'All Rise,' 'The Connors' and 'Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet' also embraced the real-world crisis by putting their characters directly in the center of it.
Many TV viewers mighty not have understood exactly how COVID-19 affected industries outside their own. All Rise provided a glimpse into the Los Angeles criminal court system and, for its season one finale, the drama's creative team opted to forgo previously shot footage in favor of an episode centered on virtual court appearances.
All Rise's May 4 installment was one of the earliest network shows to incorporate the pandemic into its plot. Online legal proceedings had become commonplace during stay-at-home orders when the showrunners decided to focus the episode on this burgeoning trend.
In "Dancing at Los Angeles," characters explore the struggles of practicing law and ensuring that defendants get a fair and speedy trial in these unprecedented times. "We wanted to shed a light on how many people were stuck in jail and weren't able to get out," writer/exec producer Denitria Harris-Lawrence tells THR. "Due process has pretty much slowed to a stop."
The technical challenges of a virtual episode meant that the creative team had experience in how to depict the process onscreen. "It was an opportunity," Harris-Lawrence continues, "to show through visual means what [our characters would] have to go through."
Addressing the pandemic was always a natural decision for The Conners' creative team. "[These characters] have never shied away from troubling times, and it's such a naturalistic show," showrunner Bruce Helford tells THR. "It just felt very weird that people would be watching our family and not seeing [them] dealing with the same things they're dealing with."
For many viewers in 2020, that included the economic ramifications of COVID-19. In the Oct. 21 episode "Keep on Truckin' Six Feet Apart," sisters Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) struggle with the shame and stress of finding a new job during the pandemic while Dan (John Goodman) receives an eviction notice for the family home and must make a hard decision. "The economic filter, to us, is something we always try to pay attention to," executive producer Dave Caplan says. "[This season] of The Conners is the story of a family without a safety net."
But hard times aren't always sad times for families like the Conners. The ABC sitcom regularly juxtaposes real-life events with nuance and sunny disposition to brighten up the dark days. "We can write terrible things and sometimes the humor that you need to get yourself through. That's what we're really trying to do with COVID-19, too," Helford says. "We always say it'll always be as funny as it is terrifying."
The longest-running medical drama on television, Grey's Anatomy immediately tackled the pandemic when it returned this fall. The season 17 opener on Nov. 12 saw Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and her colleagues at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic back in April, struggling with a lack of PPE and the toll the pandemic had taken on medical professionals watching their patients succumb to the virus.
Writers on the series regularly consult real-life doctors, and it was impossible to ignore the way the pandemic had deeply affected them. "We could see that they were changed as humans," showrunner Krista Vernoff tells THR. "They were pale and shaking and looked traumatized. It became really clear to us that health care workers are walking through a war they were not trained for. And it felt like that was a story to tell."
Though many aspects of the pandemic and the virus have been politicized in real life, Vernoff says she's dedicated to showing the unfiltered reality for health care providers on the front line. "They are holding the hands of patients who are dying alone, multiple patients every day," she says. "So to me, just humanizing the experience of the health care workers and also the patients, and the patients who are sometimes the health care workers, was so important."
The Black-ish writers knew as they wrapped season six this year that COVID-19 had already begun to leave its mark on the world. With a doctor as the Johnson family's matriarch, it would have been insincere to ignore the virus' impact on the show. Airing Oct. 21, "Hero Pizza" transported the audience back to March, when the pandemic became real for many Americans.
"There certainly was a feeling that people would need to be reminded of what [we went through then]," showrunner Courtney Lilly says. "And ironically, of course, because of our behaviors — all of us, and our leadership — here we are. It's feeling more relevant than ever."
For health care workers like Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), the fight had just begun — and her son Junior (Marcus Scribner) didn't hesitate to join the routine parade of cheers for workers on the front line. But when Junior secretly decides to break quarantine, he ultimately has to face his heartbroken mother. Lilly explains that Junior's contradictory behavior was something the show wanted to explore.
"We put a lot of burden on one segment of society to go into certain jobs," she says. "Asking certain people to make sacrifices while the rest of us continue not to is a really worthy story. We're not good at doing the things that inconvenience us — that was the interesting part of this story."
Months after it launched its nine-episode season Feb. 7, Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet dropped a special quarantine installment to tackle the frustrations of working remotely. "We seemed uniquely situated, doing this workplace comedy about video games, to talk about how people are transitioning into the remote workplace," showrunner and co-creator Megan Ganz says.
The May 22 episode features creative director Ian (Rob McElhenney) struggling to raise morale — only to alienate his apartment-dwelling employees while video conferencing from his multimillion-dollar compound. It shows the wide range of emotions workers struggle with at home and ends with an intricate Rube Goldberg machine launched across split Zoom screens, reminding viewers that it's possible to find moments of joy in an isolating time.
"Our production designer and special effects supervisor … built all of these contraptions and had to separate, sanitize, deliver them to the actors' homes and set them up on Zoom," explains Ganz. "We had to time everything exactly right and get the ball to roll out of frame at just the right spot so that it matched up with the [next] frame." She adds, "We wanted to definitely include this moment of triumph, where people are overcoming so many great odds to be together and to continue to make things."
This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.