에프or most of 2020 and the first half of 2021, some part of me clung to the fantasy, despite diminishing evidence, that there would be a hard end date to the pandemic. That there would be a day, somewhat immediately post-vaccine, when masks (safely) disappeared from restaurants and airports and parties and street corners, that Covid-19 would fade from view, that some type of “return” would snap into place. This mental trick has obviously not come to pass – but it can be seen on TV, as a crop of streaming shows written and produced since 2020 have their timelines proceed beyond 2019, with gazes on the pandemic from direct to oblique to not at all.
In general, shows filmed and released over the past year and a half have revealed how difficult it is to fold a societal rupture as significant, inequitable and diffuse as Covid-19 into television. The pandemic has undoubtedly suffused streaming TV shows – in scheduling delays, 에 cancellations, in budgets swollen to accommodate testing and other safety protocols for the cast and crew. It remains an open question, 하나, how much of that reality should enter the frame.
The pandemic’s presence on-screen is not a new phenomenon; since the fall 2020 시즌, network shows from medical dramas to sitcoms to police procedurals have incorporated Covid-19 into their plot lines. Grey’s Anatomy, the longest-running primetime medical drama of all time, focused entirely on the virus, reflecting a version of hospital personnel’s reality for the past year, from overwhelmed and infected staff to PPE. Superstore, the NBC sitcom that concluded in March, opened its season with an 삽화 on the frenzied, absurd experience of being an undervalued yet heralded “essential worker” at a grocery store at the onset of Covid-19. Broadcast staples such as Law & Order: SVU, NCIS: New Orleans, the Chicago trilogy (Med, Fire, PD) and This Is Us – shows whose mandate is to reflect contemporary issues to a broad audience – all took the pandemic as their backdrop, with explicit references and plot lines involving infections, quarantines, masks and new protocols.
But for streaming shows not beholden to network schedules or expectations of formula, how to handle Covid-19 narratively is a different question, one shows have handled with various levels of skill, if they’ve handled it at all. Apple TV’s The Morning Show is one of a few streaming shows to have addressed the pandemic head-on as a major plot point. A handful have faded Covid to the background, as a past hurdle overcome, as in HBO Max’s Gossip Girl, which jumped ahead to a pandemic-less, in-school fall 2021. And many have sidestepped the pandemic entirely, setting their timelines pre-2020 (HBO’s Mare of Easttown), an alternate reality (HBO’s Succession), or a conveniently unspecific, pandemic-less present (Apple TV’s Ted Lasso).
There are also shows whose parameters bear the hallmark of pandemic production: Covid bottle shows like HBO’s The White Lotus, Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers 그리고 third season of Netflix’s Master of None are almost entirely contained to one vacation locale (and thus shooting location) and a limited cast with few if any extras. Other shows, particularly comedies, have skated by on a pre-2020 or recent-ish alternative timeline – the second season of The Other Two, Ted Lasso season two, Reservation Dogs, The Chair, Only Murders in the Building, Squid Game, Maid, the third season of Sex Education, Hacks and Girls5Eva were all produced during the pandemic and loosely set in the present, but avoid the question of Covid entirely.
This is probably the smartest, least thorny choice – to date, most mentions of the pandemic on-screen have prompted a reflexive “no, enough” from my circle, at least. The few shows that attempted to rapid-process the pandemic head-on – Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, Netflix’s anthology Social Distance – fell (unsurprisingly) 평평한, the task of being specific and poignant during a stratifying collective trauma being simply too much. Even 18-plus months in, processing the pandemic on-screen often still feels too soon; I wrote recently about the viscerally unsettling experience that is watching The Morning Show give the early days of 2020 a messy prestige soap treatment – discomfiting, annoying, admirably ambitious, compulsively watchable.
공정하다, The Morning Show has since its 2019 premiere fashioned itself as a warped processor of current events – the first season of the series was retooled amid the cascade of #MeToo media scandals. “I really resisted that for about a day,” the showrunner, Kerry Ehrin, told NPR of rebuilding the second season around Covid. “And then after another day, 처럼, it just made sense. It isn’t a subject you could avoid, especially doing a show about people covering the news.”
In contrast, Succession’s highly anticipated third season avoids Covid-19 entirely, instead picking up immediately where the 2019 second season finale left off. Rather than adapt to lockdown, or “have Logan do a series of webinars we can put out on HBO Max”, as the creator, Jesse Armstrong, told the New Yorker, the Succession crew pushed back the third season by nearly a year, in order to film episodes that resembled its pre-Covid aesthetic (and extravagance – these are billionaires).
“These are really wealthy people,” Sarah Snook, who plays media conglomerate progeny Shiv Roy, told Vulture of the show’s ability to avoid Covid altogether. “And unfortunately, none of the world’s really wealthy people were going to be affected by the pandemic.”
Most non-billionaire shows, 하나, seem to be pursuing a middle ground – a plausible-enough backdrop for its characters, made more difficult by the amorphous, evolving Covid situation. This probably accounts for a trend of weird half-measures that vaguely acknowledge a societal rupture but not its lingering half-life – an imagination of the present that seems timestamped to late 2020and early 2021.
Last week’s 11th season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, 예를 들면, hinges on the reveal of a Covid hoarder – a closet of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, reminiscent of the panic of early 2020 – but takes place in a timeline where indoor masks are no longer a common sight (in LA, at least). In the fifth season premiere of HBO’s Insecure, which aired on Sunday, characters mention “everything going on in the world right now” and wonder if a favorite restaurant has closed since “everything’s been so crazy”, but there’s no direct reference to the pandemic – no Covid, no masks, no news bulletins or testing or vaccines. Nine Perfect Strangers, in which characters decamp to a mysterious wellness retreat in northern California, mentions “social distancing” and “lockdown” as stressors to be relieved and escaped, but otherwise ignores Covid specifics.
These out-of-step acknowledgments are ignorable, though they feel increasingly anachronistic with the lingering presence of masks and resistance to vaccines. A few series attempt to more substantially work such new normals into their storylines: 그만큼 trailer to the second season of HBO Max’s Love Life features actor William Jackson Harper wearing a mask; an episode of the third season of Netflix’s You combines its typical blasé violence with an anti-vaxxer whose child infects the protagonists’ son with measles (Sera Gamble, the showrunner, 있다 말했다 the idea predates Covid vaccine resistance although the pandemic is also mentioned a few times throughout the season).
The disruption of Covid is perhaps best handled by shows that can and do pick a clear lane – Succession, which has always glided a comfortable hair’s breadth from our reality (hinting at but never mentioning Trump, 예를 들면); the second season of HBO’s Betty, an understated, vérité hangout of a show that simply continues to loosely fictionalize life in New York fall 2020 for a group of female skaters, masks and all. Bo Burnham’s virtuosic comedy special Inside, released in June, was essentially about the cumulative mental trauma of 2020 without mentioning Covid by name – or ever leaving the room where it was filmed.
The latter two get to the psychological experience of the pandemic without sign-posting a message of relevance or poignancy, which may be the ultimate trap of Covid on TV. There is still so much left unprocessed of the last year and a half, so much life to reflect and so much that doesn’t need to be said ever again (“in these crazy times …”) Hopefully there will come a time when the pandemic won’t feel relevant, or discordant, or obvious on TV. 그때까지, streaming shows will ignore or bend around or torpedo through Covid storylines – for better or for worse.