, whereas here we have history aplenty coming down with a vengeance, and Pacifico is unable to weave its high stakes into the small family issues, unable to construct the perfect narrative arc you might expect—and should demand—from prestige television, even in its more artsy, wandering, risk-prone international incarnation.
Still, we have to appreciate any new content, especially the vanishingly few international productions still on the air. And it’s worth saying that from time to time, Pacifico manages to harvest the numb state of people’s synapses and memories for some hilarious dark humor. The Wife has been attending online sign language classes. This puzzles the protagonist. The whole bit is a nice touch that goes nowhere, but it can be very funny. At one point, she’s on a video call asking her teacher: “Sorry, this might sound stupid, but what’s the difference between bathroom and death?” She’s charming, and for that reason I can’t quite buy into her depression. There’s too much vitality there.
And I continue to like the idea that Rome Coronavirus Diary is a show whose every episode is oblivious to the motives and emotions that seemed so crucial in the previous ones. That idea has legs.
But the intelligent absurdism of the series is offset by the ominous sense that it might already have lost its momentum and by another, more infuriating sense that the show will never get anywhere emotionally. So the faithful viewer might end up with no redemption or closure of any kind, when the pandemic is said and done.
I feel dumb quoting late period Seinfeld on this score, but how else can I put it? It was great, until it sucked.
Which path will it choose in the home stretch?
- I don’t know how much longer I can handle the affectation of them not having names.
- Good news for the Wife: the event she was organizing, which was canceled, will now take place in some kind of video form, which has kept her busy and less anxious over the past ten days.
- We learn the mother might have had Covid in January, when she had a bad case of pneumonia that her prudent physician treated thoroughly because he didn’t trust it to go away on its own. Do you think we see her go get a test to see if that was the case? Of course not! Does this open up a thread where we learn more about these first possible instances of the virus? No way!
- Pacifico eats a bit of bone from a polpetta and cracks a tooth. Apparently, there are more cavities to deal with, a consequence of stress and too much lime juice. He schedules an x-ray and a second appointment to the dentist. So random.
May 13, 2020