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Dear TV Shows, It’s Very Weird to Watch You Pretend Like COVID-19 Is Over

Three white women (Miranda, Carrie, Charlotte) stand in a room of people looking happy and surprised.

As COVID-19 goes into its third season, television creatives are still struggling to figure out how to incorporate our real-life reality into their fictional worlds. The world of a TV show or movie does not have to be exactly the same as the one we, the audience, are living in, but it is supposed to be believable and relatable as a reflection of our own reality. (In terms of sitcoms and dramas and the like, that is.)

So when entertainment returned last fall after an initial shutdown, shows had to figure out whether to ignore the coronavirus pandemic or to incorporate it and how. It was, for the most part, a mess. Just over a year ago we were right here discussing this issue and how weird both options were, though some shows handled it worse than others by going in half-measures.

Now as we head into 2022, TV shows are still in the same predicament. And many have settled on a third option for handling the pandemic: acknowledging it happened but pretending it’s 100% a thing of the past.

It might be the worst option yet.

This choice is not exactly a new one. Other shows have been going this route for a while. NBC’s underappreciated new Ted Danson comedy Mr. Mayor premiered back in January, presenting itself (if I’m remembering correctly) as being vaguely either in the future or a sort of alternate reality where COVID was over. Season 3 of Netflix’s You never addresses the virus by name but mentions things like secret vaccines for the elite and a neighbor who had hosted a party while everyone else was home “clutching hand sanitizer”—overt references but also weirdly cryptic—and also projects all those anxieties on a separate measles-related anti-vaxxer plotline.

Again, some shows handled this choice better than others, but as we get further and further into this pandemic, into whatever wave we’re currently seeing with the sudden rise of the omicron variant, the decision to place the pandemic firmly in the past gets increasingly off-putting.

The premiere of the Sex and the City revival And Just Like That… was especially jarring. The series opened with characters talking about how hard COVID was and how glad they are that it’s over, and then proceeded to pack themselves into crowded rooms, unmasked.

What makes this so hard to watch could be the fact that while in the world of And Just Like That, the pandemic is entirely over, in our reality, it very much isn’t—and yet the characters’ behavior mirrors that of much of the country.

When these characters talk about the pandemic in the past tense and eat in crowded indoor restaurants and sit shoulder to shoulder at a children’s music recital without a mask in sight, that is—outside of a few major cities that still have enforced mandates—what is happening all across the country.

It is very hard to separate that infuriating reality that we all have to deal with daily from that of the show, where this behavior is supposed to be perfectly fine and safe.

Grey’s Anatomy, which was heralded by many as having the best depiction of COVID-19 on television, ends its episodes with a title card explaining that the show depicts a “fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future,” while “in real life, the pandemic is still ravaging the medical community” and urges viewers to stay informed.

I don’t know if this is enough to fully bridge that disconnect but it’s something at least. I still don’t know what the best solution to this predicament is but I do know that the further we get into the pandemic, the harder and weirder it is to watch people pretend it’s over, especially when so many people in real life are doing the same.

(image: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO Max)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.