There have been no press releases or grand announcements, but it would appear that COVID storylines and television shows have consciously uncoupled.
While so many shows used their most recent seasons to awkwardly, often irresponsibly, wedge the pandemic into their storytelling, now most series have abandoned it. From one point of view, this is a terrific development. Let’s all hope we never have to hear characters awkwardly explain how they are “vaccinated” or “tested negative” or have been “strictly quarantining” again.
But still, it’s unsettling. Children under 12 still cannot be vaccinated. Masks are still recommended for all indoor activities. The death toll is still rising. There’s talk of booster shots and a possible winter variant. COVID and its ravaging social, economic, and health effects are ever present.
TV no longer seems interested in addressing our current reality. Yes the medium has always required a willing suspension of disbelief; a fictional comedy or drama is not an accurate reflection of society or even of how the world works. But there is such a disconnect now between the world fictional characters live in and the world we live in. Television has moved on, but we cannot.
Gone now are the COVID-specific shows like the Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, Netflix’s Social Distance, or Spectrum’s The Bite. Gone are the episodes produced entirely on Zoom like the season finale of CBS’s All Rise or the Parks and Recreation reunion special.
Viewers have been now left in a disconcerting limbo as new shows are avoiding COVID entirely or making COVID a bizarre punchline. On a recent episode of FOX’s new series The Big Leap, which is set in a fictional post-COVID utopia, a character laments “It’s starting to feel like quarantine all over again except, you know, I’m finally wearing pants.” Are we at the point where we are making COVID jokes now?
Mindy Kaling’s new HBO Max comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls premieres next month, and when asked during a recent press conference if the pandemic would be addressed at all in the series, showrunner Justin Noble said “There are a couple jokes and lines that acknowledge that COVID occurred, but we are being an optimistic production saying that in this future year it’s all gone. It’s a faint memory.”
Of course it will be years (decades?) until COVID is faint in our collective memory. Like the rest of us, TV producers, writers, showrunners had to scramble to adjust to the new normal. Not only did they have to deal with the logistics of keeping a safe set with strict COVID protocols, they had to figure out exactly how to work the greatest health crisis of our lifetime into their narratives.
In hindsight the two best ways to handle the pandemic were to either go all in or all out with COVID. On Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) spent the majority of last season in a COVID-19 induced coma as the veteran ABC drama wove all aspects of the pandemic into its storytelling. Their doctors consistently wore face shields, patients talked to family members via video calls and characters lost loved ones to the pandemic. Grey’s looked COVID in the eye and did not flinch. This season, episodes of ABC’s Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy are bookended by the statement that both series are now set in a “fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future. In real life, the pandemic is still ravaging the medical community.” While it’s odd to hear the characters on a series so committed to accurately reflecting the pandemic talking about COVID in the past tense, creatively the series could not (and likely should not) have stayed in a COVID world.
On the other end of the spectrum, the pandemic never happened for the police force on ABC’s The Rookie. AppleTV+’s Ted Lasso and his pop-culture one-liners and unbridled enthusiasm were also untouched by COVID-19. Ditto for HBO’s Mare of Easttown, HBO Max’s Hacks, and Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building. But by never ever acknowledging COVID, these shows also never had to clunkily try to explain to its viewers why no one was wearing an N95 mask. And, as much as I might have enjoyed Roy Kent’s take on the f*&cking pandemic, having these shows be blissfully COVID free allowed them to be a great escape for viewers.
The series that fared the worst are those that never acknowledged the pandemic correctly in the first place. So many series awkwardly jammed COVID-19 into their storytelling only to then sporadically decide when social distancing was required and when masks needed to be worn. The medical and police dramas were the worst offenders of this. Shows like NBC’s Chicago Med, Law & Order: SVU, and New Amsterdam had the most casual approaches, with COVID protocols not just changing episode to episode but from scene to scene. On ABC’s The Good Doctor, after a two-episode premiere last season that was steeped in the pandemic, the drama then decided they were going to move to a post-pandemic world. How miraculous! But it felt like a cop out. And at first, the fifth season of NBC’s This Is Us had the Pearson family on so many phone calls because their typical constant cross-country travel wasn’t exactly COVID friendly. But producers soon realized telephone calls don’t make for exciting TV and soon the Pearsons were back to their jet-setting ways as if nothing had happened.
During this time of great unrest and stress, TV has been a comforting constant. And yet now, more than ever, viewers and fictional characters are in parallel universes—one where COVID exists and one where it never did (or where it’s been vanquished). Is that fine for now? Probably? But what about next year or the year after?
Unfortunately, we will be living with the effects of COVID most likely for years to come. In small ways (supply chain issues are guaranteed to make Christmas shopping difficult) and heartbreaking ways (people are still dying), COVID affects our daily lives. We cannot actually transport ourselves to a fictional post-pandemic world—no matter how much we would like to.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.