Thursday’s episode of “And Just Like That,” the roller coaster that is HBO Max’s “Sex and the City” revival, opens with Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) finalizing the purchase of a capacious, multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartment. She ponders whether the apartment is really right for her, while peering out of its floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Hudson River, sunlight flooding into her open kitchen.
As Carrie might say, I couldn’t help but wonder about the dissonance of watching this scene while staring at the four walls of my considerably smaller apartment on an overcast day in Month 22 of the coronavirus pandemic. As the omicron variant forces many of us to hunker down once again (at least, those of us who have the privilege of choosing to do so), it has been unsettling to watch present-day TV shows set in a completely post-pandemic world. During yet another bleak pandemic winter, it’s strange and sometimes grimly comical to hear characters talk about COVID-19 in the past tense and refer to it like it’s a distant memory. At the same time, as we keep entering countless new phases of the pandemic, there’s no good way around it for TV creators and writers.
Of course, I wasn’t expecting “AJLT” to, say, address how COVID-19 has ravaged New York City and exacerbated existing economic inequities. The appeal of the show, like its predecessor, is its soapy escapism. So I expected “AJLT” to be set firmly in a post-pandemic world.
Still, I wince a little when a character refers to COVID-19 in the past tense, like in the show’s initial episodes, when we learned what some of the characters did during the pandemic. It feels especially discordant to watch Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte spend carefree days around the city, attending social events and going to restaurants and bars. Even prior to the omicron wave, when some of us were able to safely resume some of our pre-pandemic activities — albeit with much caution and ambivalence — it felt like watching a fantasy world.
That discomfort has only deepened as the omicron variant has led to a new surge in COVID-19 cases. Many service-oriented businesses are shuttering yet again because of the variant’s high transmissibility, and their workers have already suffered immensely throughout the pandemic. “AJLT” is not the show to tackle that story. But it’s jarring nonetheless, especially here in New York, where the trauma of the first wave of the pandemic has permanently shaken so many of us.
It’s also jarring to watch shows that previously did an admirable job of directly incorporating the pandemic, but have now fast-forwarded to a post-COVID world. Last year, NBC’s “This Is Us” devoted much of its season to the effects of the pandemic. We saw members of the Pearson family self-isolating, navigating changing rules and restrictions, and not being able to physically be there for each other. We saw them trying to figure out pandemic modifications to major life events, like births and weddings. And we saw how the pandemic altered their jobs and livelihoods, like with Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), who finally fulfilled her dream of opening her own dance studio ― only to have to close it, like so many small businesses and performing arts organizations over the past two years.
This week, the show returned for its sixth and final season, beginning to wrap up the Pearsons’ storylines. It would be cumbersome to do that while continuing to set the show in our COVID-19 reality. But it’s strange to hear the pandemic mentioned in a casual, throwaway line, no longer of importance, like in Tuesday’s season premiere. Movie star Kevin (Justin Hartley) agrees to join a reboot of “The Manny,” the hacky sitcom that made him famous. In convincing Kevin to sign on, his old boss on “The Manny” says that Kevin’s last movie, released during the pandemic, was so bad that “I started to lick the movie theater seats in an attempt to give myself COVID.”
Oof. If only we could also relegate COVID to a passing reference, instead of dealing with it every day.
During the 2020-21 TV season, few shows confronted the pandemic as unflinchingly as ABC’s long-running “Grey’s Anatomy.” The burned-out surgeons of Grey Sloan Memorial watched patient after patient die of COVID-19. The season also explored meaningful storylines about racial inequities in health care, problems that the pandemic has only further underscored. Most vividly of all, the show’s titular character, Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), nearly died of COVID-19, spending most of the season in a coma and on a ventilator. When she recovered later in the season, she had developed long COVID, greatly affecting her ability to do her job and care for her family.
Yet in the current season, which began this fall, each episode contains a title card informing viewers that the season is set in a post-pandemic world. The card explains that the show aims to express some hope for the future (and also directs viewers to a website containing information on COVID-19 vaccines). Other than a few mentions in the dialogue, it’s almost as if the pandemic didn’t happen at all.
By fast-forwarding to a world where COVID-19 is a thing of the past, these shows have missed out on opportunities to illustrate the long-lasting repercussions of the pandemic. On “Grey’s,” Meredith continuing to deal with long COVID would have been a valuable depiction for the many people grappling with it in real life. And what about the Great Resignation, the record number of people quitting their jobs because of burnout either caused or accelerated by the pandemic? That could make for compelling storylines on many shows right now. “Grey’s” has shown some of the burnout experienced by health care workers. But it would be meaningful for the show to keep exploring that, such as with Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), Grey Sloan’s stalwart chief of surgery, who seemed on the verge of breaking down last season. On top of the demands of her job, Bailey lost her mom to COVID-19. Like many people in real life, she probably hasn’t been able to properly grieve and honor her mom’s memory.
I get that there’s no good answer to any of this, no right or wrong approach. A few months ago, it seemed like the pandemic really was nearing its end, and things were as “normal” as they were going to get for the time being. These shows might not have seemed quite so out of sync in a world without a new, more transmissible COVID-19 variant. It’s impossible to predict what each day, week or month will bring. TV seasons, which at their quickest can take months to plan and shoot, will inevitably be a bit behind — and all the more so when we keep finding ourselves in new phases of the pandemic. (Plus, many TV shows are dealing with a new round of production delays caused by the omicron wave.)
There’s also a more fundamental dilemma: the push and pull between reality and escapism. TV shows, especially those set in the present day, can do a lot of good when they reflect the world as it is and have something to say about it. But they’re also here to entertain. Last year, the shows that directly told stories about the pandemic were admittedly pretty grim to watch. It’s understandable that TV creators and writers who spent a whole season crafting those harrowing plotlines would now want to jettison anything involving the pandemic, because aren’t we all tired of it?
For now, in a world where the pandemic is still very much happening, it’s never far from our minds. Maybe we’ll know we’re fully in a post-pandemic world when it’s something we don’t have to think about regularly or notice in every facet of our lives — including when watching TV.