Entertainment

Guest starring COVID-19: How TV shows are addressing the pandemic

As TV shows begin filming new seasons, an increasing number of programs are struggling with how to reflect the pandemic on screen.

As the pandemic continues, a variety of TV programs are incorporating the virus into storylines

Prime-time TV shows tackle COVID-19 in new storylines

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
Coronavirus storylines will be part of several prime-time series this season, including The Good Doctor and This is Us. Some producers say they have a responsibility to reflect reality, but some critics say it's just too soon. 2:03

Many of us turn to the TV to escape to a place where everybody knows your name — or maybe an orderly realm where crimes are solved and sickness cured, all in a tidy 42 minutes, plus commercials.

But as TV productions begin filming again, an increasing number of TV programs are finding the consequences of COVID-19 are too big to ignore. From South Park to Grey's Anatomy, from The Good Doctor to This Is Us and Diggstown, COVID-19 will have a recurring role this fall. 

The pandemic presents an interesting predicament for shows based in the present. Acknowledge the virus, or offer audiences a break? Wearing masks on camera may be realistic, but it distances the audiences from the faces they love. Then again, the absence of masks, or even any sense of physical contact can feel jarring to watch in 2020. 

More than any other genre, medical shows have been affected by the reality of the pandemic in myriad ways. When the virus began spreading, shows such as The Good Doctor donated PPE as filming stopped. Production has begun again in Vancouver where The Good Doctor films. David Shore is the Canadian creator and executive producer. He says when they returned to write the fourth season, they had no choice but to address the pandemic.  

"It is the biggest thing that's going on in every one of our lives and it's a medical show. A show about doctors. In the real world, doctors are out there, medical personnel are out there risking their lives."

'A huge opportunity'

As with many programs, Shore is trying to strike a balance between giving the audience a respite and reflecting reality. The Good Doctor will begin the first two episodes with its main character, Dr. Shawn Murphy, in the middle of the pandemic. Then it will shift back to a pre-pandemic setting. But Shore's hope is the special episodes can do more than help the audience escape. 

"If you're only entertaining, then it's a massive waste of an opportunity …You have a huge opportunity to not just entertain, but to hopefully inform, hopefully open some eyes and make people think about things a little differently."

David Shore, creator of the medical drama The Good Doctor, feels television has a responsibility to inform, not just entertain. (CBC News)

The long-running medical drama Grey's Anatomy is also confronting COVID-19 head-on. Recently, star Ellen Pompeo shared a photo of herself in scrubs and a mask, dedicating the new season to the health-care workers who have died from the virus.

The show wrapped its 16th season early due to halt in filming brought about by the virus. During the hiatus, doctors who write for the show witnessed the effect of COVID-19 first-hand. After hearing from them, producers decided Grey's Anatomy would begin a month and a half into the pandemic.

Too soon to cover COVID? 

But the question of telling the story in the midst of an evolving crisis presents new challenges. Angela Watercutter, a writer covering pop culture for WIRED, thinks the biggest challenge for producers is timing. When it comes to dramatizing the pandemic, we're still living and processing the experience. So when do you tell that story? 

"Do you do it in two or three years?" she asks. "When maybe it's not so fresh in people's minds and not traumatic?"

Watercutter points out films such as Philadelphia and United 93. Whether they were exploring the impact of the AIDS crisis or 9/11, both had the luxury of time and perspective to reflect back on events. 

The danger of crafting a show set in the pandemic present, says Wattercutter, is that it will appear dated, or even worse, wrong. 

"If you're a writer and writing about, how medicine is dealing with [COVID-19] right now, it may not be how medicine is dealing with it, by the time your show airs."

Capturing the post-COVID consequences

The solution for Floyd Kane, executive producer and creator of the CBC drama Diggstown, is to explore the post-COVID world to come. 

While Diggstown is based in Halifax, Kane has been riding out the pandemic in Toronto, while video conferencing with writers preparing for the 3rd season, where he plans to explore the legal consequences of COVID-19.

Diggstown creator Floyd Kane plans to explore the effects of a post-COVID world in the season that's expected to start filming in 2021. (CBC News)

"The whole issues around landlord tenants, around the health-care system, looking at issues around long-term care homes, I feel like those are things as a legal show we can really dig our teeth into."

For a show where the main character, Marcie, is still processing trauma, Kane plans to explore the effects of what we've been forced to do, to stay safe.

"I feel like there's something that's interesting about the pandemic where I'd really like to explore the toll in the consequences of this social isolation on people," Kane says. 

An image from the second season of the CBC series Diggstown. Series creator Floyd Kane says his characters will be wrestling with the legal consequences of the pandemic in its third season. (CBC)

Whether it's addicts who can't get the help they need or families who have lost loved ones, Kane says they're an abundance of material. While he's still debating how much of the pandemic to reflect, Kane says the effects will dwarf any single television season.

"We're going to be living in that world for at least the next five, 10 years. The fallout of this virus is going to be long-lasting."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars red carpet and beyond.  

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