In 2001, “Friends” returned for its eighth season with sharper plots, a rejuvenated focus and a major boost in ratings. On the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attack that shook the nation, New York City-set “Friends” chose not to mention the tragedy — and it’s the best decision they could’ve made.
Now in 2020, television networks are faced with a similar conundrum, as COVID-19 has impeded on everyone’s consciousness. It’s inescapable. Yet, leaning into the pandemic isn’t the move to make.
Network comedies, such as NBC’s “Superstore” and ABC’s “The Conners,” have embraced the pandemic and worked it into their storylines. Dramas too, such as ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and NBC’s “This Is Us,” have incorporated COVID storylines as well.
Ultimately, this was the wrong choice. I’m tired; we’re all tired of having COVID content force-fed down our throats. All the commercials emphasizing “these trying times” as they try to sell us a Kia Sorento feel inauthentic and manipulative, and these shows feel no different. For just a few hours, we’d all like to escape — why won’t TV let us?
It could seem a bit crass to ignore the pandemic and toss out frivolous storylines, sure. But the emotional manipulation weaponized by “This Is Us” is hardly a better alternative.
When “Friends” set out on its eighth season, all bets were off. To many, the show had peaked. Executive producer Kevin S. Bright (“Dream On,” “Veronica’s Closet”) told Digital Spy in 2018 that the writing room didn’t want “Friends” to go down the “very special episode” route.
“That just wasn’t what we thought the show meant to the audience,” he said. “We felt we were comfort food, and during this time, if anything, we should be funnier than we’ve ever been.”
Instead, the show paid small tributes, such as hanging an American flag in “Central Perk” and dedicating the season premiere to victims of the attack. In a bubble, addressing 9/11 may have provided some entertainment or perspective to viewers. Yet, years later, would “Friends” have such a dedicated rerun-audience if it had devoted half a season to 9/11?
Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is “Friends” made people laugh when they needed it most. We all know someone who has been infected or possibly died from COVID-19. It’s a horrible disease. When I watch TV, I feel an urge to escape. I’m sorry to remind the writers of “Grey’s Anatomy,” but absolutely no one watches that show for hard-hitting social commentary and realism. If I want to see the gravity of this pandemic, I’ll open Twitter or pop on the news for a minute.
I fully acknowledge that dramas owe drama to their audiences. “This Is Us” may exist solely to get people to cry. But the addition of COVID adds a dark cloud to television in a time where people need sunshine.
In March, television ratings surged as the new normal began. Now, “The Conners” and “Superstore” have plummeted to new lows. Clearly, COVID content isn’t enticing audiences. Television networks grossly miscalculated incorporating the pain of modern life onto the screen.
I leave my apartment very rarely. If I do, I’m going to get groceries or pick up food. I also go on walks (and you can too, thanks to this article I wrote). When I’m home, tired and scared of this uber-serious pandemic, I love to flip on the TV and remember simpler times. I catch myself amazed at scenes with many maskless people in the same room, but it allows me to escape.
Now, catching up on “Grey’s Anatomy,” I can no longer escape. It’s annoying in a world ravaged by COVID to not have any exit door. To Krista Vernoff, the tone-deaf modern showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy”: leave us alone. That goes for any other show incorporating COVID in this haphazard way. There’s no perspective gained by tacking on the modern pandemic while it’s happening.
COVID content is interesting to creators in the Hollywood bubble who are allowed to live a somewhat-normal set life thanks to massive testing and budgets, but that’s not reality for most. I wish I could ignore the terror of reality while watching the wonderful absurdity of TV, but instead, it’s yet another reminder of “these unprecedented times.”
Perhaps the rating falls will kick the producers in the shins like they need. After all, that’s all they care about here. Either way, the audiences have spoken and will continue to: we don’t like COVID content. Stop force-feeding it down our throats.
And to the shows who have sidestepped the tragedy to provide the entertainment we so desperately need, you’re doing amazing, sweetie. Don’t let anyone dull your sparkle.