TV Writers Wrestle With How (and When) to Work COVID-19 Into Series

9-1-1: LONE STAR - Rob Lowe in the Texas Proud - Getty -H 2020
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In late March, as J.J. Philbin was preparing to pitch a potential third season of her series, Single Parents, she didn’t see any reason to work the current pandemic into her storylines.

“I was like, ‘COVID’s going to be this weird story that happened in the spring,’” she says.

Now, more than a month later, Philbin’s perspective has changed dramatically. Her comedy is set in the real world, after all, and that real world continues to be ravaged by the novel coronavirus. So, while she once thought “it would be jarring to depict a universe where people are in face masks and Playtex gloves standing 6 feet apart from each other, now it almost feels disingenuous not to,” she says. And though Philbin has yet to address the change of heart with her ABC bosses, she’s been giving a lot of thought to how her fictional relationships would be accelerated and childrearing turned upside down — and she’s hardly alone in allowing her mind to go there.

Weighing whether and how to write the pandemic or its aftermath into plotlines is a conversation taking place in virtual writers rooms all around Hollywood. Making the decision that much more complicated is that writers are being asked to "future-cast" what remains a very uncertain future. It’s impossible to know when production will resume, much less where the virus will be once these series hit the air. “And there’s no playbook for this,” says Philbin’s husband, writer Mike Schur, who suspects there will be plenty of shows that run right at it, as CBS’s All Rise already did, and others that will steer clear.

For those looking for a comparison point, the closest thing is arguably 9/11, but the latter was a moment in time with a beginning, middle and end. “We’re still very much in the middle of this,” notes Kenya Barris, “and it’s really hard to write about the fight in the fifth round.” As of now, Barris' college-set Grown-ish is the only one of his shows where he’s certain the pandemic will be written in, but figuring out exactly how is proving a challenge, as his writers are trying to map out a season without knowing whether colleges will even reopen in the fall. “It's like, ‘Do we start the year off, like, ‘Senior year, bitches!’ and then kids are at home studying online and we look like we're just tone-deaf writers?” he asks, and then predicts there will be a lot of late nights in writers rooms when production resumes as scribes reread their scripts and realize, “This doesn’t match the world we’re in anymore.”

At issue in many of those rooms already is timing — specifically, where in the pandemic’s life cycle a series should drop in. Some figure setting a show with the pandemic in the rearview mirror will make it easier, creatively, particularly given the lag time that naturally exists between production and air; while others see the potential for fresh material in setting a series mid-pandemic. Of course, if you do bring your show into a COVID-19 world, there’s the added question of when do you stop doing virus stories? It’s something Philbin say she’s already stressing about: “Do you say, ‘I’m going to guess that things are going to get back to normal by, like, November, so around episode five we’re going to do away with the face marks?'”  

On the Greg Berlanti shows that aren’t set in a world of fantasy and superheroes, the prolific producer says his writers have toyed with a few options: beginning their seasons pre-pandemic and having the virus arrive later in the run, which gives the writers some breathing room, or setting them post-pandemic so that the virus can be addressed on their terms. In his Netflix series You, for instance, it will likely have occurred between seasons. Not addressing it wasn’t an option, he says. “You’re in a pact with your audience where you have to deal with real-life shit,” he explains. “And yes, there’s always an escapist element to entertainment, but at the same time the key to these kinds of shows is to find our own narrative way to deal with what the world is dealing with and for the audience to find some sense of connection in that.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm showrunner Jeff Schaffer isn’t even sure the Larry David comedy will return at all, but when he and David do bat around ideas, they’re very much steeped in a post-corona world. And given David’s predilection for social distancing and the like, Schaffer acknowledges it’s a rich one to mine: “There’s still plenty of aberrant behavior to look back on, like who said they were social distancing but clearly got a haircut every few weeks?” he says. “Just because people were supposed to be in their houses and everyone says they were in isolation, were they really?” The thing that he and David wrestle with is not wanting to be so timely that they’re in danger of being out of touch once the HBO series finally airs. Black-ish showrunner Courtney Lilly can empathize, as he’s trying to be mindful of those who will watch his show years from now in syndication. 

The risk of being seen as “just doing what everybody else is doing” is a real concern for The Good Fight’s Robert and Michelle King, who are prepping a next season of CBS’ Evil before they jump back into their All Access legal drama. “What seems likely is that regardless of when we broadcast, people are still going to experience the economic aftermath, so my expectation is that we’ll at least touch on that,” says Michelle King. “I don’t know that it’s going to be a front-burner, 'A' story, but the characters, like everyone else, are going to be feeling what an economic downturn feels like.” According to John Wells, that economic toll couldn’t be ignored on his Showtime dramedy series Shameless. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he’s rewriting the working-class series’ final season to incorporate the pandemic, with several members of the Gallagher family actually getting COVID-19 and all of them feeling its impact. “It’s impossible to do a satirical comedy about the working poor without addressing what happened and what is going to happen to that community,” he says. “The challenge, of course, is making it feel funny because there’s not much that’s funny about it.”

Deciding to embrace the pandemic, creatively speaking, was a similarly easy decision for many of the medium’s first-responder shows, though the how will vary show to show. “If we pretend like it’s an alter-universe where this thing hasn’t happened, we’d quaint ourselves into irrelevance,” says Tim Minear, who oversees Fox’s 911 and spinoff 911: Lone Star. Though he’s only recently reconvened the two writers rooms, he suspects his shows will attempt to live in real time, which will likely mean the characters are in masks doing temperature checks as firefighters would in real life. Dick Wolf is keeping plans for his sprawling Chicago empire closer to the vest, saying only that he and his writers “will be sensitive to the world around [them]” as they produce shows that are “relevant” and "entertaining."

Of course, there are plenty more writers in Hollywood who simply aren’t interested in rehashing the devastation, nor living in its wake. It’s a camp Ryan Murphy finds himself in. The showrunner has read speculation online that the pandemic could be the subject of future installments of American Horror Story or American Crime Story, but he insists he’s intensely uninterested in either. “I’m personally more interested in things that are about hope, beauty and romance — the opposite of the darkness that we’re going through,” he says. “So those are the things that I’m writing and interested in as a sort of escape.” David Mandel, formerly of Veep, is considerably more blunt in his assessment. “I don't want to be sitting at home in a quarantine watching a show about a quarantine,” he says, confirming that he, too, is steering clear. It’s a sentiment shared by 30 Rock vet Matt Hubbard, too, who recently tweeted, “No one is going to wanna watch a show about dating on Zoom when this is over. Don’t write it. Stay strong.” The tweet, which was laced with clapping and fist bumping emojis, has been liked by some 65,000 already.

For still others, wading into the realities of our current world presents additional creative challenges. Take Netflix’s forthcoming family comedy The Upshaws, for which Wanda Sykes is a writer and star. While the room did discuss writing in the quarantine, Sykes says it collectively decided it was safer to stick to the storylines pitched to Netflix pre-pandemic. In fact, she isn’t even confident she’d know how to layer COVID-19 into what was already in place for the characters. “If they're concerned about a relationship as a deadly virus is going on, it looks kind of petty,” says Sykes, by way of example.

Even Philbin isn’t sure her bosses at ABC will be up for her show embracing the pandemic. “For all I know, they might say, ‘This show is meant to be a reprieve,’” she says, “‘and the last thing families want to tune into when they’re looking to take a break are more stories about the pandemic,’ and they may be right.”

Additional reporting by Jackie Strause.