From 'Pandemic' to 'The Simpsons': Netflix’s new documentary isn’t the first time TV predicted the future

Netflix's new documentary series 'Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak' asks how we would cope with another global killer virus

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Netflix appeared to have channelled its inner Nostradamus last week when it launched the documentary series Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak.

The documentary looks at healthcare systems around the world, and asks how we would cope in the event of the mass outbreak of another global killer virus like Spanish Flu, which infected more than 500 million people between 1918 and 1920.

“When we talk about another flu pandemic happening, it’s not a matter of if, but when,” warns Dr Dennis Carroll, director of USAID’s Emerging Threats Unit, in the show’s trailer.

Meanwhile on the rolling news channels, hours were filled with updates on the coronavirus outbreak as Chinese cities were placed on lockdown, the World Health Organisation debated whether we had an emergency on our hands yet, and reports of possible new cases began to be made globally.

The timing was uncanny, and although even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist surely couldn’t claim that Netflix was in any way responsible for the virus, the web began to fill up with observations on the coincidence, cynical remarks on what convenient publicity the coronavirus had given to Netflix’s latest offering, and even dubious theories that the whole news story was merely an extravagant PR stunt Netflix had arranged for the documentary.

Netflix has, understandably, not even credited such paranoid claims with a response, but this isn’t the first time popular culture has proved strangely prescient about real life events in the very near future. The saying goes that art mirrors life, sometimes with uncanny accuracy, such as in these other examples of cases in which TV and movies have been uncannily close to near-future real life events.

'Black Mirror – Nosedive'

It's probably not a huge surprise that a show like Black Mirror, which consciously places itself as a warning of the dangers of everyday technology, might occasionally seem to be on the verge of predicting the future.

The 2016, season-three episode, Nosedive, however, seems to have been eerily accurate with its depiction of a world in which every aspect of a person's life, from what houses they are allowed to live in to what jobs they can do and where they can eat, is based on social media ratings.

In the episode, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character has a nightmare as she negotiates the minefield of social media approval while attempting to attend her popular friend’s wedding.

A year later in China, reports revealed that the government hoped to have a new “social credit” system fully operational by 2020.

'Gangster Squad'

The first trailer for Gangster Squad, starring Ryan Gosling, was released in May 2012 and raised few eyebrows, despite featuring a violent scene in which characters machine gunned members of the audience at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA through the screen. In July, however, the cinema shootings in Aurura, Colorado took place, and the trailer suddenly appeared in very poor taste.

The trailer was pulled from cinemas, TV and online, and the release date was put back from September 2012 to January 2013 so that the scene, which took place at a crucial point in the movie, could be reshot in a non-cinema environment. Co-star Josh Brolin, however, reassured fans that the new version was “just as violent”.

'Monty Python'

Ground-breaking UK comedy troupe Monty Python have been no strangers to controversy in a five-decade-plus career that has tackled almost every taboo subject on the planet. One of their less well-known moments of controversy came in 1975, when their BBC sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus, aired for the first, and last, time on mainstream US TV.

The show had already achieved underground success in the US when public service broadcaster PBS began airing episodes in 1974, and the following year the ABC network decided to jump on the bandwagon, airing the show's fourth season as two 90-minute specials. The show was heavily edited for the new format, however, including one sketch in particular featuring an inept and odorous US military commander leading the hunt for Mr Neutron, otherwise known as "the most dangerous and terrifying man in the world".

ABC execs were concerned that the sketch might upset the US military – they had already begun their controversial withdrawal following two decades embroiled in the Vietnam War, and the final US troops would leave Saigon in the same year the sketch screened on ABC.

The sketch didn't even mention Vietnam, but its lampooning of US military incompetence was too close to the bone for ABC, who cut it down to a jumble of missed punchlines and nonsensical narrative. Python's Terry Gilliam would later sue ABC, and ensure the show would never be shown in this format again.

'The Simpsons'

The Simpsons has an uncanny knack of predicting future events, though perhaps after 673 episodes and 30 years onscreen we shouldn't be surprised at some uncanny parallels with reality.

An episode from the year 2000 saw Lisa taking over the presidency, and having a huge mess to clear up thanks to the previous president – reality TV star Donald Trump. In a 1997 show, Marge kept a sick Bart entertained with stories from the book Curious George and the Ebola Virus, 17 years before the 2014 Ebola outbreak became front page news.

The 2014 episode You Don't Have to Live Like a Referee, suggested massive corruption inside football's governing body FIFA, and showed Germany winning the World Cup. Later that year, Germany won the World Cup, and in 2015 FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood down, embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Even the show’s paymasters at Fox weren’t safe from the writers’ clairvoyance. A 1998 episode saw the family visiting the 20th Century Fox studios, where a huge sign proudly proclaimed that the media giant was “A Division of Walt Disney Co”. In 2019, Disney successfully took over its rival in one of the biggest deals in Hollywood history.

There could still be more to come – if The Simpsons is to be believed, we'll all have Virtual Reality Food, a ray gun that fires news directly into your brain and robot butlers to look forward to by 2030.