Discussion: Should TV Shows Include COVID Storylines?

My “year of COVID” started with me getting the flu the same exact week my work closed itself to customers and sent many of us to work from home. I took two days off to feel gross and panic about having COVID. When I went to CVS to get a flu test, I passed a mother with her son. She saw me in a mask and literally pulled her son away from me, hissing at him to not to touch anything. That was how the pandemic started for me.

A year later, it’s kind of shocking how normal my life feels now. I started to write that my life hasn’t really changed that much, but it has. I only worked at home for six weeks, but my husband’s been working from home for a year. We adopted a dog and have now planted our second annual garden, both of which I doubt would have happened without COVID. Though we’ve ordered takeout frequently, I have been to actual restaurants all of three times in the past year, insisting on patio seating every single time. We cancelled plans to attend a wedding my husband was supposed to be in. We’ve done the extended family Zooms. I’ve visited family in person and felt anxious and guilty each time.

Last year’s “garden” (back right corner) compared to this year’s.

Hope’s on the horizon, though. The vaccine rollout in Tennessee is chugging along, and with warmer weather upon us, it’s easier to get together with friends outdoors, which I’m comfortable with. I prefer outdoor activities anyway. It’s kind of a horrible milestone, but with so many people already having had COVID and that many more getting the vaccine, the risk of catching it gets lower each day. So even though it will be a few more months before I’m eligible for my shot, I’m feeling much better about the immediate future than I did at this time last year.

However, there’s one thing about approaching the post-pandemic phase that I don’t like. And that’s COVID storylines in TV shows.

My husband has recently been bingeing his way through the show 911. I’ve been trying not to get sucked in, but it’s a good show. It has a good mix of characters, a nice balance between episodic and ongoing storylines, and great LGBTQ representation and racial diversity within the cast.

But! As we have caught up to the episodes that are coming out now, they introduced it. Show characters are wearing masks. Parents are dealing with online school. Offhand comments about certain shops being closed or items scarce are popping up in the dialogue. Heck, even Zoom meetings have made an appearance. And 911 isn’t the only show doing this. I’ve even seen new book announcements from my favorite authors that feature pandemic plots. It’s everywhere.

A screenshot from the show 911. Source

I get that art and media are important ways that society works through collective emotions. And as far as TV and movies go, I like that having COVID storylines in shows means actors wearing masks, which allows producers to more safely continue working and creating. That’s definitely a good thing. In another year or two or three, I might be interested in a fictional show about COVID. But right now I don’t want anything to do with it. I’ve made it through the past year unscathed, relatively speaking, and it is still way, way too soon for me. The COVID outlook is looking up, but it’s far from over. I’m still living through a pandemic as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t want to see any random COVID storylines until they’re something I can look back on as firmly in the past.

Throughout a lot of my life, shows and books and movies have functioned as an escape, a chance to be someone else for awhile, to live vicariously through a character. My media tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older in that I read and watch and listen in an attempt to understand the world around me and how others experience it. I read a lot more nonfiction than I used to and listen to political podcasts. But in between the heavy, important stuff, I take a break with a beach read or a funny podcast that doesn’t take much thinking. It’s how I retain balance and sanity. I can’t do that when taking a break from pandemic life to watch a show means watching fictional characters live their own pandemic lives. So for now, I’m skipping every book, show, or movie that so much as hints at COVID.

What are your thoughts on COVID storylines in media?

16 comments

  1. I’m very torn on this topic. On one hand, I think it can be cool when shows can use it to tell good stories, especially stories that aren’t as prevalent. Someone in the comments above mentioned Superstore, a show I love, and I’m kind of glad they’re covering it because they’re the only show out there that can show the pandemic from inside a store. They’re able to both make jokes but also show how wild it was for retail employees back when everything first started.
    But I think a downside to media doing this is that there’s a delay. When Superstore started this newest season, it was already October, so we were already sick of staying home and sick of this new normal. So rather than feel like we’re living through this at the same time as our favorite characters, it’s more like we’re reliving it.
    The show A Million Little Things is only /just/ touching on it now and taking it very slow, and that show does not shy away from overdramatizing things, so there’s surely going to be so much negative reliving I’ll have to go through while watching it.
    I understand why people want to not see it as media is an escape, but at the end of the day, it is prime content for drama and new storylines, so it’s not surprising that shows are jumping into it a lot.
    I just hope that it ends when it ends for us too. I don’t want to be seeing COVID musicals on Broadway in five years, ya know?

