Communicable Disease

The first American TV show to resume filming after the initial lockdowns of the pandemic was The Bold and the Beautiful. As a spinoff of the sister soap opera The Young and the Restless, it’s been running since 1983 and aired its 8,000th episode a few months before the pandemic began. Returning to the airwaves, The Bold hit the ground running after a few creative flashbacks; by the end of the week, Flo had been kidnapped by Sally (revealed to be lying about her terminal illness all along!) and rescued by Wyatt, and Steffy had been subject to another near-fatal motorcycle accident under the wheels of Dollar Bill. 

There were no masks to be seen in the hospital room, or discussions of how e-commerce sales were benefitting the fictional fashion house Forrester Creations. The only hint of increased restrictions for cast and crew members was more-awkward-than-normal blocking, to keep the maskless actors a generous 8 feet apart. The fictional dynasty at the heart of The Bold and the Beautiful does not contend with the real-world Coronavirus. But the show’s production team had to grapple with the question being asked in sound stages and studios around the world: what kind of story can we tell now that the world has ended?

Answers varied. Grey’s Anatomy, for example, couldn’t help being about the pandemic. The show took the opportunity to be a look in on the lives of the brave healthcare staff we were all banging pots and pans for. However, despite the healthcare disaster it aimed to depict, there’s something missing from their COVID season. Notably, it’s the patient deaths. Traditionally, an episode of Grey’s Anatomy follows a handful of patients through their trip to the hospital, with conditions and dilemmas that usually highlight corresponding problems in the doctor’s lives. However, in the COVID-focused Season 17, the patients the episodes center around aren’t usually at the hospital for COVID. Grey’s Anatomy was still centered around the kinds of case studies that medical dreams are made of; an abdominal pregnancy, full-thickness burn victims. In Grey’s Anatomy, COVID patient deaths were already everyday.

In every episode, viewers were told by the doctors that patients were dying. Black and brown patients (as the TV doctors faithfully remind us). And yet where were those patients? Doctors were alternatively tearing off PPE as a representation of emotional agony and flippantly mentioning the popsicle truck holding dead bodies in the back parking lot. Of course, when main cast members contract COVID, that was naturally explored in great detail. The actual everyday patients are rarely seen. The touching monologues the characters regularly deliver are correct; none of these patients deserve to be forgotten statistics. Yet the audience rarely meets a speaking COVID patient. It’s as if the team behind the show has already decided that the actual tragedy of the pandemic is too raw, or too boring.

Grey’s Anatomy does make an effort in bringing light to real-life COVID deaths. Midway through the season, after a particularly heart-wrenching TV death (a doctor’s mother dies of COVID), a list of names of real COVID fatalities filled the screen before the credits. A slow zoom out revealed more and more names, too many to fit the screen. No tearjerker soft-rock played to add drama to the image. It was a somber moment.

And the next episode was an exciting crossover with Station 19!

The show gets close to despair of reality. It does. But the demands of network TV fail its serious undercurrent. And after one season, the pandemic was over in fantasy-Seattle. Grey’s moved on to Season 18 with a title card indicating a shift to an imagined, post-pandemic world. Fans praised the show’s flexibility in retiring the COVID plot. The masks were gone. All the beautiful doctors could show their beautiful teeth again.

The overall simplicity of Grey’s Anatomy is a bit of a let down to anyone hoping for a realistic reflection of our current situation. At the same time, how can you ask anyone to approach the complexity of this situation? How can you ask a show under production during a pandemic to bring in enough extras and small-time actors to represent the patients who will be lost? How can you ask me to look into the faces of the dying in my leisure time?

In season 1 of comedy series Superstore, Colton Dunn’s character Garrett calls out over the intercom for a doctor. “Is there a doctor in the – Who am I kidding? This is Cloud 9. Anybody here watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy? Maybe Nurse Jackie? Not The Knick.” While this is obviously tongue-in-cheek, it rings true. Like Grey’s AnatomySuperstore is also a Ben and Jerry’s kind of show; more than palatable, a guilty pleasure. It goes down smooth, but as a workplace comedy set in Cloud 9 (a Walmart-esque big box store), it’s not exactly high-brow. However, the pandemic offered an opportunity for innovation. Superstore represents the daily lives of another group of essential workers; cashiers.

And Superstore’s bright, lighthearted take on the pandemic feels just as hollow. While Season 6 touches on the lack of PPE, missing out on developmental milestones of children, and differing feelings on pandemic safety, Cloud-9 is in its own little bubble. No one dies, no one has to choose between staying home to look after the kids and making enough money to feed them. No one sets up in the basement, only seeing their family members once a day for a hug through a Saran-wrap barrier. The pandemic is in full swing and no one is sick. There’s an invulnerability to the production that falls flat under scrutiny.

