How the Pandemic Is Coming to Prime Time. (Or Not.)

Last June, when the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers room reconvened, virtually, after a longer than usual hiatus, Krista Vernoff, the longtime showrunner, asked whether or not the coming season should incorporate the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m like 51-49 for not doing the pandemic,” she told her staff. “Because we’re all so tired of it. We’re all so scared. We’re all so depressed. And we come to ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ for relief, right?”

But she was open to counterarguments. And when she asked for volunteers to try and talk her into it, she recalled recently, hands went up in nearly every Zoom window. The show’s senior surgical adviser, Naser Alazari, made the most compelling case: The pandemic was the story of a lifetime, he told her, speaking from the clinic where he was treating Covid-19 patients. “Grey’s” had a responsibility to tell it.

In rooms all over the internet, hospital dramas, first-responder shows, situation comedies and courtroom procedurals were having similar debates. To ignore the events of the spring and summer — the pandemic, America’s belated racial reckoning — meant placing prime-time series outside (well, even more outside) observable reality. But to include them meant potentially exhausting already exhausted viewers and covering telegenic stars from the eyes down.

It also meant predicting the future. David Shore, the showrunner for ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” knew that scripts written in the summer wouldn’t air until the fall. “That’s a challenge you really don’t face normally,” he said, speaking by telephone. “Usually, when you’re writing a story, you know what the world’s going to look like.”

Beginning in October, when scripted series began to return, and following through last month’s winter premieres, viewers could see the variety of approaches. Some shows have made the pandemic a star, and some have relegated it to a background role. Others have written it out of existence. Showrunners and executive producers have had to best-guess what audiences most want: Television that reflects the world as we experience it? Or that provides a distraction from it, particularly when that world seems to be on fire and sometimes literally is?

As someone who spent the early months of the pandemic toggling, hectically, between dire news reports and “Parks and Recreation” episodes, and who still tenses up during any scene in which characters enter an interior space unmasked, this remains something of an open question. But the people who actually make TV had to come up with answers.

Most sitcoms, especially newcomer series, wrote around the pandemic, often with an eye toward reruns. “I’ve always been a believer in making comedies that do not carry a heavy time stamp,” Chuck Lorre, the creator of popular CBS comedies past and present (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom”), wrote in an email. “A reason to avoid pandemics and bell bottoms.”

“Mr. Mayor,” which premiered last month on NBC, handled it in a punchline: “Dolly Parton bought everybody a vaccine,” Ted Danson’s novice politico says.

“Last Man Standing,” a Fox family sitcom starring Tim Allen, decided to skip ahead two years between seasons. Looking toward a January debut, the showrunner Kevin Abbott guessed that most decent pandemic jokes would have been told by then and that scripts that reflected reality would skew too dark.

The showrunners of “Superstore” felt a responsibility to show the pandemic’s impact on retail employees.
Trae Patton/NBC

“People are already depressed,” he said. “We really didn’t want to add to that.” Leapfrogging the pandemic also meant that the show wouldn’t have to worry upsetting an audience that, like the show’s star, skews conservative. (Allen has come out, at least on Twitter, as pro-mask.)

“It was for us better not to actually have to deal with it, because that’s not something our show was particularly designed well to deal with,” Abbott said, speaking by telephone.

Other comedies didn’t have that luxury, like the more politically engaged “black-ish,” or “Superstore,” which is populated with essential worker characters.

“Our show takes place in a store,” Jonathan Green, a “Superstore” showrunner, wrote in an email. “We felt like it actually might be distracting if it was business as usual.” He and the other showrunner, Gabe Miller, felt a responsibility to show the pandemic’s impact on retail employees. Because “Superstore” is sitcom, not a medical drama, they felt that they could do it with a light hand, when those hands weren’t busy hoarding toilet paper.

Hospital shows had to face it straight-on, of course. “The Good Doctor” premiered with a coronavirus-heavy two-parter, then shot forward in time.

“It would have been craziness to just ignore the pandemic,” Shore said. “On the other hand, it also would have been exhausting for us and our viewers to walk through it for an entire season.”

The Fox drama “The Resident” addressed it in a season premiere book-ended by scenes set in a coronavirus-free future, where the rest of the season takes place. A show with a case-of-the-week ethos couldn’t linger on the virus, said Amy Holden Jones, a creator, speaking by telephone. “Medically, what you can do about Covid is limited.”

But “Grey’s Anatomy” has spent the whole of its season battling the pandemic, with several of its lead characters, including Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, falling ill.

