The State of Network Television During COVID-19

The fifth season of NBC’s “This Is Us” premiered last fall and, while the meaningful drama typical of the show was in full effect, something was distinctively unusual — or perhaps, it was too familiar for comfort.

Production delays kept fans on the edge of their seats until the October season premiere. With the first episode of the new season, we finally catch up with each of the characters after waiting seven long months since Season 4’s finale last spring. One of the main characters, Kevin, finds out he’s going to have a baby. But when he goes to tell his sister the good news, he does so while standing six feet away with a mask on his face. Later in the same episode, we see Kevin and his partner, Madison, at the hospital after she experiences some pregnancy complications. Again, both Kevin and Madison are wearing masks, as is the doctor.

If it’s not yet clear what I’m alluding to, the creators of “This Is Us” decided to incorporate COVID-19 into their Season 5 storyline. And they’re not the only ones. ABC’s “The Conners” and CBS’s “All Rise” made the same creative choice. Even NBC’s “Mr. Mayor” imagined the setting of a post-COVID-19 world for its debut season.

To put it rather bluntly, I’m not the biggest fan of these choices. While I wholeheartedly believe that network television should at least attempt to relate to its audience and address important topics, the COVID-19 pandemic feels too complex for these shows to portray justly. It simply doesn’t feel like these shows are able to capture the intricacies of a year-long health crisis in a half an hour or hour-long weekly episode. At best, it’s simply unrelatable; at worst, it trivializes the dire circumstances brought about by a once-in-a-century global virus outbreak.

It simply doesn’t feel like these shows are able to capture the intricacies of a year-long health crisis in a half an hour or hour-long weekly episode.

Julia Jacobson

In addition to my personal feelings on the matter, there is also scholarship behind why this may not be the most appealing narrative to audiences. The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Larry E. Sullivan, provides a definition of escapism that speaks to a part of the reason why many of us watch television in the first place. Escapism is “the avoidance of reality by distracting the mind with some sort of entertainment…Entire entertainment businesses—radio, television, films, video games, and so on —have flourished on the premise that their programs or products help people escape.”

If part of the reason we watch television is to escape from our daily lives and experiences, perhaps grounding these shows in our coronavirus-engrossed reality is not the way to go. 

Regardless of how we feel about these creative choices, it doesn’t seem as though media depictions of life amid a global pandemic are going away anytime soon. Besides these television shows, other realms in the entertainment industry seem to have also taken hold of this trend. Borat 2, released last October, includes scenes related to the pandemic. Director Judd Apatow is currently filming his newest comedy film, and from the looks of it, COVID-19 might as well be at the top of the call sheet.

This isn’t to say that I think COVID-19 has no place on our television screens. Last October, CNN released the first in a series of specials titled The ABCs of COVID-19. In these specials, CNN correspondents and public health officials collaborated with characters from “Sesame Street” to create a public health program that is digestible for kids and families.

To me, this leveraging of the familiar characters from “Sesame Street” to communicate important information about COVID-19 is a great way to ease anxiety during a scary and confusing time for kids (and adults, too). Programs like this can offer clarity for people who may otherwise have a hard time grasping the pandemic. I would venture to say that viewers of “This Is Us” and the like are already intimately acquainted with the “new normal” that COVID-19 has brought. They’re living it.

While I don’t wish to judge all of this content too harshly — there are certainly bigger fish to fry, and these shows and films aren’t necessarily bad — I do wonder how network television will handle the slow movement back to normalcy post-pandemic, whatever that may look like. Are the creators of these shows committed to their pandemic plots for as long as it takes to control the spread of the rapidly evolving coronavirus? We’ll see.