Fall TV Takes on COVID-19
Updated: May 15
Television is meant to provide a form of escapism for audiences, a way to immerse oneself in an alternate reality of storytelling beyond the conflicts of one’s own life. And yet, the current fall season of television boasts countless plotlines covering the COVID pandemic, mirroring our reality just a bit too closely.
I’m not saying that this type of content is a bad thing, I just wonder that if the pandemic were to have not happened, would Grey’s Anatomy have ended by now? Would The Good Doctor focus more time on Dr. Shaun’s own personal development as it relates to his relationships and environment? Or maybe This is Us would spend more screen time on the interrelations of the extended Pearson family, rather than the disconnect between them.
Perhaps if anything, including the COVID Pandemic and other current events into these shows carries the plot into unchartered territory, closer to a vision of reality itself. Thus, the emotional response from viewers and audiences alike are that much stronger as well.
So how are these shows incorporating present conflicts and ongoing crises into their already developed plotlines?
One of the longest running scripted series on television, Grey’s Anatomy’s 17th season looks to balance the characters and their personal conflicts with the looming COVID pandemic.
“There’s no way to be a long-running medical show and not do the medical story of our lifetimes,” Executive Producer Krista Vernoff said in a recent interview.
The characters that we know and love are still wholly present. Meredith works harder than ever to combat the disease while still caring for those around her. Dr. Bailey is learning to manage her existing OCD amongst an easily transmittable disease prompted by cleanliness and personal space, while Richard fights for a role at the hospital again, teaching a rising class of interns amidst a medical emergency.
The characters are so well developed and understood by audiences at this point in the series, that it’s almost as if we are watching a friend or family member make their way into work each day, seeing how they risk their lives for the sanctity of others.
This season of Grey’s Anatomy makes sense of the misunderstood by applying the same pressures, fears, and personal conflicts unto its characters that audiences themselves are feeling in tandem.
Since its installation as a series, Superstore has crafted a narrative showcasing the lives of wage workers in America. Under pandemic circumstances, these also happen to be ‘essential workers.’
In doing so, no scene is without masks, 6-foot distances, or the deranged customer distraught over the state of the world and her personal rights. If anything, Superstore succeeds in creating a storyline so true to reality that it’s almost like watching footage from a Target or Walmart during early COVID times.
According to Variety, Superstore’s showrunners kept events, news, and policies from the last six months in a carefully organized file. The goal was to create a season true to what is actually happening now.
“Our goal was to never make light of COVID and just to find those funny, interpersonal or character moments, especially things that retail workers have to deal with and how much their lives have changed. It was definitely a line to walk,” Showrunner Jonathan Green said in Variety. “We knew we could get a lot of comedy out of the relatable side effects of living through a pandemic — just the weirdness of what life is like now.”
Like in much of the writing and storytelling done by Superstore, the inclusion of the COVID pandemic and its effects on the characters and functioning of the store are true reflections of a wide population.
The Good Doctor
As a show, The Good Doctor has already been tackling progressive storylines and alternative takes on hospital life. It was revealed after the fourth episode of the current season, that the show would suspend its COVID narrative and move into a reality “where the pandemic is not happening.”
So for four painstaking episodes, the show has indulged in what many are calling ‘trauma porn’, depicting what might actually be taking place in real hospitals around the country. Audiences are exposed to ventilators and near-death experiences, patients coming in with minimal symptoms being moved into ICUs, and the visible toll this takes on the doctors involved.
Aside from the standard coverage of hospital life in a pandemic, The Good Doctor works hard not to stray too far from its original intention - the depiction of the brilliant, neurodiverse Dr. Shaun Murphy. In doing so, there are incredibly touching scenes of Shaun’s inability to connect with patients who fear their own death, or the safety of their loved ones. This makes sense, as these are not concerns that cross the mind of Shaun.
What does affect the fictional doctor living with autism is the lack of routine due to the pandemic, and the limited functioning relationships as a result of isolation and fear.
If not for Shaun’s character, The Good Doctor’s overarching pandemic plotline would mirror that of the countless other hospital shows already airing. But the emotional response (or lack thereof) are an excellent addition to a world already ill-equipped for mentally tackling the ongoing pandemic.
This is Us
For a show that has so successfully included varying visions of the past, present, and future of a singular family, COVID has seemed to halt this altogether.
“Us is a time-hopping series that likes to offer its viewers the benefit of foresight, but unfortunately its writers can’t tell us when COVID-19 will end, or when society will change,” Kelly Lawler writes for USA Today.
This season opens like it has in the previous four, with the Pearson family celebrating the triplets’ birthdays - only this time they have to adhere to quarantine guidelines. The show makes a point of using masks, social distancing, and taking extra precautions around the Pearson family matriarch, who herself is getting older and sicker.
The Characters are deeply affected by the year’s events; Kevin decides that he is ready for marriage and proposes to his girlfriend, Kate and Toby deal with their marital issues. Rebecca is slowly succumbing to Alzheimers, which proves to be an added difficulty during a pandemic.
But the strongest storyline in This is Us’s current season isn’t pandemic-related, but racially motivated. Previous seasons of the show carefully differentiate Randall’s experience growing up as a black boy/teenager/man with that of his siblings. Following the BLM protests and killing of George Floyd earlier in the summer, the writers chose to turn this point into inspiration for Randall’s character.
In doing so, the season is not solely about a family grappling with the ongoing pandemic, but the racial differences within America right now. This only further proves the strength that This is Us continues to possess; to be able to emit so much emotion, conflict, and turmoil from a singular year of events is no easy task, but it can be that much more meaningful if executed properly.
Additional COVID-Centric Storylines:
Southpark (The Pandemic Special)