How Network TV Shows Are Coping With Covid

Alan Sepinwall
·13 min read

Early in Monday night’s season premiere of The Good Doctor, the action on the ABC medical drama pauses for an onscreen disclaimer that reads, “This episode of The Good Doctor is a made-up story about a real battle still being fought. Honor the heroes: doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, many of whom have given their lives. Do your part. Wear a mask.”

The request for viewers to please, for the love of all that is decent and sane, wear a mask might seem like the more important aspect of the message. But the “made-up story about a real battle still being fought” is the part that all of television is wrestling with at the moment.

To Covid, or not to Covid? That is the question that has started playing out across the broadcast networks’ scripted comedies and dramas over the last week and a half. The first network-TV episodes made since Hollywood production was allowed to resume, they have mostly opted to bring their fictional universes close to ours by having their characters live in a world hobbled by this pandemic. Though the degree to which this handful of early entrants — also including This Is Us, Superstore, The Conners, and black-ish — have opted to Covid have varied.

During the long production shutdown that stretched from March to late August, it was fair to wonder how much, if at all, scripted series would want to incorporate the pandemic, and some of the other nightmares of 2020, into their stories. There was no roadmap for this scenario. The only even vaguely comparable precedent happened nearly 20 years ago, and ultimately wasn’t all that similar.

The first scripted television episode to obliquely deal with the tragedy of 9/11 was “Isaac and Ishmael,” an out-of-continuity West Wing episode where the White House was on lockdown following a terrorist incident, providing an opportunity for Josh, President Bartlet, and other staffers to lecture a group of visiting school kids on the origins of religious extremist terrorism. “Isaac and Ishmael” aired just three weeks and a day after the World Trade Center fell. A few weeks later, Third Watch, an NBC drama about Manhattan first responders, presented a pair of episodes more directly about 9/11: the first set in the hours leading up the collapse of the Twin Towers, the other taking place 10 days later, depicting the extraordinary levels of grief and exhaustion the cops, paramedics, and firefighters were struggling with in the aftermath of losing so many of their own. The episodes aired at a time when real firefighters were still looking for the remains of their colleagues in the rubble at Ground Zero.

And, for a while, that was it for scripted TV and 9/11. Some shows acknowledged it in small ways (the Towers no longer appeared in Tony’s rearview mirror in The Sopranos‘ opening credits; NYPD Blue did a few stories about crimes tied to things that happened in the city on that horrible day), while others ignored it altogether, even if they were set in New York. (Monica and the other Friends lived only a short walk from Ground Zero, but the event never came up.) It would take nearly three years for an American show, the FX firefighting drama Rescue Me, to make the tragedy of that day and its aftermath into explicit, primary subject matter.

It’s not hard to understand why dramas and sitcoms largely ignored 9/11. While it was at that point the greatest national catastrophe of many of our lifetimes, it was also a contained event, taking place on a single morning, in three locations within a couple of hundred miles of each other in the northeastern United States. There was simply no need for ER or Buffy the Vampire Slayer to tell stories about what their heroes were doing when they learned that the Towers had been hit, and the chance of it seeming in poor taste was high.

But this pandemic is a calamity that dwarfs 9/11 in so many ways. It is everywhere here in the States, and has been here for nearly a year and counting. It has, at this writing, killed 75 times the number of Americans who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93. It is the defining, unavoidable fact of all of our lives right now, and will continue to be for quite some time. That leaves one of two options for any show set in the present that is making new episodes anytime soon: 1) ignore the pandemic altogether; or 2) make it part of the story.

Each approach has its pros and cons. Ignoring the pandemic provides some blessed escapism at a time when we all could really use some, but it also feels untenable for any show that tries to grapple with current events and the way we live now. Working the pandemic into fictional storylines, meanwhile, continues each show’s license for relevance, but carries with it many attendant risks. Get the tone wrong, and you’ve just trivialized a virus that has killed 230,000 Americans and counting. Even if you get it right, the pandemic details could easily render every other aspect of your show trivial in comparison. And then there’s the thorny question of how many viewers want to be confronted by the depressing state of things when they switch on their stories.

The first series to dip their toes into these precarious waters did it the only way that was safe in the early months of the pandemic: virtually. A Parks and Recreation reunion special and a bonus episode of Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest had their characters interacting only via video chat (except in rare cases where actors were quarantining together, like real-life Parks couple Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally). The Parks special was fun, and the Mythic Quest episode genuinely great, with the show’s video-game-company setting lending itself very well to the Zoom format. (It also veered into the dramatic end of things, which has been the series’ strength so far.) Most of the Zoom episodes and shows that followed — including Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, Netflix’s Social Distance, and NBC’s Connecting — have not been up to that standard. They played more like what they were: series hastily thrown together as filler programming at a time when the TV business didn’t know when it would be feasible to mount more traditional productions.

Last week, though, the broadcast networks finally began debuting some of the series that have been able to film under new (and expensive) coronavirus safety precautions. And pretty much all the contemporary shows to premiere so far (as opposed to something set in the Eighties like The Goldbergs) have attempted to weave the pandemic — and some of the other nightmares of 2020 — into their fictional universes.

The degree to which they’ve directly confronted the pandemic has been all over the map, though.

