How 9 Network TV Shows Have Handled COVID-19 Storylines, Ranked by Mask Emojis

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How 9 Network TV Shows Have Handled COVID-19 Storylines, Ranked by Mask Emojis

To use one of social media’s favorite catch phrases, I don’t know what TV show needs to hear this but you don’t have to include COVID-19 in your story telling. Seriously. You don’t. You shouldn’t, even. We beg of you.

A funny thing has happened as network shows returned to production—they forgot that viewers turn to TV as their escape. Instead, writers seemed to have this compulsive need to include the global pandemic in their storytelling. The results have ranged from beautifully poetic to horrible to why, just why? Mostly it’s resulted in masks as an accessory, casually flung over the ear or dangling from the chin. Or even worse, clunky dialogue that tries to justify why characters are behaving in ways they shouldn’t. More often than not, the inconsistent way series are treating COVID leads us to wonder, “why aren’t they wearing a mask?” “Is that too many people for an indoor gathering?” “Shouldn’t they be using hand sanitizer?” “Are they letting someone into their home who is not in their bubble?” At best, these pandemic faux pas take us out of the storytelling immediately. At worst, they are portraying to their viewers that mask wearing and other social distancing measures aren’t important.

To try to make sense of what is happening, we’ve ranked nine of the most high-profile network shows on a scale of 0 (worst) to 5 (best) masked emojis.

9. Big Sky

Network: ABC

This ABC mystery started out with a jaw-dropping premiere moment. But there was something we just couldn’t escape. Every so often the characters would oh-so-casually reference the pandemic. But no one was wearing masks or social distancing. People were eating in restaurants and going into offices and dancing cheek-to-cheek with strangers. In the most recent episode, a store owner references that she’s running a “COVID special” and that her merchandise is being sold at a discount. But she doesn’t have a mask on. The customer doesn’t have a mask on. WHAT IS HAPPENING? Does everyone in town think the pandemic is a hoax? There is absolutely no reason for this series to reference the pandemic at all. Having an occasional throwaway line about it is just truly bizarre.

8. Chicago Med

Network: NBC
Rating: x-emoji.png

Unlike Blue Sky, there actually is a reason for this medical drama to portray the greatest health crisis of our time. But there are doing it so peculiarly. Half the hospital seems to be enmeshed in COVID-related cases while the rest of the characters apparently exist in a parallel universe where COVID is not a thing. Doctors and nurses greet patients without masks or gloves. A patient came in from prison and was treated without masks and gloves. And when they are wearing masks they aren’t even wearing the N95 ones. Family members—lots of them—are allowed into the hospital where they can discuss their loved one’s care. I spend more time trying to understand the incongruent ways the characters are behaving than actually paying attention to the plot.

7. Law & Order: SVU

Network: NBC
Rating: half-mask-emoji.png

UUGGHHH. Our hero Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is interviewing witnesses and interrogating perps with no mask. Everyone is walking around the station like things are normal except for the occasional mention (again, why mention it if you aren’t going to actually address it?) The season kicked off with a page ripped from the headlines as a Black man is confronted by an unhinged woman in a park, and the episode forced Olivia to confront how embedded systematic racism is even with someone like her who considers herself an ally. The series is much better poised to take on police reform than the global pandemic. The way the characters were behaving was infuriating.

6. This Is Us

Network: NBC
Rating: mask-emoji.png

This is the one that upsets me the most. The show should have existed in a non-COVID parallel universe. This is Us has always been geographical challenged and truth-adjacent when it comes to the time space continuum. Before they moved, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) regularly drove from Alpine, New Jersey to Philadelphia—a trip that is easily two hours one way without traffic. This is a family that treats flying across the country like they are just going to the store for the gallon of milk they forgot to buy. Their cross-country jettisoning isn’t possible in a COVID world. In the season premiere, they rented an RV and drove from California to Pennsylvania. That isn’t able to happen every week though, which has led to way too much action on the show being via phone conversations. Since this is a series that bounces back and forth with time and constantly plants little hints, using previously filmed footage also presents a problem as none of the old footage has the characters in masks. The extended Pearson clan has an extremely casual relationship with mask wearing and social distancing. Sometimes they remember. Sometimes they don’t. Here’s hoping when they return in 2021, COVID is a thing of the past in the Pearson’s world.

