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Which Is Weirder: When TV Shows Acknowledge COVID-19 or When They Pretend It Doesn’t Exist?

Characters from Superstore sit on and around a sofa, some in masks.

Now that the television and film industries are starting to ramp up production again, a lot of projects are having to make decisions about just how much they want to acknowledge our current reality. Do they exist in a world with COVID-19 or do they not? It’s a big decision, whether they lean into realism or opt for alternate-reality escapism.

Some shows and movies have based themselves entirely around the concept of living through this pandemic, like Freeforms’s Love In the Time of Corona or NBC’s Connecting…, which was filmed in a Zoom format. There’s also that KJ Apa movie Songbird, which looks like a completely exhausting pandemic thriller/romance.

But for existing shows, they’re faced with a choice: COVID or no COVID? I’m not sure which is better because honestly, they’re both weird to watch!

It makes sense for some shows to adopt this new reality. Grey’s Anatomy and other medical shows are obvious ones. CBS’ legal drama All Rise also wanted to make its California courtroom as realistic as possible, which I understand, although I have to admit that this promo, which airs on Hulu with way too much regularity, fully broke me the first time I saw it:

In everyday life, the use of face masks and shields and plexiglass barriers should be used and encouraged by everyone! On television, it takes some getting used to.

I’ve found that when I’m watching something that doesn’t acknowledge the pandemic, I find myself mostly able to suspend my disbelief and relax back into that world. But every so often I find myself jarred by seeing characters shake hands or gather at a bar or do any of our “old normal” behaviors. Although to be fair, I also find myself having those moments when watching things made before the pandemic, even classic movies. I have yelled “That’s how you get COVID” at my TV when watching movies made decades ago, so this is just how things are now.

Hands down, my least favorite method of dealing with COIVD-19 is the shows that incorporate it but don’t fully commit. Superstore is one of my favorite shows (even though they lost a lot of goodwill with the recent tanking of their central couple) but the way they depict the coronavirus is infuriating.

The show centers on employees at a Walmart-esque big box store, so it makes sense that they would try to milk some comedy and horrors from their lives during the pandemic. Superstore also had its production schedule thrown for a loop when they were forced to end season five early. They were only able to air the first part of their planned two-part season finale, which was going to see the departure of America Ferrera’s Amy.

The retooling was pretty brilliant, adding a new episode in-between “California Part One” and “California Part Two,” which showed a condensed timeline of the last eight or so months. The show is a comedy and these episodes were funny but they were also a harrowing depiction of being “essential” workers forced to deal with monstrous customers while getting absolutely no support from their corporate bosses.

What I cannot stand about these episodes, though—especially by the time they caught up to our present-day when everyone should know so much better—is that they incorporated the reality of COVID-19 into the show but also clearly want to allow their actors to give full performances, which means they constantly have the characters pulling down their masks to talk to each other–which is a thing far too many people actually do and it defeats the entire purpose of wearing a mask in the first place! (They do tangentially acknowledge this at one point by having a customer take his mask off to sneeze, which is the only thing worse than taking it off to talk.)

I totally understand that there’s no perfect way for shows and movies to deal with the issue of depicting COVID-19 on camera. It’s always going to be weird no matter what because the world is weird right now.

Have you seen any depictions of COVID-19 on screen that aren’t totally jarring? Or any that make you particularly incensed? Vent in the comments!

(image: Greg Gayne/NBC)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.