And that’s good. It’s good for ratings, at least. Grey’s Anatomy was criticized by some vocal fans for keeping masks on the actors, and Superstore was canceled after its COVID season. Perhaps network television is simply not the right medium for realistic discussions about the pandemic. It’s hard to take the tragedy and destruction of current events, put a lighthearted (yet appropriate) spin on it, and still have time for commercials. No one wants to take a long, hard look at the pandemic, especially through a medium of mindless escapism. We’ve been taking long, hard looks at the pandemic this whole time.

And the rise of the personal essay has let us take long, hard looks through as many different perspectives as possible. Editors wrote regretfully from their home office. High school students wrote their ways into Canada’s literary journals with adequate essays detailing virtual graduations. I read my first COVID essay after my impromptu move out of the city and back to the North Ontario village where I grew up. I remember it feeling almost exciting at the time. The author went for a maskless, open air therapy session. They coveted their therapist’s disposable coffee cup. Where were they buying coffee? Who was open? 

Non-fiction has flourished over the pandemic. Personal essays. Books from top doctors and thinkers. Books from top conspiracy theorists. In tracing back the mistakes that brought us here, we’re hoping to prevent another this. And in writing about our own COVID experiences, we try to turn them into COVID stories – to find a narrative lens through which we can understand our own lives.

Unlike network TV shows, producers of high-brow fiction didn’t put an imaginative spin on the chaos. Canada’s literary greats did provide reflections and reading lists aplenty for the newly idle, but little COVID fiction has emerged, even now, over two years after the first lockdowns. Similarly, no one in prestige TV is talking about the pandemic. Succession, which chronicles the power struggles of a wealthy family, did not address the pandemic at all, even though two main cast members contracted COVID themselves. Succession’s reasoning for not pivoting is that it’s a show about people so wealthy that they’re not affected by the pandemic at all. And, for an hour per episode, Succession similarly bestows upon its viewers the privilege to forget. 

Period pieces like The Queen’s Gambit, which was also 2020 hit, inhabit settings that are similarly immune. Other shows, sunshiney hit Ted Lasso, are unabashedly escapist. It’s almost as if those who are willing to pay for exclusive shows on HBO, Crave, and Apple TV+ don’t need the didactic, this-is-how-you-pandemic narratives of network TV. Shows that don’t depict pandemics are often buzzy, crisp, thoughtfully-produced TV, with reasonable plots that almost never involve convenient comas. The general rule is that shows that people aren’t guilty to be caught watching get ignore the pandemic. 

Partly, this is due to the time and thought one might put into a significant work of literature or a high-budget show. “COVID fog” is a common turn-of-phrase these days; no one would blame an artist for spending a little time more processing a work-in-progress. But I think there’s something more. There’s a molten core of despair that no one wants to touch, that we’re all orbiting as we write out poems and personal essays. A grief that would destroy us to fully express. For our own health and safety, we need the removal cold science offers, the crispness of reality, and the ease of an escape. 

The stories we want to tell are not the stories we find ourselves in.

Dr. Lucia Gagliese, whose short story “Through the Covid Glass” was the only work set in the pandemic included in the Best Canadian Stories 2021 anthology, describes this remove. The main character, a therapist who specializes in treating doctors, feels distant from the chaos of the pandemic, despite being, technically, one of the heroes getting celebrated every night. “Through the Covid Glass” takes an accurate temperature of the COVID media landscape by condensing the remove and separation that feels rampant.

The pandemic is ending, and it is not ending. Mask mandates are being lifted across the country. I’m no longer shaken to see someone’s chin when I’m in the grocery store. However, in Ontario, people are still getting sick, and often. We have an unclear picture of exactly how many people because fewer centres are available to test for the virus. But masks aren’t fogging up our glasses anymore! Most of our lives are crisper, easier. Some of us are still holding out nervously. Some of us are still dying. Together, we are imagining a post-pandemic present. We have been included in the privilege of forgetting.

It’s no surprise that the pandemic couldn’t kill The Bold and the Beautiful. It’s run for over 30 years and aired over 8,000 episodes. When the sun boils down into a white dwarf star, The Bold and the Beautiful’s set will be the only intact structure shining out from the wreckage of earth. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor international pandemic stays these characters from completing their narrative arcs. Low-brow, guilty pleasure shows have, invisibly, become the form of fictional media best describing the pandemic, in part because no one expects them to handle the pandemic well. They are given low expectations that decrease the risk of failure, at least from critics. And by circling around the pandemic, not getting close enough to touch the core of tragedy, the soaps and sitcoms are almost telling the stories that the rest of us can’t bear to face.

BETTY PATON is a fourth-year Cell and Systems Biology major at the University of Toronto. Metanoia is Betty’s first-ever symposium; she is thrilled to be involved this year! Betty’s interests include cytoskeletal dynamics, literary classics, and horseshoe crabs.