Last June, when the Grey’s Anatomy writer’s room practically came back together after a long break, Krista Vernoff, the longtime showrunner, asked whether the upcoming season should include the coronavirus pandemic or not.
“I’m like 51-49 because I’m not doing the pandemic,” she told her staff. “Because we’re all so sick of it. We are all so scared. We are all so depressed. And we’re getting to ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ for relief, right? “
But she was open to counter arguments. And when she asked for volunteers to coax them into doing it, she recently recalled that hands went up in almost every zoom window. The show’s senior surgical advisor, Naser Alazari, made the most compelling case: the pandemic was the story of his life, he told her from the clinic where he treated Covid-19 patients. “Grey’s” had the responsibility to tell.
Hospital dramas, first responder shows, situation comedies, and court cases had similar debates in rooms across the Internet. Ignoring the events of spring and summer – the pandemic, America’s belated race reckoning – meant placing prime-time series outside (well, even more outside) of observable reality. But including them meant exhausting possibly already exhausted viewers and covering telegenic stars from the eyes down.
It also meant predicting the future. David Shore, the showrunner of ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” knew that scripts written in the summer won’t air until the fall. “It’s a challenge that you normally don’t have to face,” he said, speaking over the phone. “When you’re writing a story, you usually know what the world is going to be like.”
From October, when the script series returned and last month’s winter premieres followed, viewers could see the variety of approaches. Some shows made the pandemic a star, others put her in a background role. Others wrote it out of existence. Showrunners and executive producers had to guess exactly what the audience wanted most: television that reflects the world as we experience it? Or is that distracting, especially when this world seems to be on fire and is literal at times?
As someone who has frantically toggled between terrible news and “Parks and Recreation” episodes for the first few months of the pandemic, and still tense up at every scene where characters step into an interior space exposed, this remains an open one Question. But the people who actually do television had to find answers.
Most sitcoms, especially newcomer series, wrote about the pandemic, often with a view to reruns. “I’ve always believed in making comedies that didn’t have a big timestamp,” wrote Chuck Lorre, creator of popular CBS comedies past and present (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom”) in an email . “A reason to avoid pandemics and bell-bottoms.”
“Mr. Mayor,” which premiered on NBC last month, put it in a punchline: “Dolly Parton bought everyone a vaccine,” says Ted Danson’s political freshman.
“Last Man Standing,” a Fox family sitcom starring Tim Allen, decided to move on for two years between seasons. Looking ahead to a debut in January, showrunner Kevin Abbott suspected that by then most decent pandemic jokes would have been told and that scripts reflecting reality would get too dark.
“People are already depressed,” he said. “We really didn’t want to add anything to that.” Skipping the pandemic also meant the show didn’t have to worry about upset an audience that is conservative like the show’s star. (Allen came out as a pro mask, at least on Twitter.)
“It was better for us not to really have to deal with it because that’s not something our show is particularly good for,” Abbott said over the phone.
Other comedies did not have this luxury, like the more politically active “Black-ish” or “Superstore”, which is populated with important working-class characters.
“Our show is in a store,” wrote Jonathan Green, a “superstore” showrunner, in an email. “We had the feeling that it could actually be distracting if things continued as usual.” He and the other showrunner, Gabe Miller, felt compelled to point out the impact the pandemic had on retail workers. Since “Superstore” is a sitcom, not a medical drama, they felt they could do it with a light hand if those hands weren’t busy hoarding toilet paper.
Hospital shows, of course, had to deal with this directly. “The Good Doctor” premiered in a coronavirus-heavy two-part play and then shot forward in time.
“It would have been crazy to just ignore the pandemic,” Shore said. “On the other hand, it would have been exhausting for us and our spectators to go through a whole season.”
The Fox drama “The Resident” addressed it in a season premiere that ended with scenes from a coronavirus-free future where the rest of the season takes place. A show with a case-of-the-week ethos couldn’t dwell on the virus, said Amy Holden Jones, a creator who spoke on the phone. “Medically speaking, what you can do about Covid is limited.”
But Grey’s Anatomy has been fighting the pandemic all season, and some of its main characters, including Ellen Pompeos Meredith Gray, have fallen ill.