The two-hour This Is Us premiere, for instance, depicted events in the lives of the Pearson family over several months from the start of the quarantine in March to Randall, Kevin, and Kate’s birthday at the end of August. Characters were occasionally masked when interacting with strangers, and the action sometimes paused so that one Pearson or another could explain the Covid precautions they had taken to allow them to be unmasked in a room with their loved ones(*). Mostly, though, the premiere treated the pandemic as a complication to problems the characters were already dealing with, including Kevin and Randall’s estrangement, Kate and Toby’s plans to adopt another child, Rebecca’s concerns about senility, etc. The real-life story that was far more palpable was the killing of George Floyd and all the protests and atrocities that followed. (This not only leaned on the show’s best actors, Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson, but its most renewable source of dramatic conflict: the inescapable sense of otherness that Randall feels as a black man adopted into a white family.) At one point, Beth lists all the stresses their nuclear family is dealing with: “the protests, and the masks, the ‘rona, the Karens, my failing dance studio, and our crumbling finances…” It could seem awkward to incorporate the pandemic and protests in with the characters’ specific worries, but these are conversations everyone has been having with their loved ones since the spring, and This Is Us largely managed to ground the show in reality without exploiting it.

(*) And even that was a bit wobbly. At one point, Rebecca has an episode of dementia and winds up in a restaurant without her mask on, surrounded by other unmasked people, and is brought back to the family cabin by two unmasked police officers, yet no one acts like she’ll have to be quarantined again for a bit before she can be close to her relatives.

Other returning favorites were much more explicitly about the virus. The Conners returned with the family under even more financial stress than usual, thanks to the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the economy. Superstore devoted its season premiere to chronicling all the ways that “essential workers” are exploited and endangered by their bosses and customers. And the main conflict of last week’s black-ish had Dre desperately trying to prove that his work as an advertising executive was just as essential as what Rainbow does at the hospital. That the latter two sitcoms feature central characters who work on the front lines of the pandemic made the conflict all but impossible to ignore, and both managed to place these problems front and center even as they found dark humor within it. (The Cloud 9 staffers, for instance, start hoarding toilet paper and other supplies in the ceiling once they realize their corporate bosses won’t let them buy things before the customers have cleaned out the store.)

The Good Doctor is the first hospital drama to return with episodes made since Hollywood shut down in March, and it dives right into the deep end. Like the Superstore and This Is Us premieres, it spans the early months of the quarantine, as we see Shaun and the other doctors slowly but surely adjust to their overwhelming new reality. Most are quarantining away from their loved ones — and cancer survivor Dr. Glassman is forced to run the hospital remotely rather than risk infection on site — and flooded with patients for whom they can do precious little, especially in the early stages, when they’re still learning how the virus is transmitted and how best to treat it.

The subject matter is even more unavoidable here than on last week’s returning shows, just as Grey’s Anatomy and the other hospital shows returning later this month will have no choice but to tell Covid stories. But you can feel the strain on The Good Doctor throughout tonight’s episode and next week’s. Some parts are dramatically potent, like a subplot where a prominent hospital staffer gets infected. But the attempts to incorporate the show’s usual lighter moments — say, Glassman and his wife Debbie getting on each other’s nerves while he works at home, or Shaun and new girlfriend Lea feeling sexually frustrated while apart — are much clumsier than when black-ish or Superstore tell jokes in a Covid world. Those shows are better at humor to begin with, but they’re also not going to quite so dark a place, from which the transitions are so ungainly. But even more dramatic Good Doctor subplots, like Claire continuing to grapple with the death of Dr. Melendez, feel pretty lightweight when compared to the parts of the show that more directly brush up against reality.

That’s going to be the complicated balancing act everyone will have to do if they don’t want to ignore the pandemic altogether. Shows like The Conners or Superstore or black-ish already deal with complicated real-world issues. They are built to cover this territory, whether at the forefront of stories or in the background. This week’s Superstore is mostly about saying goodbye to America Ferrarra’s Amy, but everyone is still using PPE in the store, and there’s a running gag about how hard it is to keep the shopping carts sanitized; both this episode and the This Is Us premiere suggest completely viable ways to acknowledge the pandemic while not being overwhelmed by it.

The medical shows will have it tougher, just as returning cop shows will when they do (or do not) talk about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the rest of this year’s law enforcement-related ugliness. There’s a tonal shift towards the end of next week’s Good Doctor that suggests an attempt to do the same thing as Superstore and get back to business as sorta-usual, even as Covid patients continue to arrive and precautions continue to be followed. It may just be an optimistic passage before the hospital is again under siege in ensuing episodes, but it feels clumsy in the moment.

Once you open the door and let Covid into your fictional reality, it’s not easy to shut it again. It’s hard to blame the storytellers, like sitcom mogul Chuck Lorre, who have decided to sidestep the pandemic altogether. Lorre’s upcoming CBS series, B Positive, has one main character who regularly goes to kidney dialysis, while the other works at an eldercare facility; it’s initially distracting as hell that nobody is wearing masks or other PPE, but that show and others may simply be better off not trying to shoehorn in the pandemic if the creators aren’t prepared to be very delicate about every aspect of it.

Looking back on those few 9/11-themed episodes, The West Wing story felt patronizing in the extreme even when it aired, and is widely considered a series low point now. The Third Watch episodes were much better, but still rough around the edges — understandable, given how soon after the attack they were produced, and how much that show leaned on real first responders for both technical advice and story ideas. It’s not hard to understand why almost every other show flinched from confronting that day for quite a while.

Great comedy and drama can be built out of facing what’s happening in the world right now, no matter how sad, no matter how scary. But some wounds are so big, and cut so deep, that we need time to see and address them properly. We’re still in this pandemic, and will be for the foreseeable future. Escapism can be very welcome in a difficult time, but so can fiction that reflects our own lives. The degree of difficulty in this case feels incredibly high. We’ll have to wait and see which shows are up to this challenge and which may have been better off remaining unmasked the whole time.

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