Covid-19 in Television: Is it Too Soon to Cover the Pandemic?

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F E A T U R E – S H O W 

Raya Mehnaz

After suffering much of the 2020 perpetually in a limbo, last fall saw multiple network televisions come back to life, this time with a few added pandemic storylines. From established medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Good Doctor, to newly established shows focused entirely on the pandemic such as Connecting, Social Distance, there are multifarious ways Covid-19 has been portrayed on television even though the global health crisis is nowhere near done with its upheaval.

It is understandable why some shows have taken up the heavy burden of portraying the incessant misery of Covid at a time when it would be too irresponsible not to. The shows which were already in post-production when the pandemic hit, could very well wait in deciding to include a storyline about the pandemic. However, the shows which were geared to return to television, or already in pre-production, had to come to terms with Covid-19 restrictions very quickly.

In theory, it made complete sense to include the masks & face shield in showverse than have its precious actors get infected or the production get accused of negligence. What we have in application is a couple of half-baked Covid storylines thrown here and there, and some straight up tragedy porn happening on our screen at a time every single person in the world has experienced some modicum of that tragedy because of the pandemic; which brings up the titular question again, is it too soon for television to include pandemic storylines?

Pandemic Storylines: Empowering or Tone Deaf?

There is no shortage of opinions on why covering the pandemic at a time where we are still suffering the brunt of the effects is opportunistic at best, and severely tone-deaf at worst. When we look at the myriad storylines we had the pleasure (or displeasure) of watching, we cannot but feel fatigued by these obtrusive contents that are already apparent in our daily life. No one denies the wide-ranging effects of Covid-19. Neither is anyone denying that it has affected our social, economic, political life in such dramatic ways that it might be impossible to go back. So, what does Grey’s Anatomy and their particular brand of melodramatic tragedy teach us about dealing with the pandemic that we have not yet figured out ourselves?

In its brand new season, Grey’s Anatomy tackled the pandemic head on. The storyline finally culminated in the episode where the titular character, Meredith Grey (played by Ellen Pompeo) contracts Covid and promptly falls face first into the pavement following a gruelling day of tending to infected patients. Grey’s Anatomy has always been on the nose at showing tragedy as witnessed from their performative portrayals of school shooting and plane crashes. It, however, seems to forget that its creative freedom lies in using general events carefully woven in a way so it doesn’t get confused with actual events. Taking a huge detour from such apathetic selection of real-world tragedy to comment on, Grey’s Anatomy‘s new season doesn’t pull any punches. Showing a child of an infected doctor begging for her mommy to wake up? Completely fine as long as Grey’s Anatomy brings its veteran characters in a fictional beach scene.

Everything is well within the creative liberties of the show makers, not concerning how one such scene would look to someone who is also on the verge of losing their mother, their grandmother, their neighbourhood uncle who always greets them with a smile. Would they find a kindred spirit within that little girl, or would they find such a scene extremely tone-deaf to their own experiences that had very real-life consequences?

The Authenticity Problem

There is a point to be made about the authenticity of the pandemic that is being portrayed. Especially when covering a real-life event at the time of its occurrence remains to be a historically terrible call. There is a reason nobody remembers Heroes, one of the very first films to grace the screen about the Vietnam war, but perfectly remembers Apocalypse Now, which accurately portrayed the horrors of the war after four more years of perspective. Which makes sense as the storylines about the actual events tend to have very contemporary political and social elements which show up in their respective mediums. When the topic and the event in question are as polarised as Covid, the lines between art and life get a little blurred, but not as perfectly as one would expect.

While we are in the middle of the second year of the pandemic, with no end in sight, it is uncertain what perspectives we will have after it’s over. So, the pandemic focused titles that have adorned our screens, from Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona to Netflix’s Social Distance, it seems less likely that these programmes will follow the paradigm shift that is bound to happen in coming to terms with the tragedy that is Covid-19, and more likely, it is just Hollywood’s way to shove a bucket of “forced pandemic relatability” down our already abused throats.

Not that Covid should be forgotten or shoved under the rug. It, by nature, deserves to be picked and prodded, analysed and interpreted in as many ways as it can. It is, after all, one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century, and books, movies and television are bound to tell the stories of what we as a species have experienced. However, there needs to be a grace period before Covid programmes can truly exist to be enjoyed. It was only a month ago we banded together to chant “India needs oxygen”, and we cannot in the very same breath find enjoyment in the performative sufferings of the crisis that is still unfolding. 


Raya likes to critically analyse anything regarding pop culture, and when she’s not doing that, she likes to live life dangerously — one House MD episode at a time.

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