“I was like, if we’re doing this, we’re doing this,” Vernoff said, speaking by telephone from the set. “We don’t know what medicine is going to look like post-Covid. We’re not leaping into an imaginary future.”

Jack Zeman/Fox

Still, she and the writers built in some narrative relief, like seaside fantasy sequences and a few more ordinary emergencies, though it’s not like a segment involving teenagers horribly burned by a wildfire offered much respite. (“Fair enough,” Vernoff replied when I mentioned this to her.)

To commit to Covid-19 stories lends a series heft, gravity and the frisson of the real. It can also really mess with your story arcs. When “This Is Us” completed its fourth season, just before the shutdown last spring, the first episodes of its fifth were already written. Including the pandemic meant that Dan Fogelman, the showrunner, had to do significant rewrites. Suddenly family members couldn’t cavalierly fly to see one another. Stories of pregnancy and adoption needed adjustment, too.

“That became a real challenge for us as writers and storytellers to say, ‘OK, we’re going to own this pandemic,’” Fogelman said, speaking by telephone. “But we’re also going to try and tell the exact same story that we’ve planned for six years.”

Other series initiated changes both big and small. “Superstore” shifted its break-room scenes to an airier warehouse set so that its characters could social distance. “Grey’s Anatomy” dressed the lawn outside the writers’ bungalow as Meredith Grey’s backyard. Fox’s first-responder shows, “9-1-1” and “9-1-1: Lone Star,” upped their disaster games.

“These shows have a very pushed reality,” Tim Minear, a creator of both “9-1-1” series, said in a phone interview. “Somewhere along the last eight or nine months, reality has become more pushed than my shows. So I have to find that balance.” (Which helps explain why the season premiere destroyed a significant chunk of Hollywood, and also why that felt so cathartic.)

Giovanni Rufino/ABC

Masks, especially when worn responsibly, pose particular problems. Television depends on the close-up, the medium shot and what a lot of showrunners refer to as “face acting.” When you cover everything from the nose down, less face can perform.

“I don’t think it’s fun to watch TV when half of Angela Bassett’s face is covered all the time,” Minear said.

Medical shows have it arguably easier, as audiences are accustomed to watching doctors emote, masked, in the O.R. “We do long sequences where we talk about feelings over an open body,” Vernoff said.

But even hospital dramas want to find responsible ways to let characters unmask, which sometimes means infecting them. (Pompeo has asthma. Those fever-induced beach sequences are designed to let both character and actor take a breath.)

Several showrunners detailed elaborate “mask plans,” tracking facial coverings character by character and scene by scene. Portraying proper hygiene risks irking audiences experiencing pandemic fatigue, Christopher Silber, the showrunner for CBS’s “NCIS: New Orleans,” wrote in an email. But it was worth it.

“The responsibility we felt was to reflect the world that we live in now,” he said. (Happily, it’s a world that can still include a torpedo attack.) Some shows advocate mask-wearing within their narratives, as in ABC’s “For Life,” in which a lead character disapproves of people who don’t wear them.

David M. Russell/CBS

The pandemic has changed prime-time series in less visible ways, too. There are more outdoor scenes now and fewer interior location shoots. “People don’t want you in their homes; they don’t want you in their businesses,” said Glenn Gordon Caron, the showrunner for the CBS courtroom drama “Bull.” ABC’s “All Rise” includes fewer jury trials. “9-1-1” limits its crowd scenes. Background players are being reduced, reused, recycled.

Generally, shows have reduced their season orders and are shooting more quickly and with fewer takes, the better to minimize risk for cast and crew. Community spread on set remains low, but there have still been a few scares. ABC’s “For Life,” which has devoted the back half of its season to exploring the effects of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests on prison populations, had to pause for two weeks after a lab error returned multiple positive results.

“We shot a bunch of Saturdays to make up for that,” the show’s creator, Hank Steinberg, said in a video call.

As case numbers rise and the virus mutates, shows will mutate, too. More series will find ways to write past the pandemic. Because even the story of a lifetime doesn’t last forever, a future of variants and slow vaccines rollouts remains unpredictable, and who really wants to watch another intubation?

But in a media-saturated culture of “pics or it didn’t happen,” there’s a lot to be said for validating a shared and awful experience, even with commercial breaks. Until everyone can flash an “I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine!” sticker, the shows that persevere will be holding our hands — metaphorically, because actual hand-holding is a terrible idea right now — mirroring our reality and helping us endure it, case by case, laugh by laugh, mask by mask.

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