“I thought if we did that, we did it,” Vernoff said, speaking over the phone from the set. “We don’t know what medicine will look like after Covid. We’re not jumping into an imaginary future. “
Even so, she and the writers built in narrative relief, like fantasy seaside sequences and a few ordinary emergencies, though it’s not like a segment of teenagers who have been horribly burned by wildfire offers much serenity. (“Fair enough,” Vernoff replied when I mentioned this to her.)
Getting involved in Covid-19 stories gives the series an array of gravity, gravity, and frisson of the real. It can also really mess with your storylines. When “This Is Us” ended its fourth season shortly before its shutdown last spring, the first episodes of its fifth season were already being written. The inclusion of the pandemic meant Dan Fogelman, the showrunner, had to make significant changes. Suddenly, family members could no longer fly carelessly to see each other. Pregnancy and adoption stories also had to be adjusted.
“It became a real challenge for us as writers and storytellers to say, ‘OK, we’re going to own this pandemic,” said Fogelman over the phone. “But we’re also going to try to tell the exact story we planned for six years to have.”
Other series initiated big and small changes. “Superstore” moved its break room scenes to a more airy warehouse so that its characters could create social distance. “Grey’s Anatomy” dressed the lawn in front of the authors’ bungalow as Meredith Gray’s backyard. Fox’s first responder shows “9-1-1” and “9-1-1: Lone Star” have improved their disaster games.
“These shows have a very forced reality,” said Tim Minear, creator of both “9-1-1” series, in a telephone interview. “At some point in the last eight or nine months, reality has gotten stronger than my shows. So I have to find that balance. (That explains why the season premiere destroyed a significant part of Hollywood and why it felt so cathartic.)
Masks, especially when worn responsibly, pose particular problems. Television depends on the close-up, medium shot, and what many showrunners refer to as “face acting.” If you cover everything from the nose down, less of the face can function.
“I don’t think it’s fun to watch TV with half of Angela Bassett’s face covered all the time,” Minear said.
Medical shows seem to have made it easier because the audience is used to watching doctors mask themselves in the operating room. “We do long sequences in which we talk about feelings over an open body,” said Vernoff.
But hospital dramas also want to find responsible ways to expose characters, which sometimes means infecting them. (Pompeo has asthma. These fever-induced beach scenes are designed to get both the character and the actor to breathe.)
Several showrunners detailed detailed “mask plans” in which face coverings were traced character by character and scene by scene. Christopher Silber, the showrunner for CBS’s “NCIS: New Orleans,” wrote in an email that displaying proper hygiene could annoy audiences suffering from pandemic fatigue. But it was worth it.
“The responsibility we felt was to reflect on the world we now live in,” he said. (Fortunately, it’s a world that can still involve a torpedo attack.) Some shows advocate wearing masks in their narrative, such as in ABC’s “For Life,” where a main character disapproves of people who don’t wear them.
The pandemic has also changed prime-time ranks in less noticeable ways. There are now more outdoor scenes and fewer indoor shots. “People don’t want you in their homes. They don’t want you in their business, ”said Glenn Gordon Caron, the showrunner for the CBS courtroom drama“ Bull ”. CBS’s “All Rise” has fewer lawsuits. “9-1-1” limits its crowd scenes. Background players are reduced, reused and recycled.
In general, shows have reduced their seasonal orders and are filming faster and with fewer settings to better minimize the risk to the cast and crew. The community penetration on set remains low, but there have still been some horrors. ABC’s For Life, which studied the impact of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests on the prison population in the second half of its season, was suspended for two weeks after a laboratory error produced multiple positive results.
“We shot a couple of Saturdays to make up for that,” the show’s creator Hank Steinberg said on a video call.
If the number of cases increases and the virus mutates, so do the shows. More series will find ways to write beyond the pandemic. Since even the story of a lifetime doesn’t last forever, a future of variants and slow vaccine introductions remains unpredictable, and who really wants to watch another intubation?
But in a media-saturated culture of “pictures or it didn’t happen”, there is much to be said to confirm a shared and terrible experience, even with commercial breaks. Until everyone says “I have my Covid-19 vaccine!” Sticker that shows persistence will hold our hands – metaphorically because actually holding hands is a terrible idea right now – that will reflect our reality and help us endure it, case by case, laugh for laugh, mask for mask.