Stop letting COVID infect TV

·3 min read
A television.
A television. Illustrated | iStock

Succession's third-season premiere brought a welcome return Sunday night — no, not Cousin Greg, but a world in which the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't happened yet and perhaps never will.

This season of Succession started shooting in New York "weeks after the city went into lockdown in March 2020," according to Vulture, but the show's creator, Jesse Armstrong, "decided early on that the season's finished scripts wouldn't be rewritten to incorporate the ongoing pandemic." It's a choice that marks a notable break from many other dramas in which the pandemic is an episode topic or a major plot point.

It's also a choice that should be more widely imitated. TV isn't real life, so it doesn't need to incorporate real-life events.

Comedian and podcaster Mohanad Elshieky shared a similar sentiment on Sunday: "I'm actually ok if TV shows pretend the pandemic did not happen," he tweeted in reference to the third season of Netflix's You (a show that "makes a point to reference the recent and still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic" and involves a character "smashing a vaccine skeptic's head with a rolling pin and locking him in a cage"). Though the tweet went viral, replies made clear the opinion is divisive:

Grey's Anatomy, Mr. Corman, The Morning Show, The Good Doctor, This Is Us, 911, Superstore, and Shameless are among the many shows that have dealt with the pandemic in their scripts, and I understand their logic. "You're in a pact with your audience where you have to deal with real-life s--t," Greg Berlanti, the producer for You, explained to The Hollywood Reporter in May 2020. In an interview for the same article, 911 and 911: Lone Star's Tim Minear said, "If we pretend like it's an alter-universe where this thing hasn't happened, we'd quaint ourselves into irrelevance."

But screenwriters who do reference this traumatic global event risk reducing it to a trite plotline, or, worse, an emotionally manipulative one. And while certain shows might have more justification for bringing in real-world events than others — The Morning Show, for example, has a Newsroom-like topicality and relies on its immediacy — screenwriters also aren't fooling anyone by using the pandemic as a means of grounding their shows. Without being fully warranted by a narrative, pandemic plots can become an easy way to say something "relevant" and "profound" without requiring any of the heavy lifting of introspection.

Setting aside the debate about TV as escapism, the truth is audiences are entitled to be treated like the adults we are. No one will be confused if the characters in the latest season of their favorite show aren't wearing masks. We understand how fiction works! That Succession's Logan Roy is currently more at risk of another stroke than he is COVID-19 does not make Succession irrelevant. The show must go on.

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