Last year, COVID was the talk of Hollywood. It shut things down. It changed storylines. It affected the way shows were produced.
Crews were masked. Actors were COVID-tested. Scenes that used to involve ensemble casts were re-written without other characters. Where once background extras (people pretending to talk or walk by in a scene) were de rigueur, now camera angles were limited to close-ups, to avoid bodies on set.
And writers had to decide whether or not to include the pandemic. And if so, how. Should they make it the focal point of the story? Or skip ahead in time, pretending that COVID is over and the world is back to “normal”? Or ignore its existence altogether? After all, most of television isn’t real anyway.
Last year, the result was a mixed bag of options for TV viewers. Given the toll that the pandemic had on mental health, having options to escape this frightening reality was helpful. Possibly even life-saving.
Now this year, with vaccinations available and protocols in place, Hollywood is back with a vengeance. So once again, the writers had to make a choice. And this fall, there’s a whole lot less COVID on TV than last year.
Canadian comedy, Jann returned in an alternate universe where COVID didn’t exist. Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy – which did a deep dive into the COVID world last season – have now skipped ahead ten months, supposedly post-pandemic.
Again, these are fictional stories with fictional characters. They don’t have to be tethered to the truth.
However, in the real world, we are still dealing with COVID deniers, vaccination skeptics, and anti-maskers. People are attacking one another for their beliefs and the protocols. Consequently, people are still getting sick, even dying.
Worse, those who claim they prefer to “do their own research” on the matter aren’t going into labs or reading scientific literature and studies. They’re watching TV.
And unfortunately, television loves to blend truth and fiction. Reality TV is scripted, pre-planned and faked. Fox News has gone on record claiming that viewers should be skeptical of anything their TV news hosts say they exaggerate for entertainment. Meanwhile, shows like Law & Order: SVU are inspired by real headline news stories and medical dramas are, by necessity, somewhat based on fact.
So in a medium where the line between truth and reality is intentionally blurred, is this the time for writers to go “pure fiction” on COVID? Especially when misinformation and conjecture are still running rampant?
Viewers are being asked to mask-up, take a needle, and prove our health status. And yet, few shows are even attempting to set an example for COVID safety and behaviour.
Taking an hour to escape and ignore COVID may have been good for our mental health last year. But right now, people are still dying – not because of an illness that science is still studying, but because of false information, overwhelmed hospitals and the assumption that everything is fine now.
So I get the appeal. Unfortunately, it’s too early for COVID-free TV.