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Thursday, 2 September 2021

Has covid-19 on the small screen ruined escapism?

Covid-19 has heralded a new era of TV realism: Production on some of the world’s most popular television shows came to a screeching halt in March 2020 thanks to, well, you know. Now, multiple shows have made a comeback with storylines that include covid-19, but audience reactions have been mixed, with some citing pandemic fatigue as the reason they’re tuning out of shows with covid storylines.

Medical-themed shows have been at the forefront of this trend: ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy highlighted how covid-19 affects medical staff, patients and their families in its season 17 return, making the pandemic the main focus of the season. Universal Studios’ Chicago Med also took a deep dive into the pandemic, introducing a covid-19 ICU unit and other elements to the show. Others, like Fox’s The Resident, only included covid-19 in one episode — the season premier — and chose to set the remainder of the episodes in a post-vaccine world. Similarly, ABC’s The Good Doctor made covid-19 the focus of a two-episode special before continuing the season in a world where the pandemic has been brought under control.

But it’s not just dramas that are working covid into their storylines, comedies are on board, too: ABC sitcom Blackish incorporates the pandemic into its storyline through the work of the family matriarch, a doctor at a local hospital, while NBC workplace comedy Superstore shows shop employees struggling with social distancing, mask-wearing on the job, and their bosses’ failure to provide adequate PPE.

Egyptian TV shows have largely ignored covid in their storylines despite two years of Ramadan shows coming out during the pandemic. The only exception we can think of is Wara Kol Bab, which aired on Al Hayah. The show saw a new and separate story unfold in every five episodes, with one of the stories being fully about the pandemic and called “Malnaash Ela Ba'd”. The Thief on Shahid also had depictions of the pandemic — with Bayoumi Fouad playing a germaphobe who sprays everyone and everything around him with disinfectant — but the virus had little to do with the actual plot of the show and acted as more of a background theme. Meanwhile, the popular Ramadan show Le’bet Newton deliberately ensured the timeline of events didn’t overlap with the start of the pandemic, instead ending the show before March 2020.

Other Egyptian shows dodged the reality of the pandemic by travelling through time: Sci-fi series COVID-25 took a futuristic approach to its depiction of the ongoing pandemic, showing it out in a more surreal and technologically-driven context years from now even as it was playing out in reality. Mohamed Ramadan’s show Mousa also saw the writers include a pandemic, but they opted out of covid and instead chose the cholera outbreak in Egypt in the 1940s.

Should Egyptian producers have done more to put covid on TV? Mixed audience reactions reflect how the pandemic affected each person differently, according to Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces, assistant professor for psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. Some viewers have found the inclusion of a pertinent, real-life issue in what is meant to be a fictional drama disorienting, while others — particularly those who have lost a loved one or otherwise suffered because of covid-19 — have found its ubiquity even in TV shows triggering, and even upsetting.

But some showrunners felt it was necessary to acknowledge covid-19 in their shows: Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff has said she was on the fence about making covid-19 a major part of the storyline, but the series’ senior surgical advisor, Naser Alazari, argued the show had a responsibility to address the biggest medical crisis in recent history, especially since the show has such a wide reach.

How will future audiences look back on covid-19 through fiction? TV shows are a common way for the average person to “learn” about history — and they’re not held to any particular standard of professional accuracy. Too often, they provide not just an oversimplified view, but a skewed or simply inaccurate one. A major point of contention is TV shows’ tendency to condense long periods of time into mere minutes, subtracting in their portrayal a major element of the collective covid-19 experience; the long weeks of lockdown and the seemingly endless waiting for an end to the pandemic. The trope of humanity collectively coming together to fight the pandemic also flattens out important issues such as vaccine inequity in parts of the world such as ours — and turns a blind eye to how different countries were impacted to varying degrees based on their wealth and access to resources.

Seeing covid-19 onscreen may be jarring now, but these shows could be a valuable resource for future generations: From World War II to the French Revolution and the Spanish Flu, portrayals of historical events onscreen have helped form our collective understanding of these significant milestones in human history. What we may now view as a reactionary trend that tried (and sometimes failed) to grasp audience attention through half-baked storylines could be how the children of tomorrow remember, and understand the pandemic. Provided, of course, we’re not on the sigma variant of covid-37 by then.

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