Last June, when the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers’ room reconvened, virtually, after a longer than usual hiatus, Krista Vernoff, the longtime showrunner, asked whether or not the coming season should incorporate the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m like 51-49 for not doing the pandemic,” she told her staff. “Because we’re all so tired of it. We’re all so scared. We’re all so depressed. And we come to ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ for relief, right?”
But she was open to counterarguments. And when she asked for volunteers to try and talk her into it, she recalled recently, hands went up in nearly every Zoom window. The show’s senior surgical adviser, Naser Alazari, made the most compelling case: The pandemic was the story of a lifetime, he told her, speaking from the clinic where he was treating Covid-19 patients. They had a responsibility to tell it.
In rooms all over the internet, hospital dramas, first-responder shows, situation comedies and courtroom procedurals were having similar debates. To ignore the events of the spring and summer — the pandemic, the belated racial reckoning in the United States — meant placing prime-time series outside (well, even more outside) observable reality. But to include them meant potentially exhausting already exhausted viewers and covering up telegenic stars from the eyes down.
It also meant predicting the future. David Shore, the showrunner for ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” said in a telephone conversation. “Usually, when you’re writing a story, you know what the world’s going to look like.”
Some shows have made the pandemic a star, and some have relegated it to a background role. Others have written it out of existence. Showrunners and executive producers have had to best-guess what audiences most want: Television that reflects the world as we experience it? Or that provides a distraction from it, particularly when that world seems to be on fire and sometimes is?
Most sitcoms wrote around the pandemic, often with an eye toward reruns.
“Mr. Mayor,” which premiered last month on NBC, handled it in a punchline: “Dolly Parton bought everybody a vaccine,” Ted Danson’s novice politico says.
“Last Man Standing,” a Fox family sitcom starring Tim Allen, decided to skip ahead two years between seasons. Looking toward a January debut, the showrunner Kevin Abbott guessed that most decent pandemic jokes would have been told by then and that scripts that reflected reality would skew too dark.
“People are already depressed,” he said. “We really didn’t want to add to that.”
Other comedies didn’t have that luxury, like the more politically engaged “black-ish,” or “Superstore,” which is populated with essential worker characters.
“Our show takes place in a store,” said Jonathan Green, a “Superstore” showrunner along with Gabe Miller, adding that he had felt a responsibility to display the pandemic’s impact on retail employees. Because “Superstore” is a sitcom, they said they believed that they could do it with a light hand, when those hands weren’t busy grabbing up toilet paper to hoard.
Hospital shows had to face it head-on, of course. “The Good Doctor” premiered with a coronavirus-heavy two-parter, then shot forward in time. “It would have been craziness to just ignore the pandemic,” Shore said. “On the other hand, it also would have been exhausting for us and our viewers to walk through it for an entire season.”
But “Grey’s Anatomy” has spent the whole of its season battling the pandemic, with several lead characters, including Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey, falling ill.
“I was like, if we’re doing this, we’re doing this,” Vernoff said, speaking by telephone from the set. “We don’t know what medicine is going to look like post-Covid.”