The Pandemic Is Over, At Least on TV

In real life, we're not out of the woods, but more and more TV shows have started pretending COVID-19 never happened

December 8, 2021 9:56 am
Pandemic TV
The pandemic is still ongoing, but you wouldn't know it from watching TV.
skynesher/Marco Martins

This time last year, it seemed as though every show on TV was determined to shoehorn the COVID-19 pandemic into their scripts. Medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy devoted an entire season to highlighting the toll that the virus took on essential workers and first responders, while network dramas like This Is Us worked in COVID-centric storylines and some frustratingly sporadic mask-wearing. (Why bother showing characters wearing masks at all if you’re going to have them take them off to speak to each other or show them dining maskless indoors at a time when restaurants across the country were still completely shuttered?) A slew of new shows that had COVID-19 baked into their entire premises, like Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, HBO’s Coastal Elites, Netflix’s Social Distance and NBC’s Connecting… guessed (incorrectly) that viewers would find tales of social distancing, lockdowns and Zoom calls relatable and flopped in spectacular fashion.

Now, however, it seems as though TV screenwriters have learned their lesson. Flip on any non-news program these days, and it’s almost like the pandemic never happened. More and more shows are making the choice to leave COVID-19 out of their stories entirely or address it briefly and move on as quickly as possible. Even the ones that leaned hard into COVID-19 plotlines in 2020 have sensed just how sick — no pun intended — audiences are of seeing the pandemic onscreen and pivoted to ignoring it. “This season, Grey’s Anatomy portrays a fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future. In real life, the pandemic is still ravaging the medical community,” reads a disclaimer splashed across the screen before every episode of the Shonda Rhimes medical show this season. Spinoff Station 19, which follows a group of Seattle-based firefighters, features a similar message.

For most recent seasons of shows that filmed during the pandemic, the decision to ignore COVID-19 was an easy one. New seasons of established favorites like Ted Lasso and Sex Education as well as new breakout hits like Only Murders in the Building, Hacks and Squid Game were all filmed while the virus was still raging and set in the present, but none of them make any reference to it, preferring to exist in some sort of alternate reality where it never happened. Of course, integrating the pandemic into any of these shows would have been impossible; we can’t watch Ted Lasso coach soccer in a world where all professional sporting events were canceled or postponed, and shows that are set in schools like Sex Education don’t exactly translate to at-home learning. A show about standup comedy like Hacks requires an audience for its main character, and we have to hope that even the sick mastermind behind Squid Game‘s deadly tournament would agree that housing 456 people in a dorm together during a pandemic — regardless of the fact that they have already signed up to fight to the death — would be ill-advised.

HBO’s Succession made the decision to delay production until they could safely film abroad, allowing the Roy family to continue their travels to luxurious locales like Tuscany in their third season. Prior to the new season’s premiere, showrunner Jesse Armstrong announced that there’d be no signs of COVID-19 present in its episodes because the ultra-wealthy were largely unaffected by the pandemic. “These are really wealthy people,” Sarah Snook, who plays Shiv Roy on the show, explained. “And unfortunately, none of the world’s really wealthy people were going to be affected by the pandemic.”

Still, there were some returning shows that fans were eager to see address COVID. For months, we all speculated how our favorite comedies would mine humor from things like toilet paper shortages, and in April 2020, Vulture even published a lengthy article called “If I Wrote a Coronavirus Episode” in which 37 showrunners, writers and creators from some beloved sitcoms answered questions about how their characters would handle quarantine. We all were eager to see how America’s favorite misanthrope Larry David would react to the forced isolation, but by the time the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm premiered back in October, most viewers had grown weary of pandemic storylines. Perhaps sensing this, the show’s writers opened the season with one brief COVID-related storyline, in which Larry discovers — to his great horror — that his friend Albert Brooks is a “COVID hoarder” with a massive supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer stashed away in his closet. So far, however, that’s the last we’ve heard of anything pandemic-related on the show; after giving us one COVID bit out of a sense of obligation, the show has moved on. Larry dines in restaurants, goes golfing at his country club and attends dinner parties with nary a mask in sight. The new season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia took a similar approach — its debut episode, called “2020: A Year in Review,” saw the gang recalling how they spent their PPP loans from the government, but by Episode 2 it had moved on to pretending the pandemic’s completely over.

Can we really blame them? It’s been almost two years since the world shut down and changed forever, and with a new variant threatening to damper holiday plans, all anyone needs to do to see COVID-19 on TV is flip over to the news. When times are bad, TV provides a much-needed escape. Sometimes you just need to spend an hour or two tuning out the day’s events, whether you’re distracting yourself with the latest buzzy prestige drama or turning off your brain entirely to find comfort in some trashy reality TV.

We all remain painfully aware that the pandemic isn’t over yet. We run into it on a daily basis in real life, whether we’re flashing our vaccine cards to get into a restaurant, masking up on the subway for our commutes to work or scrambling to book our booster appointments before the holidays. We don’t need to see these things reflected back to us on TV to grasp their importance. (At this point, we’re all well aware of masking and social-distancing protocol, and anyone who’s still unvaccinated now is unlikely to be swayed into getting the jab simply because their favorite TV character got it onscreen. If only it were that easy.) All that constantly bombarding us with pandemic storylines does these days is weigh on us. Thankfully, the majority of writers and showrunners seem to have finally realized this; here’s hoping their fictional post-pandemic universes actually align with our reality at some point next year.

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