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TV depicting a post-COVID world feels even more awkward in wake of the Omicron surge

  • "In the real world, the Omicron variant may be driving case counts into the stratosphere, but on TV, the pandemic is playing dead," says James Poniewozik, adding: "It’s striking that TV, whose strength is the ability to stay on top of the moment, has generally worked so hard to avoid the biggest thing to happen to its collective audience in the past two years. You could easily imagine face masks becoming a staple, even a cliché, of period dramas some day — a visual shorthand for 'the turbulent days of 2020' the way a shot of the corner of Haight and Ashbury says 'the ’60s' — even as future rerun-watchers puzzle at why they’re nowhere to be found in the TV of our own time." This dissonance has been remarked upon before, but the disparity between real life and fiction is even greater as the Omicron surge has led to skyrocketing COVID cases. As Poniewozik notes, Carrie Bradshaw recently quipped on And Just Like That, “Remember when we legally had to stand six feet apart from one another?” Meanwhile, fellow HBO Max show Love Life tackled the pandemic for one episode, then began the next with people in theater unmasked. "Some prime-time series about doctors, police and other emergency workers made fitful efforts to depict Covid, but their mask discipline sagged over time," says Poniewozik. "Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, brought the pandemic full-on to Seattle Grace hospital in fall 2020. By fall 2021, it opened with the disclaimer that it now 'portrays a fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future.' These are all understandable choices, and maybe the only creatively practical ones. But they make for some potent cognitive dissonance. When I watched a 'post-pandemic Grey’s episode recently on Hulu, it opened with a pre-roll ad urging me to get a booster shot. For programs that simply try to show how people live daily life, the pandemic’s challenges are both subtler and more pervasive than those presented by past catastrophes. After 9/11, there was no need for homeland-security alerts to impinge on Friends, and the subsequent fixation on terrorism was even a natural driver of plot for action thrillers." Poniewozik adds: "There’s a note of wistful, wishful thinking in all this retconning of reality — would that we could write a time jump into our own scripts! But there’s also the simple matter of timing. TV generally works on a faster schedule than movies or books, but it’s not instantaneous (and shooting during Covid tends to take longer). So TV creators — suddenly conscripted, like educators and restaurant managers, into making public-health decisions they never expected to be part of the job description — have been left to guess at Covid’s future like a hapless pop culture C.D.C. In some cases, what’s onscreen now is a time capsule from the heady early days of vaccine optimism... Maybe it’s only fitting that TV producers should muddle through this garbage storm like everyone else, unsure what the rules will be by airtime, wishing they knew where the pandemic fell on the spectrum between temporary emergency and permanent way of life. And I’m sure plenty of viewers would rather be reminded of anything else. But you’re reminded anyway, if only by the twinge of uncanniness from seeing TV characters act as if the pandemic were history, even as you’re still trying to get your hands on rapid antigen tests."


    • It's jarring to watch shows like And Just Like That and This Is Us in their post-COVID world: "Of course, I wasn’t expecting AJLT to, say, address how COVID-19 has ravaged New York City and exacerbated existing economic inequities," says Marina Fang. "The appeal of the show, like its predecessor, is its soapy escapism. So I expected AJLT to be set firmly in a post-pandemic world. Still, I wince a little when a character refers to COVID-19 in the past tense, like in the show’s initial episodes, when we learned what some of the characters did during the pandemic. It feels especially discordant to watch Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte spend carefree days around the city, attending social events and going to restaurants and bars. Even prior to the omicron wave, when some of us were able to safely resume some of our pre-pandemic activities — albeit with much caution and ambivalence — it felt like watching a fantasy world. That discomfort has only deepened as the omicron variant has led to a new surge in COVID-19 cases. Many service-oriented businesses are shuttering yet again because of the variant’s high transmissibility, and their workers have already suffered immensely throughout the pandemic. AJLT is not the show to tackle that story. But it’s jarring nonetheless, especially here in New York, where the trauma of the first wave of the pandemic has permanently shaken so many of us. It’s also jarring to watch shows that previously did an admirable job of directly incorporating the pandemic, but have now fast-forwarded to a post-COVID world. Last year, NBC’s This Is Us devoted much of its season to the effects of the pandemic. We saw members of the Pearson family self-isolating, navigating changing rules and restrictions, and not being able to physically be there for each other. We saw them trying to figure out pandemic modifications to major life events, like births and weddings. And we saw how the pandemic altered their jobs and livelihoods, like with Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who finally fulfilled her dream of opening her own dance studio ― only to have to close it, like so many small businesses and performing arts organizations over the past two years. This week, the show returned for its sixth and final season, beginning to wrap up the Pearsons’ storylines. It would be cumbersome to do that while continuing to set the show in our COVID-19 reality. But it’s strange to hear the pandemic mentioned in a casual, throwaway line, no longer of importance, like in Tuesday’s season premiere."

    TOPICS: And Just Like That, Grey's Anatomy, Love Life, This Is Us, Coronavirus