Victoria Richardson turns away from her favorite show, “Chicago Med,” every time a plotline revolves around the coronavirus pandemic. The educator, who lives in the Bronx borough of New York City, says such scenes are upsetting after the loss of her grandmother to Covid-19.
Ashley Sanford, a makeup artist in Detroit, also cringes every time she sees a coronavirus storyline on TV.
“It’s strange and odd to use something that is still very prevalent in our day to day lives for entertainment,” she says.
The two women’s sentiments represent a dilemma facing showrunners as the pandemic drags into its second year and scripted series roll out new episodes. How do you address a global tragedy on an entertainment platform? Do you weave Covid-19 into your storylines because it’s everyone’s shared reality now? Or do you pretend it never happened, because most viewers turn to TV to escape their troubles?
Executive producers and writers have been debating these questions since last year, when scripted shows began returning from pandemic delays. Showrunners say determining months in advance what viewers will want has been a challenge.
“The question of whether reliving experiences related to coronavirus is positive and helping us to cope or triggering is very complicated,” says Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces, assistant professor for psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.
“It depends largely on the person’s attributes, what their experience with Covid-19 has been, and what the TV depiction is,” he adds. “So there’s no easy answer to that.”
Some series have put the pandemic in a starring role
Most medical dramas have delved into the pandemic, but in different ways.
Fox’s “The Resident” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” both featured coronavirus plotlines in their season premieres, then moved in other directions. “Grey’s” has focused on how Covid-19 is affecting medical professionals, patients and their families. In recent episodes its lead doctor and namesake, Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo, is critically ill with coronavirus and hospitalized at the fictional Seattle medical center.
Showrunner Krista Vernoff says she struggled with the decision to make coronavirus a major part of the show’s storyline, but her team convinced her to do it. Naser Alazari, the series’ senior surgical adviser, argued that “Grey’s Anatomy” had a responsibility to address the biggest medical story in recent history.
“I was a proponent of starting in a universe of Covid because I feel our show has such an incredible accessibility to people and relatability to people that we need to be there with them,” Alazari told CNN in November. “We’re going to share your frustration. We’re going to share your loss … and also, who knows, maybe we’ll be there with you when this is over.”
Other medical dramas are taking a more hands-off approach. January’s season premiere of “The Resident” revolved around the pandemic — one of the hospital’s nurses got the virus — but subsequent episodes have jumped to a post-pandemic world.
Peter Elkoff, co-showrunner and executive producer of “The Resident,” says the show opted not to tell a season’s worth of coronavirus stories.
“We believe that audiences would be a little bit fatigued by their own lives, living under the shackles of the pandemic, and that maybe what we needed to offer them was a show set in an imaginary post-vaccine world,” he says. “But of course, we didn’t want to pretend it never happened.”
Recent storylines have focused on the lives of the show’s main characters, Conrad Hawkins and Nic Nevin, while highlighting the aftermath of the virus and showcasing the courage of medical workers.
“We tell some stories through the season that speak to the after-effects of the pandemic,” Elkoff says. “This show has always been about hopefulness and sort of fighting systems that don’t work within the medical industry. And we wanted to be able to tell those stories where doctors are heroic. We felt like it would be a better bet.”
And while Richardson, the viewer in New York City, is not a fan of medical dramas focused on the pandemic, she concedes they’ve allowed viewers a peek inside hospital walls.
“They give us some insight on what happens inside the hospital,” she says. “Though we get a lot of coverage about Covid and hospital rates and things of that sort, unless we’re actually in the hospital, in a Covid ward, we don’t know much about what actually goes on.”
Then there’s “Queen Sugar,” a drama series about three siblings in Louisiana that airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
It was shooting the second episode of its fifth season last March when coronavirus forced shutdowns. Creator Ava DuVernay says they changed focus to mirror the challenges of the pandemic.
“We were able to get together a small group of writers … and we basically rewrote the entire season so it would really feel true to what happened to people in 2020,” she said this month on Instagram. “It didn’t feel right to keep doing old episodes.”
