W.We are not allowed to talk about it. That was a note from the broadcaster, “says James Acaster in an outtake from the new series by Hypothetical. His co-host on the panel show, Josh Widdicombe, just mentioned the Covid-19 pandemic. “Can’t tell,” says Acaster, “can’t reference it, can’t point out why we’re further apart than usual.”
It’s a fun clip that Dave, the broadcaster who does Hypothetical, loved to tweet on their official account, but it highlights a dilemma that many TV creatives are currently facing. Assuming Covid restrictions even allow you to do your show, are you letting the experience of living in the pandemic become a part of it?
“It’s not about not mentioning it under any circumstances,” said Richard Watsham, Director of Commissioning at Dave’s parent company UKTV. “It’s just about minimizing these mentions. When it comes to comedy and entertainment, I always feel strongly that we reflect people’s need to escape. “That is at the heart of the problem: television aims to reflect reality back to us and offer us an escape from that reality. Covid has dominated our lives for almost a year and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s pretty easy for an out-of-date panel game like Hypothetical to forget about it and have abstract fun, but can comedies and dramas set in this day and age keep ignoring it?
Unmasked… Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker in the 2008 movie Sex and the City.
Photo: Neue Linie / Allstar
Some have come to the conclusion that they cannot. Sarah Jessica Parker alerted many Sex and the City fans last month when she announced that Covid will “obviously be part of the plot” in HBO’s upcoming revival because it affects modern New York life and life has changed. Similarly, the writers at the NBC sitcom superstore (available on Netflix in the UK) felt it was a must as their show, set in a Walmart / Target-style “big box” store, co-opted deals with the everyday experiences of ordinary people. must reflect how these experiences have been fundamentally changed. When the sixth season aired in October, the focus was on Covid. The following month, the ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy returned for season 17. Doctors faced a wave of Covid patients and the main character Meredith Gray, who became seriously ill.
When the writers of Grey’s got together to sketch out the new season last June, showrunner Krista Vernoff reportedly floated the idea that the show should ignore Covid altogether. In the end, Vernoff’s writers – many of whom are or have been doctors – countered successfully that they could not ignore the greatest medical history in recent history.
Not every show feels so responsible, however. Take Succession: A series that is certainly timely as the whims of our plutocratic media are still relevant but hardly ever interacts directly with reality. In the second season, a quick look at Antifa protests was a rare brush with explicit topicality. Breakout star Sarah Snook recently told Variety that the third season pandemic won’t be tackled head-on, “because that’s not the show. We want the Roys to do what they did and what we love. “Masks, vaccinations and lockdowns are probably just background noise at most.
From their cars … (lr) Nico Santos as Mateo and George Salazar as Eric in the superstore. Photo: NBCU / Getty
“It really doesn’t seem necessary to mention it in the drama,” says Watsham. “We’re all used to sitting around a box and living in another world for a while. I am very happy that our dramas do not reflect this. “
Nicola Shindler, managing director of Manchester-based Quay Street Productions, agrees. Her current ITV series Finding Alice was partially filmed after Covid arrived and could have recognized it, but is set in a world without her. “My instinct is that right now, and for the near future for the foreseeable future, viewers want to be kept away from unpleasant realities and be reminded of what life was like and how it might soon be.”
Shindler is a huge Sex and the City fan. If she were the showrunner, would she let Covid affect Carrie and the gang? “I would say no. That’s why I’m not switching to Sex and the City. “
Comedies without the right to social commentary have found bolder solutions. Mayor, Tina Fey’s new sitcom about an LA politician debuted in January and portrayed a post-Covid world where it was airily stated that Dolly Parton had bought everyone a vaccine. The new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm coming this fall will pull a similar trick: Covid will exist, and Larry David will certainly have opinions on how his friends reacted to it, but it will be a past event that won’t be big will come out.
Family disaster … succession. Photo: Peter Kramer / AP
The genre that would be expected to most faithfully portray daily life is British soaps, but even there producers were reluctant to let Covid take over. “Casualty and Holby City recorded the impact of the pandemic on the stations,” says Yahoo! British soap columnist David Brown. “And when Emmerdale got going again last year, it was a week of specials depicting life in Lockdown. However, with the big soaps going back to six episodes a week – or four in the case of EastEnders – things are murky. We have not yet seen anyone outside of Casualty succumb to the disease and die. Covid exists, but you opened the Queen Vic when the pubs were closing and people came to each other’s homes when there was no household mix in real life. “
Viewers understand that soaps are filmed a few weeks before they air, so they didn’t always respond immediately to changes in the ban rules. “What they’re less forgiving of,” says Brown, “is the sight of people on the ITV soaps coming indoors and removing masks to speak their lines.” That seems like a wrong decision as we all mask ourselves to enter stores. I suspect they want masks to be a part of this world without it affecting our ability to understand what actors are saying. But it looks strange. “
Covid and out … Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Photo: AP
The producers at Superstore figured this out the hard way. After filmed multiple episodes with the rule that characters would wear masks whenever their real-world counterparts did, it was relaxed, simply on the grounds that it was difficult to shoot and looked bad on screen. Perhaps the biggest problem with hiring shows in a Covid world, however, was illustrated by a joke about Tiger King: When Superstores season premiere came out in October, it felt like the reference to a Netflix documentary that hit people during the lockdown period in April looked, ancient.
The content has to be “evergreen” more than ever: a show or even worse a single season of a long-running series with Covid will be uncomfortably annoying for the streaming viewers of the future. “We hope masks and social distancing aren’t always here,” Shindler says. “Shows [that include them] will date immediately. “
When UKTV’s Watsham issued his edict to Acaster and Widdicombe, he was more concerned about the delay between filming and broadcast and the possibility that Covid had waned before Hypothetical aired. His reasoning applies even more to shows with a potentially endless future in streaming. “I imagined this point where we would all come out of our hibernation. We’re out on the street again and the sun is shining. We are finally released from the lockdown. Do we want to be reminded? “