In April 2020, when it became abundantly clear that the threat posed by COVID-19 wasn’t going away any time soon I remember thinking to myself, “God, I hope television shows don’t tackle this virus.”
In the early months of the pandemic, people were stress-watching Contagion, imagining how beloved characters from shows like The Office would handle COVID-19, and asking writers like Tina Fey and Mike Schur how their coronavirus episode scripts would look. That was all well and good, because although there are parallels between Contagion and our coronavirus reality, the movie is ultimately a fictional account of a deadly outbreak. And while pandemic episodes of 30 Rock, Lost, Friday Night Lights, and other off-air TV favorites were being pondered, I was confident that they’d never make their way to screens.
What I really feared was the return of on-air television shows, which had two choices: Ignore the pandemic entirely, or find a way to address it in their fictional worlds.
Was I interested in seeing coronavirus TV episodes, movies, and documentary specials? Maybe one day. But the thought of watching COVID-19 scenes play out on screen while we’re all still living through the virus, quarantining in our homes, fearing for our lives, and losing loved ones had huge “too soon” vibes.
Television has been one of the most comforting distraction for me in quarantine — an escape to the Before Times when people could live mask-free, attend large gatherings, and have as much in-person human contact as they wanted. So I didn’t want my favorite shows to crush my nostalgic fantasies by mirroring our present-day reality. Fast-forward to fall 2020 when new and returning TV shows started to premiere and This Is Us, Black-ish, South Park, and more all released COVID-19-related episodes.
I’ll be the first to admit I had serious doubts about COVID-19 playing out on TV, but every coronavirus episode I’ve seen has left me feeling unexpectedly thankful for the viewing experience.
Dramas like This Is Us tackling the coronavirus
When I learned the Season 5 premiere of This Is Us, “Forty: Part One,” would tackle the coronavirus “head on” I straight-up winced. This Is Us is as dramatic as shows come nowadays, so I was genuinely scared to see what elaborate, potentially cheesy Jack-flashback scenes Dan Fogelman and team had in store. What the show gave viewers, however, was a thoughtful, true-to-life picture of a family navigating a pandemic.
Was going to go to bed early but then I found out that This Is Us is going to “attack” the coronavirus “head on” and I woke up
— Nicole Gallucci (@nicolemichele5) August 17, 2020
When I first saw Kevin on screen in a mask during the October premiere I scoffed. “This is ridiculous,” I said out loud, only to find myself sobbing uncontrollably on my couch less than 10 minutes later.
The show touched on mask-wearing, social distancing, Zoom fatigue, air hugs, the difficulty of celebrating milestones in a pandemic, exhaustive hand sanitizing, PPE shortages, George Floyd’s murder, protests against racism and police brutality, furloughs, virtual therapy appointments, and news-watching overload before the title screen even appeared.
It was a drastically sped-up, incomplete picture of 2020, but it hit incredibly close-to-home and served as a successful reminder of the many challenges we’d collectively faced. Crying over the condensed supercut of our year not only helped me release pent up emotions; it also reminded me how resilient we are.
Comedies like Superstore finding laughter in the face of tragedy
Before watching Superstore’s Season 6 premiere, “Essential,” that same feeling of apprehension came over me. I adore the show and it’s never let me down before, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if they miss the mark? How could one possibly find a single shred of comedy in such a dark time? And if they do succeed, who are we to even laugh right now?”
The Superstore writers did more than just succeed with their coronavirus episode, they shined a light on the sacrifices of essential grocery store workers while simultaneously offering fans some much-needed levity.
Amy, Jonah, Glenn, and the rest of the Cloud 9 crew found themselves in utter chaos when the pandemic started to unfold. The cold open perfectly addressed the madness of March 2020: finding out sports seasons were on hold, hearing case numbers were on the rise across the United States, and learning that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had the virus. As the episode went on, writers touched on everything from 20-second hand washing and early confusion about how COVID-19 spreads to lack of PPE for supermarket workers.
“Essential” painted a picture of humanity at a low point — hoarding bottled water, toilet paper, and cleaning products; disrespecting one another and taking essential workers for granted; and pulling a “Karen” to throw an anti-masker scene in public — but it also showed how people went above and beyond to make the best of a shitty situation and keep their loved ones safe.
It’s an episode with a lot of heart that called out some very real, very ridiculous behavior displayed by humans in the early months of the pandemic. But “Essential” managed to strike a remarkable balance between igniting empathy for essential workers and encouraging laughter at extremely relatable coronavirus conundrums. It made fans feel like it was OK to experience joy in the midst of total despair — if only for 20 minutes.
The Resident bringing medical show expertise to the table
Medical shows like The Resident are obviously in a unique spot when it comes to pandemic episodes.
In a Season 3 episode (which filmed before the coronavirus hit the United States) The Resident team worked to contain a superbug called Candida auris that was wildly spreading throughout Chastain Park Memorial Hospital. The fear and destruction brought on by the superbug was real, relatable, and palpable through the screen, and since the episode aired in April 2020 it struck a real COVID-19 nerve amongst viewers. The writers and actors brought that same seriousness and meticulous attention to detail when creating the Season 4 premiere, “A Wedding, A Funeral,” which aired on Jan. 21, 2021.
Unlike most coronavirus episodes, “A Wedding, A Funeral” took place in the future at a safe, mask-free wedding. Through flashbacks, the episode told the story of Chastain’s doctors struggling to work on the frontlines of the coronavirus, along with raw, heartbreaking tales of loss. However, it also painted a picture of hope and showed a light at the end of this seemingly pitch black tunnel.
When watching the premiere I violently sobbed at the fictional portrayal of a COVID-struck emergency room, the sight of other people dealing with sick loved ones, and the image of healthcare workers risking their lives on the job, because I knew those experiences weren’t fictional at all. But I also cried tears of joy when watching the fictional future that The Resident painted — one where we’re able to start our recovery process, celebrate joyous moments, and try to live life to the fullest again.
With coronavirus episodes, it’s hit or miss
Coronavirus episodes aren’t going to be for everyone.
I can personally vouch for these three, but there are a number of others I haven’t watched, and I can only assume some will miss the mark, feel too soon or too triggering, and may leave you more discouraged than you were when you sat down to watch.
For me, reflecting on our coronavirus journey — pain and all — has been helpful. Crying feels good right now, and I often find it easier to cry when watching others experience traumatic events than when experiencing them myself.
Internalizing the secondhand fear and frustration of television characters I’ve come to know and love over the years also helped me get outside of my own personal COVID-19 bubble. The episodes were all emotional in their own ways, but they each reminded my that no one is alone on this journey and empathizing with others is essential.