The new season premiered earlier this month with episodes set in early 2020 that explore the virus’ growing threat.
In other shows, Covid-19 mostly hovers in the background
Courtroom and police procedural shows don’t feel as obligated to get into the nuts and bolts of a pandemic. Some have relegated it to a background role.
Executive producers for “NCIS: New Orleans” say that after much debate among the CBS show’s showrunners, producers and writers, they decided to devote the first two episodes to addressing the pandemic, which hit Louisiana especially hard last spring.
“While we want our show to be entertaining and an escape, we felt leaning into the pandemic was an opportunity for catharsis and healing for our audience and ourselves,” executive producers Christopher Silber and Jan Nash told CNN in an email.
“We decided to focus a great deal of our first two episodes specifically on the pandemic — including a pandemic-themed murder, but then after that, relegated Covid and the health crisis to the background. Acknowledging its existence in our shows’ world, but focusing on other issues and crimes for our characters to solve.”
When CBS’ courtroom drama “Bull” began its current season, its New York City courts were in lockdown and Jason Bull, the central character, was recovering from coronavirus.
Since then the pandemic has faded from storylines. But that doesn’t mean it’s forever gone from the show.
“The pandemic, much as it exists in real life, lives largely in the background — until it doesn’t,” says Glenn Gordon Caron, an executive producer. “The death of a loved one, the complications it creates when defending people in a court system … we try to paint as realistic a picture as we can of people living and working through Covid in New York City.”
When the show started shooting new episodes again in September, pandemic fatigue wasn’t on its radar.
“We were much more focused on how one goes about making television or films, which traditionally involves assembling groups of a hundred or more cast and crew,” Caron says. “How do you do that without asking people to sacrifice their health?”
Behind the scenes, the pandemic has led to major changes, Caron says. Most meetings are held on Zoom, the cast and crew are wearing masks and face shields, and writers and designers are working from home. The show’s cast and crew also undergo rigorous testing — as often as three times a week.
“Additionally, we opt to shoot on sets rather than locations whenever we can, since we can more carefully control the environment,” he says.
Other shows, including Fox’s “9-1-1,” treat the pandemic as a backdrop to their regular emergencies. First responders on the show follow the same precautions as real-life firefighters and paramedics, such as wearing masks.
And some shows exist in a utopian, virus-free world
Other current shows, mostly sitcoms, exist in a utopian world where coronavirus never existed.
New Fox sitcom “Call me Kat,” about a 39-year-old single woman who runs a cat cafe in Louisville, takes place in a nonpandemic world.
Executive producer and writer Darlene Hunt says she decided “pretty quickly” not to include the pandemic in the sitcom, which stars “Big Bang Theory” alum Mayim Bialik.
“Part of it was honestly, cautiously optimistic about the fact that things would return to a little bit of normal, you know, somewhat soon,” she says. “We’re a new show and we’re having to establish things brand new. The idea of suddenly adding sort of pandemic circumstances to all these brand new characters just felt like more than we could bear. And honestly, the show was always conceived to be something joyous and escapist.”
Hunt says she avoids references that would make a show unrelatable in future reruns. “Like, I don’t like mentioning who the president is and things like that because I want people to go back and still feel a connection to the material,” she says.
Other sitcoms have mentioned the pandemic only briefly. Fox’s “Last Man Standing,” about a father whose home life is dominated by women, addressed coronavirus in its season premiere last month and has ignored it since. And NBC’s “Superstore,” about employees at a big box megastore, returned from its coronavirus hiatus in the fall with jokes about a toilet paper shortage. The pandemic has taken a back seat in most recent episodes.
Hunt said she has no plans to address the pandemic in “Call me Kat.” She wants viewers to forget their quarantines for a while and live vicariously through her characters’ comic misadventures.
“There’s just a little more sunshine in our world and a little less disease,” she says.
That sounds like a world viewers will want to live in — on TV and in real life.