While realism and recognizable characters are qualities that are often praised on TV shows, most of us don’t really want our entertainment to feel. too much much like real life. This has become truer than ever over the past 18 months, as Covid-19 has curtailed our social lives, saturated our routines with anxiety, and pushed most people into a state of deep pandemic fatigue. No event in recent history has reshaped the world so profoundly, and so it’s no surprise that pop culture is still grappling with how to approach it. On the one hand, no one wants to log into pandemic content. On the other hand, does it get awkward at some point if the TV doesn’t recognize that the world has changed?
At the start of last year’s lockdown, when film and TV production had come to a complete halt with most of society, the distinction was simple: there were shows made in the Before Times, then there were shows. specific to the pandemic like that of Netflix Social distance and free-form Love in the days of Corona, made entirely using remote technology. It was easy to participate or not to participate in these shows, and based on the lukewarm critical reception from both, many withdrew.
As Hollywood slowly came back to life after the months-long shutdown, a debate began to emerge among viewers and creators: Should returning shows acknowledge the pandemic? At that time, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be “Absolutely not”. We were already depressed and exhausted, missed our friends, families and normal routines, turning to entertainment for comfort. If the world had changed so much that it was unrecognizable, at least television could stay the same.
It was easier for some shows than for others. HBO Succession, for example, has always been placed in some sort of alternate reality that closely mirrors the real world, but retains some key differences, including a fictional president. This approach, along with the show’s ambiguous timeline (it’s unclear how much screen time has actually elapsed since the 2018 pilot) allowed season three to ignore the pandemic entirely. Likewise, the Apple TV + Ted lasso, despite being a quarantine hit, exists in a suspended reality that allowed for a perfectly pandemic-free second season.
In contrast, The morning show, also on Apple TV +, has completely redesigned its second season to incorporate the pandemic, but has defined its episodes in the first three months of 2020, the last breath of normalcy. This timing means that Covid is largely being treated as a new minor and a shadow that hangs over the show’s soapy procedures rather than a current danger. None of these solipsistic characters have a clue that a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China is about to turn their world upside down, and aside from a brief truncated script where Daniel (Desean Terry) is sent to Wuhan for Reporting on the situation there, the writers never had to engage much in the pandemic until the finale, when a major figure fell seriously ill with the virus.
Other shows have taken the opposite approach, placing their new seasons entirely in a post-Covid world. In season three of Netflix You, Penn Badgley’s tongue-in-cheek sociopathic narrator makes a few references to the pandemic, noting that her neighbor, an influential blogger mom, had to publicly apologize after throwing a party in the summer of 2020 “while the rest of us was home with hand sanitizer. “But this pandemic summer is clearly over, and there are no signs of masks or social distancing in the fictional Bay Area suburb where the season is set.
HBO Max The sex life of students and Gossip Girl both made similar decisions, firmly referring to the pandemic in the past. “There are a few jokes and lines that acknowledge that Covid has happened”, Student sex life Showrunner Justin Noble said on the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, “But we’re an upbeat production in saying this coming year it’s all gone. It is a vague memory. We got away with it. “
Other shows tackled Covid at the start of their new seasons, but phased it out through their finals. Apple TV + Mythic Quest aired a deservedly acclaimed quarantine episode last spring that saw its characters grapple with isolation, but overtake the pandemic in its second season. “We thought people would be tired of talking about it and living the experience, and they would want to look at Covid in their rearview mirror,” said creator Rob McElhenney. Variety.
Grey’s Anatomy initially approached the pandemic in a more in-depth way than perhaps any other show, centering an entire season on the devastating impact of Covid-19 on medical workers. Season 17, including showrunner Krista Vernoff and lead actress Ellen Pompeo dedicated to healthcare professionals, finds Pompeo’s Meredith Gray fighting for her life on a ventilator, in a coma after contracting the virus while working on the frontlines. But even a medical drama like Grey’s can’t handle so many pandemic narratives, and so in the current 18th season, Covid is in the past.
Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that a “post-Covid world” may never exist in reality. Experts now widely predict that eradicating the virus that causes Covid-19 is unrealistic, and that the virus is more likely to become endemic, meaning it will stay, but pose less of a threat over time. Wearing masks in public spaces, regular booster shots, and some degree of travel uncertainty are likely to remain. So, will there come a time when pop culture has to describe Covid-19 not as a finite event, but as part of our ongoing reality?
Creators are starting to recognize the disconnect. Grey’s episodes are now limited by the following disclaimer: “This season, Grey’s Anatomy depicts a fictional post-pandemic world that represents our hopes for the future. In real life, the pandemic still ravages the medical community. It’s a moving, even heartbreaking, statement that highlights the gulf between this optimistic fictional world and our reality.
This escape approach – putting Covid in the rearview mirror – can be essential for storytellers. Perhaps the vast majority of television will soon be set in an alternate reality, where Covid-19 never existed, or had a clear beginning, middle and end.
The television is nice because it is built around structured arches. In any given episode or season, there is usually one inciting incident, a series of dramatic escalations and crises, and a climax. Obstacles are fought, overcome or not, and there is always some sort of resolution. It wouldn’t be nice to see the characters run into the same intractable problem over and over again, sometimes hoping they would overcome it, only to find themselves in limbo every time. There is nothing narratively satisfying about our new pandemic normal. So maybe putting Covid in the rearview mirror is the only way pop culture can cope. If we never get the triumphant and unambiguous return to normal that we all once hoped for, at least we’ll be able to watch it on TV.
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