How TV shows are handling COVID-19 stories: The good, the bad and the just plain sad
Network TV is back, but just like everything else in our new reality, it looks a little different.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of our lives, and Hollywood is no exception. The beginning of the pandemic in the spring shut down filming of nearly all TV shows due to safety concerns. Over the summer, series began to inch back into production (although not all of them made it), and those set in the present day were left with a harrowing decision: Whether to include the pandemic in the fictional stories.
While bringing the global tragedy into a medium that is designed for entertaining and escapism is not for all, some TV series writers have chosen to dive headfirst into pandemic storylines, (Others, including Chuck Lorre's CBS sitcoms, are ignoring it entirely, which sacrifices realism for comfort and has its own benefits and problems). A few series are able to find empathy, humor and catharsis in the COVID-19 era. But for others, bringing a deadly pandemic into the mix is ill-advised, terrible behavior modeling and a huge downer.
No TV show that decided to include the pandemic is really excelling right now. Instead, most are treading water or sinking into an abyss. On ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," NBC's "Superstore" and "This Is Us," COVID-19 is incorporated with only some exploitation and occasional awkwardness. But others, including NBC's trio of "Chicago" series, "All Rise" on CBS and even usual ripped from the headlines stalwart "Law & Order: SVU," adding coronavirus stories spells disaster.
One of the biggest issues TV characters face is one of the biggest issues confronting the public: How to follow safety guidelines. Sure, behind the scenes studios are spending millions following strict protocols on set. But once the cameras start rolling, mask-wearing, testing and physical distance are hit or miss.
From an artistry standpoint, it's understandable that directors don't want to cover up the bottom half of an actor's face, hampering their performance and muffling the sound of the dialogue. It's also hard to shoot most scenes if everyone is sitting 6 feet apart, or main characters from different households never congregate in person.
So when Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) of "SVU" wears her mask into a hospital but then takes it off to interview an unmasked domestic violence victim while leaning over her bed, it makes sense if you know what goes into good TV. But it is terrible modeling for public health.
On medical shows, the mask issue is even more distracting. Would the doctors and nurses of Gaffney Chicago Medical Center, the setting for "Chicago Med," really remove their masks when inside the hospital, as if their front-line co-workers were less likely to have the virus and not among the most exposed members of the population?
There is a sad realism to the irregular safety measures and masking on the series – not everyone is following guidelines perfectly, or at all. But it seems woefully irresponsible to portray such behavior on TV shows with wide audiences, as if confirming our private beliefs that our friends and family can't infect us at a time when cases nationwide are surging, in large part due to private gatherings.
If they can't model ethical behavior, TV shows should at least tell compelling stories about COVID-19. But some aren't even doing that much.
On "Grey's," a series familiar with death, catastrophe and extreme emotions, incorporating COVID-19 into the lives of the Grey Sloan staff feels more natural than most other series, if still odd. Giving Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) the virus also somehow works, considering there is no tragedy the poor protagonist has not suffered in the show's 17 seasons. It is tough to watch the doctors cry out in pain when patients die, but it is not relentless.
The most successful series on the comedy side is "Superstore," where incorporating the new normal is relatively seamless. The employees at a Walmart-like big box store are (like doctors on "Grey's") front-line workers. The season premiere captures how corporations praised their "essential" employees while not actually protecting them. Jokes about toilet paper shortages, "Tiger King" and masks work here, too, mostly because the long-running sitcom has built up enough trust with its audience to find the funny in our international nightmare.
With less of a direct connection to COVID-19, other series struggle to balance regular storylines and pandemic events. ABC's "The Conners" and "Black-ish" have characters working on the front lines but swing too often from jokes to sober conversations. Crime and lawyer series "SVU," CBS's two "FBI" series and "All Rise" turn the pandemic into a backdrop for business-as-usual mysteries and court cases, but it doesn't feel organic for so much to remain unchanged in those fictional worlds other than the occasional mask or temperature check.
Somewhere in the middle are series like NBC's "This Is Us," which at different points embrace or ignore the pandemic, whichever is most convenient for the storytelling. Quarantining together speeds up Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Madison's (Caitlin Thompson) relationship, for instance. But when Rebecca (Mandy Moore) wanders, without a mask, into a restaurant of umasked workers and patrons (would it even be open for indoor dining?), no comment is made about the risk to her as a senior.
The problem is, the pandemic isn't over, so writers have jumped into a major plot twist with no idea how it will end. There is no benefit of hindsight to aid storytelling choices, and there is no easy way to predict changes wrought by our new reality.
The unfortunate truth is that even the best pandemic TV is still pandemic TV – sad, uncomfortable and listlessly waiting for it to end.