5. black-ish

Network: ABC
Rating: mask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pnghalf-mask-emoji.png

After kicking off the season with two stellar election-themed episodes, the long-running ABC comedy ran two pandemic-themed episodes that—while not exactly flowing narratively—addressed many of the issues families are dealing with. In “Hero Pizza,” Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) works the front lines of the pandemic while lamenting she doesn’t need applause from people at 7 p.m. She needs them to wear a mask and follow the rules. In “Dre at Home Order,” Dre (Anthony Anderson) balances work-related Zoom calls with remote learning, and has a very relatable meltdown when his grocery delivery contains knock-off Oreos. By the next episode, the show seemed to have moved on. Junior’s (Marcus Scribner) girlfriend Olivia (Kaitlyn Nichol), who had been previously banned from even outdoor visits, was in the house. Dre was back in the office not wearing a mask. I would have thought the show had left the pandemic behind until Uncle Norman (Danny Glover) showed up for a visit touting his negative COVID test. And Bow, who had freaked out when Junior was even seeing Olivia outside, was telling Dre is was totally okay for his extended family to come stay with him.

4. The Conners

Network: ABC
Rating: mask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pnghalf-mask-emoji.png

The Conners and its predecessor Roseanne have always been steeped in reality, so it makes sense that the comedy would show how the pandemic is affecting this family that was already struggling financially. And sure enough, the afghan masks the cast wore in this season’s promos were super cute. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and Becky (Lecy Goranson) get a job at Wellman Plastic, the factory where their mom and aunt worked in the original series. But often, while at work, Darlene and Becky have their masks casually slung around their chin. And what’s even worse, in order to move a plot forward, the show often employs awkward lines of dialogue to justify how the characters are behaving. Darlene invited her new boss Robin (Alexandra Billings) over for dinner which was apparently totally fine because they’ve been “strictly quarantining.” (Should we start a drinking game every time a character mentions they are “strictly quarantining?”) Becky baptized her baby inside of a church where a lot of people weren’t wearing masks. The show is learning it’s not easy to tell stories when COVID is in the mix. It limits the narrative just like it limits our lives.

3. The Good Doctor

Network: ABC
Rating: mask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.png

This ABC medical drama chose the path of least resistance. They kicked off the season with two episodes (entitled “Frontline, Part 1 and 2”) devoted to the pandemic, especially the early days when the medical profession was scrambling to keep up with a virus no one yet understood. By the season’s third episode, star Freddie Highmore, who plays the titular character, came on to tell viewers that the episode “portrays our hope for the future—a future where no one will have to wear a mask, or take other steps to stay safe from COVID.” And with that the show moved onto more traditional storytelling. The series introduced a new round of surgical interns, and life on the show returned to normal. It’s a little odd for a medical drama to sit this one out but it also frees the show up in its storytelling and frees the viewer up from having to worry about every scene where the characters aren’t wearing the appropriate PPE.

2. Superstore

Network: NBC
Rating: mask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.png

Set in a Target-like big box store, the NBC comedy is the perfect series to show how the pandemic is affecting frontline workers. From the rush on toilet paper, to the rude customers, to the parking lots littered with masks and gloves, Superstore gets it. And they made us laugh. For the most part, the characters are always in masks and socially distancing. The plastic shields are up. They even managed to find a way to write off Amy (America Ferrera) and send her to corporate America while still being true to what was happening in the real world.

1. Grey’s Anatomy

Network: ABC
Rating: mask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.pngmask-emoji.png

That’s right. I know I said the scale only went to five but you know what? Grey’s Anatomy is the only show not only perfectly poised to take on the pandemic but also the only show doing it completely right. So they get double points. My list. My rules. Except for a blip in the premiere that used footage filmed last spring, the doctors are always in full PPE. Family members discuss care over FaceTime. The doctors are regularly tested. And COVID has personally affected Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) has been in a COVID-induced coma since the premiere, which has led to the return of not one but two beloved and deceased characters. Dr. Koracick (Greg Germann) tested positive and was quarantining at home until he had to be rushed to the hospital. Miranda (Chandra Wilson) moved her parents into an assisted living facility in Seattle only to see her mother get COVID and die. That devastating episode ended with a scroll of the names of some of the lives lost to this insidious virus. “She deserves to be surrounded by love and family,” Bailey laments.

In the closing voice over, Bailey says, “Even in their deaths, they are not faceless. They are not nameless. They are more than statistics, more than co-morbid conditions or nursing home patients. They are sons, brothers and uncles who speak five languages and run restaurants: Wade Klein, 66. They are great grandfathers who love Broadway: Jacob Lappin, 92. They are baseball-loving nurses with an easy laugh: Dane Wilson, 45. They are the world’s greatest mothers and they are the most beloved wives: Elena Rose Bailey, 84.” Honestly I’m crying just writing these sentences. Each week the series reminds viewers that the virus isn’t a hoax. That people are dying. Loved ones are dying. The show is educational and informative. That it can do all this while still being entertaining and having the supply room hook-ups that made the show famous is pure magic. And we could all use a little magic right now.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).

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