Since the last time Station 19 was in production, the entire world has changed.
Not only did a global pandemic hit, but a massive civil rights movement took hold, creating major shifts in every industry—entertainment especially. Almost all filming had to stop, and so all projects had to be delayed. During the extra-long hiatus, many creators and executives have also had to reckon with realizing the ways they haven't supported all of their employees of color in the past, and have had to promise to do better in the future.
On the frontlines of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, first responders have played a major role, so on a diverse TV show like Station 19, which is all about first responders, it feels inevitable that the events of the past six months will play a part when season four picks up.
Boris Kodjoe, who stars as fire chief Robert Sullivan on the Grey's Anatomy spinoff, certainly thinks so.
Kodjoe and his wife, Nicole Ari Parker, have spent this unorthodox hiatus not only juggling life at home with their two kids, but also doing their part to support health care workers with the #HelpOurHeroes initiative that helps donate masks to the people who need them the most. They've given away nearly half a million soft, washable masks to essential workers and others in need.
"We have to prioritize," he tells E! News. "Obviously family comes first, but I tell my family that there's millions of families that are struggling tremendously right now. People are losing their jobs and living in small living quarters with tons of kids, and they have to find a way to support their kids. It's summer, so they're not in school, and they're missing out on meals. There's a lot of struggle right now."
Kodjoe says he's heard a lot of stories about how the pandemic has impacted people and how much a little support can help.
"It makes you realize that we're in this together, and we have to band together and figure out how to get through this," he says. "This is not gonna last forever. We're probably not going to get back to the normal that we're used to, but nevertheless, we have to move through this together and figure out how to create a new normal according to all the different circumstances."
That new normal will soon include a return to work, with plenty of precautions in place to protect the cast and crew of Station 19 from getting sick, paired with storylines about what life has actually been like for firefighters and EMTs in 2020. Unions are currently working on how to make sure productions are both safe and possible, and shows like Grey's and Station 19 are planning be back on set within the next few weeks. Kodjoe says it will be strange to get used to all of the things that will have to change, from not being able to go to lunch with co-stars to no extras to a much longer and more forgiving schedule. But of course, the events of the past few months won't just have an impact behind the scenes.
On a show like Station 19, both the coronavirus pandemic and the continued fight for social equality—which Kodjoe refers to as another pandemic—are bound to hit hard. The star says he's looking forward to finding out how.
"I think it's important that we honor both," Kodjoe says. "I think it's important that we tell stories that people can relate to because they can identify with them. That's also been a strength of Krista Vernoff and Shonda Rhimes, to really sort of hone in on real life and how people live and fears and hopes and aspirations that people really have, and speak to that unapologetically and in a way that is honest and authentic."
There are many directions that TV shows could go next season. They could ignore real life, they tell stories about the worst realities of what is happening, or they could show what should be happening—how police forces should be reformed, or how virus numbers should be going down. Kodjoe is hoping for a combination of the latter two.
"I think we have to show what's really happening," he says. "At the intersection of Amy Cooper and George Floyd, there was a silver lining that produced this overwhelming global response, and as a result, this movement that is so necessary. I think that it was a perfect storm, with the pandemic forcing everybody to pay attention and not to be distracted by anything else. The weaponization of a phone call by a white woman in Central Park and the terrible tragic visual of the knee on the back of George Floyd's neck—I think all of those things contributed to this tidal wave of emotions and consequently a total boost of this movement in the absolute right direction."
Kodjoe says he feels like he's never seen anything like this social justice movement before.
"I hope that we can, in terms of storytelling, talk about what's really happening," he says. "I also hope that we can maybe share a glimpse at what some solutions to these issues could look like."
A show about firefighters and EMTs might just provide the perfect opportunity to share those solutions.
"I think that we have a very unique position in the fire department to come in and take over some of these responsibilities that have been covered by police before," Kodjoe says. "We're talking about defunding police or reforms or both, where some of the responsibilities that police were covering before are now going to fall into some other government agencies, or more skilled social workers or healthcare workers that are more adept to taking over some of those responsibilities, and the fire department is a part of that. I'm sure we're going to get some calls that would have traditionally gone to police before."
Somehow, Station 19 will also have to find time to keep up with its firefighters' personal lives. At the end of season three, Sullivan had just confessed to stealing opiates to manage his pain, and then he had surgery to try to fix that pain, thinking his new wife Andy (Jaina Lee Ortiz) would be by his side. What he didn't know was that his wife was, at the same time, finding out her mother was secretly still alive.
"Sullivan has a full plate in front of him for sure," Kodjoe says. "There's gonna be some disciplinary actions that he is going to await because of what he did. There's going to be consequences. I'm not so sure what they're going to be, but that's definitely going to happen."
He and Andy will also have to confront the fact that it's possible they jumped into this marriage a little fast, he says.
"And then on the macro, we're dealing with a whole new world of COVID and civil unrest, and what I love about Krista and Shonda is that they're unafraid," Kodjoe says.
"They're so courageous, and they're going to speak the truth, even if it's uncomfortable, even if it's gonna rub people the wrong way. So I'm looking forward to conflict, I'm looking forward to different challenges—personal, as well as in the firehouse."
Beyond Station 19, Kodjoe says he thinks the industry is going in the right direction, but it's about far more than just hiring more people of color.
"I think it's important to understand that it's not just about telling stories of diverse people. It's about letting diverse people tell their stories," he says. "Let me tell my story. I don't need you to tell my story. I want to tell my story. So give me the support and empower me to tell my stories. And that's what has to happen by way of diversifying, adding color, if you will, not just to the cast but also to the crew, to the executive suite, to the boards of these big companies and studios and networks. That's how you create different voices. That's how you create change that's sustainable."
Kodjoe grew up in Germany and came to the U.S. when he was 19, so he says he grew up with a "pretty well-rounded educational experience in terms of racism" and a unique perspective on the topic. He says this time feels "different than any other time in history," both for the world and for entertainment.
"I think this is a pivotal point in our history and in our industry, because people in decision-making positions aren't able to hide anymore," he says. "They aren't able to turn their head away from the issue of racial inequality. I think studios, production companies and networks are so aware that they will be called out and be held accountable if they continue to do business as usual, and I think across the board, most studios and networks have responded proactively in a way that gives me hope that ‘diversity' might be a word that will become obsolete in the next 50 years—if we do it right."
Station 19 airs on ABC.