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How TV Has Adapted to COVID This Fall (And How it Hasn’t)

Denial, disruptions, and unexpected delights as TV responds to coronavirus.
  • ABC's The Conners has been addressing the pandemic head-on.
    ABC's The Conners has been addressing the pandemic head-on.

    It’s been seven months since I wrote my first obituary for Pandemic Television, back when I was under the impression that a curve, once flattened, stays flat. That bit of wishful thinking had led me to believe the fall season was around the corner and that we would soon be done with Zoom singalongs, daily COVID pressers, and SNL At Home.

    Well, those early-pandemic shows did go away, but they were replaced by what I'll call mid-pandemic fare: the Zoom talk shows, CBS Sunday movie “spectaculars,” and schedule fillers picked up from Canada, Britain, and Australia. There have also been corners of Television World that mirror those people in the real world who've tried resuming normal life and pretending that the virus isn’t in charge. Just this weekend I was watching an NFL game in which everyone wore masks and the booth announcers were separated by plexiglass, when on came a commercial that showed friends getting together indoors to swig Coca-Cola without masks or physical distancing. Who’s doing that right now? If you said “I am,” please stop.

    Anyway, with so much having changed in recent months, it’s time to take another snapshot of Pandemic TV.

    We interrupt this program

    COVID-19 lockdowns expanded the demand for home entertainment around the world, but at the same time, they shrunk the supply. Production on TV shows came to a screeching halt in March. Netflix, which keeps its larder full for months at a time, hardly missed a beat, while most everyone else scrambled for fresh programming. Films headed for suddenly-empty cineplexes were steered to the small screen: Greyhound, Black Beauty, Mank, and Wonder Woman 1984 to name just a few.

    After game shows and reality shows, professional sports were the next fresh source of televised entertainment to arrive this summer. The NBA, WNBA, NHL, and MLB completed shortened seasons in central facilities with strict COVID protocols and no fans allowed. Basketball responded especially well, with fun, high-scoring games held inside a secure “bubble” in Orlando. Only teams that were playoff-eligible under the abbreviated schedule were invited. The Washington Wizards barely got in with their 24-40 record, meaning that they were on the bubble to go in the bubble, and thus the most 2020 team of 2020.

    Meanwhile, studio executives, talent agencies, unions and public health officials fretted over how to resume scripted show production. No sooner did some shows get the green light than the red light came on. Young Sheldon, Mythic Quest, and The Witcher are among those that had to hit pause when someone on the set tested positive. Richard Schiff of The Good Doctor got COVID in Vancouver on Nov. 3 and had to be hospitalized. Now with case levels spiking in California, the specter of dozens of network shows shutting down again is very real. One producer aptly compared the situation to “a restaurant packed with hungry customers and suddenly the kitchen has a grease fire.”

    The loss of revenue and costs related to retooling shows mean that the networks have had to penny-pinch, just like the rest of us, until the storm passes. GLOW, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, and Stumptown were among the shows that bit the dust, all three having had their earlier renewals revoked. Most network series will have fewer episodes this season. As Emily VanDerWerff pointed out, those beloved episodes that showcase a single character (or insect) will be the first to go.

    Fake audiences

    Until the age of 15, most of the television comedies I watched were accompanied by canned laughter. To me, then, it’s not that strange to tune in a locked-down sporting event and hear only fake crowd noise. Or to tune in to a daytime talk show and see a video wall of virtual audience members — or rather, their disembodied heads — carrying on excitedly for their webcams.

    There’s a reason they call it dead silence. Whether you’re a late-night host or a Premier League striker, you feed off your audience. No wonder that when Bill Maher started shooting his HBO show in his backyard, his director dropped in bits of canned laughter, some of them older than me.

    With most late-night hosts now back at their studios, some have opted to bring a few people (staff mostly) to supply reaction noises. Jimmy Kimmel Live feels exactly like it did before the pandemic — actually, it’s better. I don’t need elaborate tirades against this president every single night, as I get on other shows. Kimmel, late night’s premiere roastmaster, comes loaded every show with one-liners, and the small crowd eats them up. At he same time, Peacock’s Amber Ruffin Show, which is filmed in a nearly empty studio, has embraced the awkward silence and is funnier for it.

    Sports this fall consists of two of the biggest TV moneymakers in the world — America’s NFL and England’s Premier League. The two leagues couldn’t be more different in their handling of the coronavirus. Despite imposing six-figure fines to teams that violate sideline mask policy, and delaying games for teams with too many players testing positive for COVID-19, the NFL is plagued week after week by high infection rates. The league is also letting fans into some stadiums (usually at 20 percent of capacity), and I have little confidence that this is being handled any better. By contrast, a recent Premier League testing regimen produced just eight positives across the entire 20-team league, including all players and club staff. That’s less than half the number of positives on just one clueless NFL team. No one’s being let in the Premier League stadiums right now. The piped-in noise is music to my ears.

    COVID in TV shows

    Easily the most surreal moment this fall was the premiere of ABC’s Big Sky, when a character acknowledged the ongoing pandemic at the end of an episode in which nobody wore a mask or physically distanced.

    Most shows, though, have been able to make up their minds about the coronavirus. CBS’s All Rise, ABC’s The Conners and NBC’s This Is Us are among those that leaned into the pandemic, with plexiglas courtrooms, masked-up visits, and storylines reflecting the economic hardships faced by millions during the lockdown. NBC’s Connecting…, a comedy about millennials done entirely through video chats, leaned so far into the pandemic that it fell over.

    Other shows simply carry on in some COVID-free alternate universe, perhaps the same utopic one where all the Big Pharma ads get made. I get it — television shows aren’t cheap to produce. And the studios are thinking about the impact to a show’s value in syndication if there are 15 or 20 episodes of people in masks. They’re betting that viewers won’t find COVID denial weird after months of COVID denial by our elected officials, which was definitely weird. No, they say to themselves, people are turning to TV for an escape from the worst virus in more than a century.

    It’s wishful thinking. But hey, we all do it from time to time.

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

    TOPICS: Coronavirus, The Amber Ruffin Show, Big Sky, Connecting, The Good Doctor, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Stumptown, English Premier League, NBA, NFL