How is the TV industry handling depictions of COVID-19?

How is the TV industry handling depictions of COVID-19?
Source: “Grey’s Anatomy," ABC

We’ve been going through a lot as a society the past year and a half. If you haven’t noticed, there has been a pandemic obliterating life as we know it, and every time it seems like things are improving, another variant pops up and everyone forgets how to be considerate of those around them.

Even with multiple types of COVID-19 vaccinations available for free and without an appointment at drugstores all over the United States, only half of the country is currently vaccinated. It seems like this will never end, and it completely sucks. Now, why would anyone want to relive this time through fictional media?

That’s the issue with long-form realistic television shows: if a television series is set in contemporary times and is going to include certain contextualization of the zeitgeist, will they include anything about the pandemic? Will we see COVID-19 on TV, and how? It would seem like a massive oversight to just pretend that this massive global event never happened.

At the same time, many people watch TV to be entertained and to partake in a certain level of escapism from the everyday challenges of their lives. Seeing the tragic events of this pandemic unfold on our TV screens may just be too much for a lot of people. Or it may come across as tasteful – or perhaps offensive, if mishandled by the production teams.

So, which direction do representations of COVID-19 on TV seem to be taking?

The newer shows that everyone is watching

Starting with the show everyone is always talking about – HBO’s “Succession” – it would work against the central conceit of this show if they didn’t integrate the COVID-19 pandemic into the plot of its long-awaited third season. Because the media has played such a big part in spreading both information and misinformation and in contributing to mass hysteria, a television series revolving around the dangers of media monopoly and the familial politics that influence this monopoly would absolutely need to address COVID-19.

Back in 2020, Sarah Snook (aka Shiv Roy), described the approach that the “Succession” team will most likely be taking. She explained, “We want to see the Roys doing the thing that they’ve been doing that we love, not pivoting towards a pandemic story.”

Still, the pandemic will not be completely sidestepped, as the show’s creator “wants to be delicate about it and just classy” regarding the events of the past 18 months. We won’t know for sure how much of the plot will be affected by COVID-19, but audiences can expect to at least see face masks and hand sanitizer doing some major legwork, at the very least.

It seems that HBO’s reboot of “Gossip Girl” is taking a similar approach, peppering in COVID-related mentions without making the pandemic a central part of the plot. Perhaps it would have been interesting to see how the theme of privilege that “Gossip Girl” engages with could offer insight into how the wealthy elite of New York City escaped when that was the epicenter of the pandemic. However, that also seems like it may have been out of place in such a teen-centric social drama.

Another massive current hit, “Ted Lasso,” doesn’t seem to address the pandemic at all. The Apple+ show about an overly optimistic, somewhat mixed up soccer coach was not able to integrate COVID-19 into its plot. Because the titular protagonist, Ted, is an American living in the United Kingdom, the entire pandemic could’ve completely eviscerated the central plot mechanism of this series. Not to mention issues with international travel and with the sports entertainment industry, as well. The pandemic is not even mentioned within the premise of the show’s second season, which was released earlier this summer.

Long-running favorites – warning: mild spoilers below

Although newer programming appears to be tiptoeing around the pandemic while finding its footing, long-running hits are taking another interesting approach. Notably, fan-favorite “Grey’s Anatomy” transplanted COVID-19 majorly into its latest season.

It’s not necessarily out of pocket for a medical drama to address a public health issue. In fact, that seems on-brand. And “Grey’s Anatomy” really invested its plot in the pandemic this year. Obviously, the hospital setting of “Grey’s Anatomy” would force the characters of the show, who are medical professionals, to interact with COVID-19 patients among other things like vaccination and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. This isn’t where the integration ends, however.

Spoiler alert: Protagonist Meredith Grey even caught COVID-19 and is in critical condition with it. While this kind of representation can play as a reminder that no matter who you are, you are capable of catching this disease, seeing the pandemic used as a plot device in this way may also come across as crass. People actually did die from COVID-19 … in fact, people are still dying; it’s not just a catalyst for character development or something to drive up ratings. Still, these stories need to be told, and critics seem to be in agreement that “Grey’s Anatomy” handles this sensitive topic with care.

Another episodic drama that has a focus on the pandemic is “Law & Order: SVU.” Premiering earlier in 2021, it became immediately obvious that this show was taking a rather strange approach in handling COVID-19 on TV. Its latest season (No. 22, actually), engages with the pandemic in New York. Masks are present from the get-go, but it seems like no one really uses PPE properly, not even the main cast.

While it appears that the production team attempted to include as many COVID-19 references as possible into the show, it is also clear that they did not want the realities of the pandemic to impact how people communicate on screen. They’re using masks, but they’re not using them in the way that anyone is advised to do so. This is perhaps the most bizarre representation of the pandemic on fictional TV thus far.

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