The Pandemic in Our Living Rooms

Is it possible to escape when COVID-19 invades our TV?

Featured image via “Coronavirus school closures: What do they mean for student equity and inclusion?” from OECD Education and Skills Today

The common stress of college that students have faced for years has recently combined with the “novel” and “unprecedented times” brought on by COVID-19. So now more than ever, students are scrambling for ways to escape from thoughts of stressors such as school and the pandemic.

Escapism is a common phenomenon that many activate through video games, movies, and TV among other things. The concept itself is simple: people engage with materials that distract them from the issues plaguing their lives, thereby getting a reprieve from their stress and responsibility. And while the health of the habit is under debate, its effectiveness is easily seen when we get lost in a movie for a few hours or find ourselves miraculously halfway through a new television series. 

But the question remains of where the tools of escapism—TV shows, for example—should intersect with reality. If shows are too close to reality, does their value as tools of escapism fall? This is especially relevant for Covid, which is still plaguing our lives. We are much too close to the times of quarantines to be able to make a ruling on this question when it comes to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, shows that have continued to run through the pandemic have had to make a decision: avoid the topic of the pandemic completely, face it head-on, or place their characters somewhere between Covid and “normal” times.

Faced with these options, several shows have made their decision and received mixed reviews for them. Shows like “Superstore,” “South Park,” and “Shameless” have not only broached the topic of the pandemic, but put their characters in masks and set them off to deal with Covid-related plotlines and issues. 

Covid as seen in “Superstore,” “South Park,” and “Shameless.” Photo credits: NBC via The New York Times, Comedy Central via Entertainment Weekly, and Showtime via Hollywood Reporter.

“South Park” made two special episodes for the pandemic, not committing to the inclusion of Covid to nearly the same level as “Superstore” and “Shameless,” which both discussed the pandemic as part of their last seasons. The difference is both of these shows aim to represent the lives of working-class people, “Shameless” from a drama perspective and “Superstore” from that of a workplace sitcom. Both shows were also working with live actors, compared to the animation and voice actors working on “South Park”—a fact which contributed to Covid being included.

“Superstore” worked to make the pandemic a long-term issue, reflecting the lived experience of its viewers. It included plotlines and mentions of Covid over multiple episodes about the pandemic, its impact on customers’ behaviors, and masks. But, according to a Vulture article which quotes a few of the show’s creators, producers, and writers, the decisions about who should wear masks and when were incredibly complicated. One of the writers, Owen Ellickson, is quoted discussing the team’s desire to include masks balanced with the “brutal” viewing experience of having the actors wear masks in more scenes than not. 

The reception for the integration of Covid in “Superstore” was relatively positive, with articles citing the show’s ability to laugh about a difficult situation and maintain Covid in the background without making the jokes and storylines the whole focus. 

But “Superstore” had a distinct advantage when approaching Covid: it took place in a big-box store, where unique customer behavior and employee awareness of proximity to Covid had its home throughout the pandemic. Because of this, it was somewhat equipped to integrate Covid into its plot. Other shows didn’t have this obligation to tie in the pandemic, and so their efforts to include the pandemic mostly consisted of a flippant joke or two. 

With brief remarks, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Mr. Mayor” establish post-pandemic worlds. Photo credits: HBO via USA Today and NBC via The Hollywood Reporter.

Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Mr. Mayor,” in particular, set their seasons in a post-pandemic world with one or two jokes establishing Covid as an event firmly in the past. The reasons for this are many, but Larry David, the creator of the former, specifically commented on his belief that he doesn’t think the addition of Covid things—like masks and social distancing—would have been funny. 

This, of course, is a central concern of whether a TV show that discusses the pandemic can effectively satiate the viewer’s desire to escape from real-world problems. But where is the line of including real-world issues and producing a show that viewers can escape into—what do viewers want? Unfortunately, many aspects of this question are incredibly subjective; what types of shows a person normally watches, why they seek out one show over another, and what they want to get out of watching a show all can impact their opinion on Covid representation on TV.

With the proliferation of streaming services and non-weekly TV show structures, as well as the sheer amount of TV shows in recent years, many people don’t keep up with shows the way they used to. Even if a majority of the nation isn’t tuning in on a specific night anymore, though, TV is still a widely known and discussed topic that many still have an opinion on. 

Brady, who chose not to disclose their last name, is a political science major at Pitt who voiced their opinion on Covid on TV. They haven’t watched much TV since the start of the pandemic, and said that Covid should be discussed in shows, as TV should represent the problems of the current time. 

Ashley, who also chose not to disclose their last name, is a 20-year-old nursing major who watches a lot of TV and has seen Covid represented in some of the shows they keep up with, including the final season of “Shameless.” Even with this representation, Ashley said, “It’s just kind of weird watching it when we’re going through it. Would I prefer that it wasn’t occurring in TV? Yeah, probably.”

There isn’t one way for a person to escape from their daily stresses, and the variety of ways Covid has been represented on TV since 2020 reflects that. Some viewers are able to watch shows with characters that are either blissfully unaware of the pandemic or living in a world that has overcome the pandemic. Others can watch characters face the same issues that the viewers are, providing comfort, recognition, and understanding to the viewer.

Until Covid is truly in our rearview mirrors, we won’t be able to fully say which strategy works best to address this issue so central to everyone’s lives, but at least there are options for many escapist attitudes.