The pros and cons of TV shows that tackle life during — or after — a pandemic

When Prince Amponsah landed a supporting role on HBO station eleventhe Toronto-born actor knew the post-apocalyptic series set in the aftermath of a pandemic would be a tough sell for some.

The show was adapted from a smash hit 2014 novel by British Columbia-born novelist Emily St. John Mandel, about a future society that was ravaged by a plague-like disease 20 years prior. As the technology has become nearly obsolete, a traveling theater group performs Shakespeare for survivors, demonstrating the value and meaning that art can bring in times of despair.

“I know a lot of people who were hesitant to say, ‘I don’t know if I really want to watch this, you know, from the things that we’re…still dealing with today in real life,'” Amponsah told CBC News.

A growing number of TV shows are trying to address the elephant in the room: does the COVID-19 pandemic exist in their universe or not? Some programming executives are avoiding COVID-related content, while others are finding creative ways to tackle the pandemic, both directly and indirectly.

“A post-apocalyptic show about joy”

In the case of station eleven, despite a gritty first episode, it’s ultimately a hopeful story, Amponsah said.

“I’m glad people are taking the time to invest in the story and the outcome of the hope that it’s kind of trying to represent,” he said.

And the show’s time jump prevents it from dwelling too long on how things fell apart.

“I think the reason some people are able to look station eleven at this moment, it is that he is ignoring the apocalypse; it mostly happens off-screen,” said Emily VanDerWerff, TV critic for US news site Vox. “It gives us space to imagine our own version.”

Prior to its December 2021 airing, a TV adaptation of the novel had been in development at WarnerMedia — HBO’s parent company — for two and a half years. Filming for the series began in January 2020 and was put on hold when the pandemic began two months later. A year passed and the series started filming again in February 2021.

WATCH | HBO Max series trailer station eleven:

When asked if the studio had considered canceling the series in light of the pandemic, creator Patrick Sommerville Recount rolling stone magazine, that was never a consideration.

The early episodes “followed on the premise that we pitched, which was a post-apocalyptic show about joy,” Somerville said.

“We had just enough proof of concept that there was a feeling that station eleven wasn’t leaning towards despair, exactly. It took terror out of the equation, to make our executives and the studio feel secure that any time we could get back up and running, it would be a worthy endeavor to keep pursuing.”

WATCH | Netflix series trailer sweet tooth:

Like station elevenNetflix’s post-apocalyptic show sweet tooth began the pre-pandemic development years and was released in 2021. Adapted from a Marvel comic book series, sweet tooth takes place in a future world where a pandemic has led to the existence of a human-animal hybrid species, largely hunted by those who believe they caused the catastrophic event.

Its creators said they were looking to make the show a happy hit – and they did. Light and comical, sweet tooth was a staple on Netflix’s Top 10 list in its first few weeks on the streamer, with an audience research firm Nielsen report that the series logged 1.434 billion streaming minutes between June 6 and June 13.

Some TV Shows Tackle COVID Directly, Others Oppose It

CBC TV drama The Coroner had a COVID-related episode about a personal support worker at a long-term care home during the pandemic. (Lindsay Sarazin)

Some shows have directly addressed COVID-19. Genre shows, in particular, might be more prone than others.

ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy had a COVID-19 themed 17th season during which its main character, Meredith Grey, was in critical condition after catching the virus. NBC Hypermarket, about a group of employees who work at a big-box store, focusing on COVID-19 in its sixth season through the lens of essential workers. And CBC the coronerabout a woman investigating suspicious deaths in Toronto, aired an episode about a personal support worker at a long-term care home during COVID-19.

But some content producers say they’ve avoided plugging COVID-19 into their TV slate in a bid to keep programming timeless.

“Quite honestly, we’re trying to tell our stories through a lens that will have a little bit of a green edge to it,” said Craig Junner, vice president of programming at Blue Ant Media in Toronto.

Craig Junner, vice president of programming at Blue Ant Media, says the broadcasting company has tried to keep its content fresh during the pandemic and has seen audiences gravitate towards escapism. (Marc Duchemin)

For the most part, among Blue Ant Media channels like Cottage Life, BBC Earth and Love Nature, audience preferences have shifted towards escapism over the past two years. Channels showing travel, nature and lifestyle content “have done really well during the pandemic,” Junner said.

Montreal screenwriter Patrick Lowe says he will not develop any series dealing directly with COVID-19 for the production company Encore Spectacle, where he is director of development and producer of television content.

Patrick Lowe is director of development and content producer at the French-Canadian production company Encore Spectacle. Lowe says he won’t commission shows that directly reference the COVID-19 pandemic because that will date them for future audiences. (Radio Canada)

The main reason he chooses not to, he said, is that the time between development and airing a show can take years. Future audiences could tune in and immediately sense that the work is dated, he said.

If we’re still in a pandemic three years from now, “I’m pretty sure it won’t be exactly the same,” Lowe explained. “People will not have the same [relationship] with masks, the same [relationship] with restrictions… so how can I put it in my script? I do not know.”

“Remember when we had to legally keep 6 feet apart?”

Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Carrie Bradshaw in And Just Like That, the reboot of Sex and the City. In the first episode, the new series refers to COVID-19 in the past, allowing brunches and cocktails in a post-pandemic world. (Bell Media/HBO)

Lowe points out sex and the city to restart And just like that like a show that swept away the pandemic with one line: “Remember when we had to legally stand six feet apart?” delivered by Carrie Bradshaw during an early scene. Since then, the show has made a few references to COVID-19 in the past tense.

Other shows mentioned it early and never again, like those on HBO Sex life of college girls and NBCs Mr. Mayor, who jokes that the pandemic ended when “Dolly Parton bought everybody the vaccine.” Viewers know, by now, that things aren’t that simple – the line is bittersweet for an audience in hindsight.

But this show of hope could also be a comfort to viewers. Amponsah says working on station eleven during COVID-19 got him thinking about what a post-pandemic future might look like.

“We were trying to figure out what it means to not just survive, but to thrive…and to find happiness and life in what you find important as a human being to help you continue to exist, to continue living.”

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