    • …featuring such classic Broadway refrains as:

      • I’m not throwing away my shot!
      • If I were a sick man.
      • One Day More (of quarantine)
      • Rose’s Turn (on Zoom)

      …I’ll see myself out.

  2. I think it’s great that the cast will be paid & won’t lose their jobs for however long but at the same time I just do not want to watch it when we can just look outside and see it. I watch tv as an escape from the real world. Superstore & maybe some other shows have included it and I’m not loving it

  3. My roommate watches The Good Doctor and they started their season in a pandemic world which was incredibly stressful given that it takes place in a hospital. It was definitely too much, too soon, and after a few episodes, they reverted to a fake-world with no covid and a note about why they did so. I think I generally prefer the covid situations to the weird plots that ignore it but still clearly can’t have people near each other.

    • That’s interesting that they walked it back on the Good Doctor. I guess Covid storylines do make a lot more sense with shows where it can be more of a piece of the setting, like Steven said, than a dramatic central storyline.

  4. Great discussion question, Sara. It’s clear that Steven had a lot of time to think about this topic before you posted this. With shows that reflect the current situation, I’d rather accept characters wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, etc. than not have new episodes to watch. Remember the Tom Cruise outburst? I’d also argue that viewers seeing characters wearing masks is modeling good behavior.

    I watch Murdoch Mysteries, a period show, so it wouldn’t make sense for characters to wear masks and such, unless they finally reach 1918 and the Spanish Flu.

    • It’s not so much that I had a lot of time to think about it- it’s more that I just watch an astonishingly huge amount of television. My brain is like 75% prime time television programming now. :D

    • That’s a good point about actors modeling good behavior. Maybe I am just being a grouch, lol. Also I had not thought about how challenging period pieces would be right now!

    • Thought I’d slip that in there to give you another choice. It may be helpful to know that Murdoch Mysteries is filmed in Canada :)

  5. For me, it all depends on the genre and how it’s woven in.

    For example, I watch the comedy, Superstore. They’ve incorporated Covid into their setting and the show is just as funny as it ever was. They use the pandemic as part of the setting, rather than as a major plot point. Done this way, I don’t mind seeing covid in the confines of a show.

    On a genre show like The Flash, though, masks and covid stuff would really pull me out of the story.

    • Yeah, that is one where I can see it working. I started watching that a few years ago and couldn’t get into it, but I watched half the first episode a few days ago and found it hilarious so I might have to give that one another shot. Maybe by the time I make it to the covid episodes I will be okay with it.

    • Workplace comedies with a great ensemble cast are usually a safe bet. I find Superstore to be good fluffy fun, and just really funny. I do appreciate that an episode is just 22 minutes long, so it’s not a crazy time investment. It’s a very relaxing sort of funny.

  6. Back in the 90s I was reading a book (I think it was the Left Behind series) and a character pulled out a cell phone. I was shocked. Phones (but not smart) had been out for years, but this was the first time one showed up in a book. I felt like the most noble of entertainment had been sullied by the inclusion of this faddy technology. Things that become part of culture make their way into media. Think about seat belts and bike helmets. If you saw these in use in a TV show, you wouldn’t think twice, but for much of my life, they would be completely ignored because they were too new. I honestly think we’re going to be permanently changed by the pandemic in ways that are foreseeable and ways that aren’t. These changes will make their way into TV shows and movies. In the future: A teen show with kids hanging out at a shopping mall? What’s a mall?

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