Arts & Culture

Blending Fiction With Reality: COVID-19 on the Small Screen

As new television programs and seasons premiere, it is clear that COVID-19 is not relegated to reality; it is bleeding into fictional worlds as well. Long-running shows such as This is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, Superstore, and more—along with newly created series like Social Distance—have set the storylines of their new seasons in the midst of the pandemic. Blending fiction with reality showcases characters grappling with the same timely issues as their audiences, affecting the way viewers experience television in the process. For some, television serves as an escape from reality, but for others, television programs reflect their daily struggles and create comfort through relatability. 

Incorporating the pandemic into the storylines of scripted shows creates an opportunity to explore a variety of issues and to generate dialogue around real struggles that people are enduring as a result of COVID-19. As Film and Media Studies Professor Tasha Oren explained, “There are [many] ways that television could explore issues that feel of the moment for COVID, but also have repercussions beyond just one thing…TV is very bad at preaching at people, but it’s really good at suggesting norms.” The norms that television programs suggest influence the perceived mainstream opinions on the pandemic’s effects and severity. 

For example, Grey’s Anatomy demonstrates how COVID-19 has put a massive strain on the healthcare system and healthcare workers by showing doctors quarantined from their families, losing hundreds of patients to the virus, and even suffering from COVID-19 themselves. Meanwhile, Superstore’s season premiere highlighted the exploitation and health risks essential workers are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. When characters experience these hardships in their workplaces, these issues can become more personal and visible to those who are not otherwise directly exposed to them. Miranda Feinberg, a junior majoring in English and Film and Media Studies, explained the importance of showing people these realities through fiction: “I think it’s definitely positive to portray the more mundane problems that people are facing where not everyone has access to PPE and to masks…and not everyone can stay home.”

The new season of This Is Us is also set in present day—allowing it to call attention to other current events coinciding with the pandemic, such as Black Lives Matter protests and increased mainstream awareness of police brutality. Oren noted, “All of the issues that we’re dealing with are not separate from each other.” Including COVID-19 into television programs means far more than just inclusion of the virus; viewers are exposed to the many complexities of the present moment and how they are intertwined. The events and conversations that take place between television characters directly translate into the lives of viewers because storylines are taking place in our current reality. 

There are many individuals who feel comforted by seeing COVID-19 weaved into their favorite shows. “Incorporating something that’s happening…if it’s done well, makes a show alive. It makes a show part of our world,” explained Oren. The pandemic has isolated people more than ever, and television can be a point of connection and a way of alleviating feelings of loneliness. In an interview conducted over email, junior Julian Blatt—a member of TUTV— said, “In an age of extreme separation and division, we need reassurance that there are millions of people who feel just as alone as we do.”

With this opportunity also comes the concern that shows may minimize the severity of the situation by only briefly touching on the pandemic and related issues before quickly reverting back to “normal” plots while people continue to experience the same hardships. It is also possible for the pandemic to be used in an insensitive manner merely to create drama. Blatt said, “[I]ncluding the pandemic as a plot point solely for the sake of adding drama is inappropriate, and offensive to those who have lost loved ones or were victims themselves.” There can be great benefits to having fictional characters share experiences with viewers, but storylines must be handled and developed tactfully to have a positive effect. 

Creators and producers of television programs have numerous reasons for situating their shows during the current moment. For one thing, many of the programs premiering this fall were filmed during the pandemic, so including it in the story lends itself well to filming under current health and safety restrictions. Resuming production during a pandemic has been no small feat, and building in plausible excuses for masks, social distancing, and/or Zoom calls has made the process significantly easier. 

Additionally, what is “normal” and relatable has been dramatically altered during these times, and conforming to these changes allows television shows to maintain a certain amount of relevance and realism. Everyday life is so different today from a year ago that excluding COVID-19 from storylines could feel unnatural or bizarre to viewers, as Oren emphasized: “Especially if a show is set in a situation in which [COVID-19] would be an issue, it’s really very hard for a show to just ignore it [and] pretend it doesn’t exist.” This alienation would be a barrier to genuine connection with the stories and characters. Oren also noted, “[Shows’ creators] want audiences to be emotionally connected with the characters or the stories. They want to touch people’s lives.” 

For many, there is a sense that the current times are historically important and therefore must be preserved by creators—even in fiction. As the writer and creator of the new scripted TUTV series When the Masks Come Off, Blatt voiced this sentiment: “We live in an era truly unlike any other, and if I had decided against incorporating such a unique moment in history into the series I know I would regret it forever.” 

Viewers have many different motivations for watching television, so there are bound to be varying reactions to and opinions on this inclusion of COVID-19. Some people do not want to see reminders of their real lives in fiction due to the heightened stress of the current times. Oren spoke to the increased appeal of escapism right now, stating, “[People are] watching a lot of old movies and they’re also watching a lot of shows that don’t replicate the kind of anxiety that they…live with every day.” 

For that reason and others, many shows have chosen to omit the pandemic from their storylines altogether. Feinberg said, “There’s so many different ways that different people are experiencing [the pandemic], [so] it makes sense why a lot of people would veer away from including it in the show…I feel like it’s hard to navigate it in a respectful way or just in a responsible way even.” In some instances though, shows—such as Young Sheldon and The Goldbergs—are logically ignoring COVID-19 because they are set in the past, allowing them to offer escapism without being critiqued. It may be comforting for viewers to carve out time where they are not forced to engage with their stressors and are reminded of more simple times. Viewers may avoid shows that focus on the current pandemic now because it is too much to handle, but potentially also would not want to return to it at a later date because it is so specific to this current moment and would no longer feel as relatable. 

The pandemic’s inclusion in television’s fictional universes is a complicated decision for creators. Time will only tell if this trend will continue as more programs are able to resume production and are forced to choose how to—or how not to—deal with the pandemic. Oren shared, “I’m hoping that this experience with COVID and everything that’s happening now is kind of a shot in the arm for people to really start thinking about the kind of world they reflect in the stories they write.”