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COVID TV Will Be Remembered for More Than the Disease That Caused It

From a pandemic came seat-of-the-pants greatness.
  • Social isolation has birthed an impromptu wave of innovation on TV, from primetime singalong specials to SNL at Home to Charlie Watts on the air drums. (Photos: NBC, ABC, CBS)
    Social isolation has birthed an impromptu wave of innovation on TV, from primetime singalong specials to SNL at Home to Charlie Watts on the air drums. (Photos: NBC, ABC, CBS)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Months or even years from now, when that random episode of SNL at Home or The Daily Social Distancing Show pops up on your streaming box, or you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of Disney Family Singalong videos, I hope it brings a smile to your face. Because god knows, not much else from these past few months will.

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down production of shows in late February, makers and stars have responded with remarkable ingenuity and verve. The result is a catalog of improvised high-end TV that will serve both as a time capsule of this awful time and a uniquely creative moment. From now on, when you’re surfing TV and find yourself wondering if you accidentally launched Instagram, you’re going to remember this moment when the world came to a stop.

    COVID-19 TV was when news anchors and talk-show hosts began hosting from their apartments, when bored viewers began tweeting out the books in the background of interview guests (with the occasional beer tray), when two married network personalities did each other’s hair and makeup, and when we learned Anderson Cooper lives in a firehouse.

    Expensive cameras and mixers were left back at the germ-infested studios; iPhones and Zoom — that cutting-edge tool from the early Obama years — were fine in a pinch. In fact, here’s the crazy part: Some shows actually got better.

    Late Night with Seth Meyers should be hosted from Seth’s attic from now on. Get him more shirts and a bug zapper. It’s great. American Idol suddenly became a show about music again. And Bill Maher may be so starved for feedback that he has to have his monologue laugh-tracked, but I learned more in the 15 minutes he did with Dr. David Katz than in six weeks of David Muir’s faux-dramatic newscasts. Forced into listening mode by a satellite delay and deprived of constant interruptions from his audience, Maher let Katz give full and complete answers to some pretty vital questions:

    It’s hard to pick the best bits from SNL at Home, but I think it’s safe to say that Brad Pitt’s surprise appearance as Dr. Anthony Fauci — after the real Dr. Fauci joked that he wouldn’t mind being portrayed by Pitt — will be remembered long after people forget the endless White House briefings that inspired it.

    SNL at Home is a great example of what has made this time of COVID-19 television so memorable. Lorne Michaels supposedly has this ironclad rule that if you haven’t hosted SNL, you can’t do a celebrity walk-on. Brad Pitt has never hosted SNL. Of course, the bit wasn’t done live, but most of Pete Davidson’s SNL oeuvre wasn’t done live, either.

    My point is, the people making these shows have shown a willingness to try new things and work with suboptimal gear while — at the same time — pulling off some first-rate entertainment. Why is that? At a time when Netflix has enough TV stockpiled to get us through ten pandemics, why are so many people jumping through hoops to make some pretty great TV?

    Well, they get paid, of course — but it’s obvious from the effort they’re putting in that they know many of their viewers aren’t getting paid. And many who are working have been thrust into the front lines of a battle to contain a still enigmatical killer. Even celebrities can relate to people being cooped up with low-grade fevers and all the kids. Yes, we have endless time to catch up on Fleabag and The Wire, but we’d sure like it if TV stars strapped on some Airpods and gave us a little extra to help get us through this?

    COVID TV could have easily slipped into a dreary train string of star-studded, cause-related spectaculars. But we’ve mostly been spared those during this pandemic. (The exception was Global Citizen’s One World: Together at Home — eight hours of music that basically boiled down to Charlie Watts on air drums.) Instead, shows like last week's Parks and Recreation reunion have turned themselves fundraisers for Feeding America and other charities of the moment.

    The closest parallel that I can think of is back in World War II, when radio shows like Command Performance pulled out all the stops, with big stars doing their biggest numbers — as requested by the men and women on the front lines — week after week, “till it’s over, over there!” We may not have a wartime president, but this has been some kick-ass wartime TV.

    Yes, we have to get back to real life. Jeopardy! needs to come back, not only because we need Alex Trebek but so that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner can resume their nightly dinner ritual in person. Ellen DeGeneres needs to get back in the studio and start treating her crew right. Above all, we need to have those unmade endings and new beginnings made for shows that didn’t lend themselves so easily to Zoomification, like last night’s improvised season finale of All Rise, or ABC's Disney Family Singalong part deux (airing Sunday, May 10th).

    I’ve enjoyed this season of seat-of-the-pants TV (pantsless TV, not so much). But I’ve never been more eager for next season to start.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Coronavirus, All Rise, American Idol, Anderson Cooper 360, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Disney Family Singalong, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jeopardy!, Late Night with Seth Meyers, One World: Together at Home, Real Time with Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, Anthony Fauci, Brad Pitt, Charlie Watts, David Katz (doctor), Lorne Michaels, Zoom