With his new Netflix special, Bo Burnham encapsulates the experience of living through a pandemic as a mad emotional lonely poet
Isolation and confinement movies have existed for decades in various forms. They are very effective stories in terms of budgetary constraints and narrative focus. They can be a fun challenge for writers, directors, and performers alike to construct a satisfying story within the parameters of a single space. And as audience members, we are kept on our toes wondering how we’ll be surprised with such limited options for the piece to take us through.
Some of my favorite movies throughout the years have been micro-budget or stripped down productions putting actors in a single room and letting them act. 2013’s Coherence always comes to mind, a quasi-sci-fi tale of potential doppelganger neighbors during a blackout, shot in sequential order with story beats being revealed to the actors as they were filmed.
The Isolation Genre
The Lighthouse, Ex Machina, Gravity, The Shining, and The Breakfast Club are all personal favorites of mine with varying degrees of difficulty and success in terms of telling an entire story set within a single location. Genre thrills and ensemble sparks help each of these carry their narrative momentum.
Something more along the scope of Cast Away or Moon is closer to what Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special, Inside, resembles. Inside is not a movie in the traditional sense as these are. I mean, Cast Away was a huge box office success made possible by the movie star charisma of Tom Hanks completely alone without even a musical score to assist. Its bookends help it not be a true confinement movie. Moon is closer to that, placing Sam Rockwell at the center of an isolation suspense thriller set on a lunar base.
We’ve been living in a confinement movie, haven’t we?
In the Pandemic Era we have all been surviving in for over a year now, it seems our daily lives have become the most excruciatingly boring confinement movies. Isolation is blunted and blurred by endless digital connection, frying our brains with an endless drip of email, zoom, netflix, instagram, twitter, facetime, and on and on and on.
With Hollywood frozen and new movies pushed further into the future again and again, the line between the stories we consumed on our screens and the horror of a very real virus outside the safety of our homes was at once incredibly stark and indecipherable. We either wanted to escape the real world as much as possible with comfort rewatches and the blessing of great TV still being released, or subjected ourselves to pieces directly about the pandemic. Many people started the 2020 lockdown by watching Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller Contagion. I wasn’t one of those people. I resorted to rewatching Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, one of my favorite movies of the last few years. That was the level of terror I was ready to handle at the time.
We got seasons of network TV incorporating the pandemic into their stories, and even a few plays and movies produced and released entirely within the parameters of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the most notable ones were Sam Levinson’s two Euphoria special episodes and Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya. Although not about the pandemic, it wears it on its sleeve with how it is written and produced, depicting a crumbling relationship within the confines of a lavish California oceanside home.
Inside Bo’s Isolation
Now he have Bo Burnham’s Inside, finally. Somewhat out of nowhere, Burnham announced a new stand-up special (if you can even call it that) via social media and that it would be out Memorial Day weekend on Netflix. Fans were excited yet shocked, as it seemed like his 2016 special Make Happy was a send-off as he moved on to make and appear in movies like Eighth Grade and Promising Young Woman, respectively.
Written, filmed, and edited throughout the past year entirely by Burnham himself, Inside is the by far the most artistically expressive and thoughtful depiction of what it has been like to live through the past year I have seen. And it may be the most notable one we get, as audiences want to move on and forget the trauma we have experienced.
Burnham transforms a small cramped room into a kaleidoscopic stage, at once a portal to a campfire in the woods, and a messy music producer bedroom, akin to what Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala recording sessions must look like. He sports a gnarly beard and a half-ponytail, along with a semi-frequent boxers-only outfit that I feel confident saying is just like most of us this past year.
Inside is not a true confinement movie. It’s not technically even a movie in the traditional sense. But I don’t feel super comfortable calling it a stand-up special either, although Burnham has been challenging that notion for the bulk of his career. Inside is a genius reflection of the isolation movie most of us have had to live out day after day for a year, particularly those of us with creative pursuits that have found ourselves with more than enough time to get those reps in. To write, to sing, to play, to paint.
And now comes the anxiety.
Did we just waste a year? How many of us failed to make our own masterworks by aimlessly scrolling social media or watching movies? Was it really enough to just survive the pandemic? Must we make it out the other side with a creative distillation of our emotional peaks and valleys? What do we have to show for a year spent in isolation? What did we achieve?
Well honey, we’re not all Bo Burnham. Here is a man crippled by his simultaneous need and fear of an audience. Hungry to express his thoughts and also angry at himself for not being okay alone. It feels to me like Bo didn’t make this because he wanted to. It really seems like making this was a way to hold on to his sanity. He almost outright says this at one point. It was a way to add structure and meaning to the warped monotony of quarantine time.
For me to simply explain its level of self-reflection and internal struggle would be detrimental to the deep craft and balancing act of ‘Inside.’
What some may find insufferable I find cathartic and touching. As men, we are not taught to be vulnerable and emotional. We are taught to be strong and manly, which for some insane reason society deems equal to stoic and emotionless. Bo Burnham has shown me time after time that it is okay to express complicated emotions. To cry. And especially with the burden of the pandemic piling heavier every day, that strain is amplified. That tug of war between how men are supposed to be and how we truly are. Until we crumble under the weight of it. We want to give up. We want to quit and not go on. Because why should we? The world is fucked up beyond repair.
And yet, we see something like Inside. We see the struggle. The mental health toll of surviving this year. Whether Bo is being fully raw and unfiltered or as performative as ever, it doesn’t really matter. The impact is just the same. We see him cope and hit the same lows we thought we were alone in hitting.
Here is Bo, a white man of privilege, healthy and not dying of COVID or fearing financial detriment. And yet he’s not okay. He’s not happy. The weight of it all is too much. The progress he made post-Make Happy has regressed into the negative. I see myself reflected in him. Luckily I have been to therapy and now find myself on an upswing. But my god did I cry when we get a crossfade shot of early-2020 clean boy Bo and 2021 burly man Bo overlaid on top of each other. The valley separating 29 from 30. A simple image showing us the physical, emotional, and spiritual impact of this past year.
We’re all still here. Still breathing, still waking up every morning. And Bo, on top of giving us some of his best songs both musically and lyrically with his always bitingly dark social commentary, has been able to capture the confinement and isolation of surviving this pandemic in one of the best works of art I have seen in a long time. Props to him. I hope he’s happy.