Pandemic TV AKA the Start of the Fall Season
by Barbara Gaillard
Every fall, I eagerly await the new season. No, not the return of Pumpkin Spice Latté or “Are you ready for some FOOTBALL!?!”For me, it’s all about the networks announcing the start of new series and returning series resolving their cliffhangers and moving forward.
So, imagine how much champing-at-the-bit impatience I experienced during the long, long, drought from March through October that was pandemic TV.
I binged anything I could find on NETFLIX, AMAZON PRIME, and the network streaming apps (yup, even EMILY IN PARIS). But nothing satisfied me for very long.
Because what we all look for is familiarity – the seasons starting and ending, characters we know acting the way they have always acted, and surprises here and there to keep it fresh.
But, at last, the COVID-delayed fall season of TV is here…sort of. And it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Not quite sure how I feel about that.
In the last couple weeks, I watched the first new TV available on the networks, including three series that included the pandemic and masks and BLM in their first episodes:
THIS IS US.
Here’s what’s interesting, at least to me:
I’ve viewed two episodes of THE CONNERS now, set in the new world of the COVID pandemic.
It’s basically a one-setting show (in the Conner house).
Overall, the dark humor continued to work well.
The grandson having to go to school, reacting with tons of hand sanitizer, temperature checks at the door to the home, ending up in a fight with the son of an anti-masker.
Darlene and Becky forced to get jobs at the paper plant where their mother (Roseanne) used to work years ago.
Aunt Jackie now delivering food from their restaurant via bicycle to keep the business alive.
The potential eviction from the house because Dan’s construction business has taken a hit.
All of it rings true. And it’s funny, in a way where we identify with the characters and nod in agreement.
I’ve seen two episodes here, too. These episodes also take place in, essentially, one setting (the house).
I think they were out of order.
The first episode I watched had the pandemic in full force, and the older son “cheating” on the pandemic to see his girlfriend outside the bubble.
And Bow at her job as a doctor, facing down the illness and death, trying to find some light at the end of the tunnel.
The second episode showed the effects of the close-down.
School closings causing the twins to be home-schooled by Dre.
Dre trying to be Mr. Mom, while working from home, and having a hysterical breakdown, where he attacks a box of off-brand Oreo look-alikes, because the cookies are the only thing keeping him going.
The kids’ taking advantage of the situation to not do their schoolwork, and realizing they need to buckle down and do the work.
I thought both episodes did a great job of balancing the issues. But we saw fewer masks in the second, possibly because it was supposed to air first?
THIS IS US
Along with tackling the usual issues, THIS IS US added the element of Randall having grown up in a white household and never really addressing racial issues or his feelings back in the day when a black man was killed by police.
The family has been quarantining in different places. And there are scenes of people staying at a distance and air hugging. It’s a naturally serious show, sometimes a tear-jerker.
The added element of BLM to this story (Randall watching footage on TV, discussions with his children, and the scene where he phones his white, female psychiatrist to say he’s changing doctors to a black psychiatrist, who will understand what he’s going through better) is interesting.
I did find myself cringing and uncomfortable with the realism of what was going on, as though I wanted to watch something entertaining to “take me away” from the truth of what’s occurring outside, rather than a carbon copy of the current world.
Online afterwards, I read reviews and commentary from others. Some felt the same way. I was astounded to find a few who were against the “political” elements of the episode (masking, BLM protests) and who claimed that they would no longer watch THIS IS US as a result of “Randall becoming a racist” (referring to his choice of a black psychiatrist).
Reflecting on the start of this very different (of course) start to the Fall Season, I’ve discovered that I’m fine with fictional characters living the pandemic experience as long as it’s in a semi-humorous way, but I’m less comfortable when the story looks more like what we’re so seriously living on the daily.
Also interesting to me (and somewhat appalling) is that when faced with the real experience on TV, some viewers divide along political lines and say they are going to boycott.
These are people who were fine with THIS IS US when it was a serialized drama, based on human issues. But they can’t see that our actions and emotions are impacted by the truth of what is happening around us, and it would be false and spurious not to include the current real world in the characters’ real world.
What’s coming next intrigues me most right now.
Do our TV series “handle” the pandemic in a few episodes and then move on, out of parallel with the reality viewers are living?
Do they continue in a pandemic setting (and will that push us to switch channels to something more “entertaining”)?
Too soon to tell … Because we haven’t yet reached the season premieres of medical shows like GREY’S ANATOMY, where the similarity between real life and reel life is bound to collide most acutely.
Barbara Gaillard has spent much of her professional life striding through the halls of Congress and the White House, as well as being an award-winning writer. We’re very pleased to have coaxed this review out of her and hope it will be the first of a series of insightful articles here.