How TV Shows Have Handled the Pandemic: The Good, the Bad, and the Not at All

A look at how all of the TV shows that have premiered in fall 2020 are handling the global pandemic, social justice and more.

By Lauren Piester Nov 25, 2020 10:52 PMTags
TV pandemic, Superstore, This is Us, Grey's Anatomy, ABC; NBC

It's never easy to make a TV show, but it's been especially difficult in the year 2020. 

Most productions were forced to shut down when the coronavirus pandemic hit with multiple episodes left to film, and over the past few months, many have begun to film again. But no production can just go back to the way things were, and many onscreen stories can't either. 

While The Goldbergs is firmly set in the 1980s, long before COVID-19 existed, most other shows that have returned this fall are set in present day—and they all had a choice to make. Some made the choice to ignore the pandemic completely. Others leaned heavily into it, and still a few more put the pandemic in the background and otherwise went on their merry way. 

As voracious consumers of TV, we've had some seriously mixed feelings about the portrayal of this strange time on TV. 

2021 TV Premiere Dates

We're not doctors or COVID-19 experts, but we are TV experts who lived in the real world during this pandemic and have developed a physical flinch when characters on TV get too close to each other without a mask. 

So, we took a look at all of the pandemic productions that have aired so far to find out who, based on our own pandemic experience and TV feelings, is doing it right, who's doing it wrong, and who maybe shouldn't have done it at all. 

Watch: "Grey's Anatomy" Stars Talk Dating During COVID-19

Of course these opinions will likely change over the course of the various seasons, but based on what we've seen so far, here are our thoughts and our ratings. 

Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

Grey's Anatomy has taken on the full brunt of the pandemic, with even Meredith Grey herself coming down with COVID-19. The doctors are all exhausted and sad on top of their regular drama, but it feels both realistic and classically Grey's at the same time. Bringing back Patrick Dempsey (plus at least one more surprise return) as a way to give fans some joy in these dark times was a straight up genius move. We're taking away a point for the occasional shouty indoor conversation with no mask on, but otherwise we bow down.


Station 19 (ABC)

Where Grey's Anatomy has succeeded, its spinoff has confused. They're set in the same world at the same time, but the mask-wearing is a little less consistent. Pruitt's memorial service had to be held over Zoom and Jack is separated from his new little family by a heartbreaking six feet, but these frontline workers have got to start wearing more masks. 


The Good Doctor (ABC)

The Good Doctor made an interesting choice that so far no one else has made. After two episodes that dealt with the harsh realities of life as a doctor in a pandemic, the show simply decided to move past the pandemic to a world where masks were no longer necessary and the virus was no longer a concern. We'd all love to move past this, Good Doctor, but you're a medical show and you've literally got a cast member (Richard Schiff) who was hospitalized with COVID-19. Weird decision, and not in a good way. 



The three NCIS shows each took a very different approach. NCIS' new season is set in November 2019. NCIS: LA is set after the pandemic is over. NCIS: NOLA is set right smack dab in the middle of it, NCIS-branded masks and all. They're most definitely not all the same show, but it's sort of nice that we get three completely different options for NCIS binging. Plus, NOLA's taking the mask-wearing and the death toll seriously, and it will be most interesting to see what happens when NCIS catches up to the present. 


Law & Order: SVU (NBC)

SVU tried to take on the pandemic and the impact of George Floyd's death in its premiere, and it was a lot more successful with its exploration of racism in law enforcement than it was with COVID-19. Occasionally a mask would make an appearance, but not on Detective Olivia Benson. Suspects and cops take masks off to speak to each other, making the masks useless. We spent the entire premiere confused about mask-wearing instead of focusing on Benson wrestling with her racist tendencies, which is unfortunate. 


Chuck Lorre's Shows: Mom, Bob Hearts Abishola, B Positive, Young Sheldon (CBS)

For all of his CBS sitcoms, Chuck Lorre decided to forego the pandemic entirely. This makes complete sense for Young Sheldon since it's set in the past, but the other three are questionable. Were there no funny pandemic stories they could come up with for shows about addiction recovery, a kidney transplant and an immigrant nurse in a hospital? Feels both irresponsible and like a missed opportunity. 


One Chicago (NBC)

Chicago PD and Chicago Fire generally acknowledged the pandemic but didn't focus on it too heavily. Chicago Med, on the other hand, embraced it fully. Unfortunately we were expecting better from a hospital show. They played fast and loose with masks with characters constantly taking them off in order to speak, which is simply missing the point of the mask. The hospital felt almost casual, even as the doctors struggled with the constant death. 


Superstore (NBC)

Superstore's season premiere was all about the pandemic, as it should be for a show about essential workers. It was a fantastic episode and they almost had it totally correct, but there were so many moments with no masks. Employees wore them around customers, but not around other employees. It didn't make a lot of sense, but the episode itself was fantastic and Superstore just continues to be a joy (even if America Ferrera's exit left much to be desired). 


The Neighborhood (CBS)

The Neighborhood chose to tell stories about Black Lives Matter instead of the pandemic, which feels right for a show about the relationship between Black and white neighbors. The premiere was a lot more serious than usual in the best way. 



SWAT took on both social justice and the COVID-19 pandemic as it returned, starting right at the beginning of mask-wearing and ending the premiere with George Floyd's death. That meant the show had its work cut out for it, and so far there have been masks, social distancing, and some seriously complicated situations in the city of Los Angeles amid lockdowns, protests and, starting in episode two, the usual kinds of SWAT drama. So far so good. 


Big Sky (ABC)

Big Sky is one of the first new shows we've seen that has filmed exclusively during the pandemic, which is acknowledged in one throwaway line in the premiere as the state trooper explains that the bar was closed during the pandemic, but it's not like anyone is wearing masks. Is the pandemic over now? Very confusing. 


Supernatural (The CW)

Supernatural filmed its two final episodes during the pandemic, and while it didn't play into the plot, its effects could be seen on screen. The finale was simply lackluster. Only Sam, Dean and Bobby appeared in it, and it absolutely felt as if the new Heaven would have been packed with cameos if things had been different. We also didn't get to see the full effects of Jack becoming the new God, Misha Collins didn't get to be in the finale, and it just felt like kind of a shame that such a monumental series had to go down like this, especially with several extra months of planning. 


A Million Little Things (ABC)

Most of the season three premiere of A Million Little Things took place pre-COVID, with just one mention of a possible pandemic in a quick news report. We'll have to wait and see just how things go in future episodes to judge, but so far nothing much has changed (other than Eddie being paralyzed from the waist down!).  


All Rise (CBS)

All Rise was one of the first shows to try out virtual production early in the pandemic, so its season one finale was already dealing with the effects of COVID-19 on the Los Angeles justice system. While the production is no longer virtual, season two appears to be taking both the pandemic and this summer's Black Lives Matter protests seriously. Lola and Mark did entire scenes wearing masks (sometimes even multiple masks at once) and there were only a few moments where we were wondering where the masks were. 


Black-ish (ABC)

There was something about Black-ish's pandemic-themed premiere that rubbed us the wrong way. Bow's experiences at the hospital made total sense, but then she came home and yelled at her son for spending time with his lonely girlfriend in a way that felt sort of dismissive and preachy, even while she was technically saying correct things. Meanwhile, Dre was desperate to prove himself to be a pandemic hero with cheesy, tone deaf ads, and another episode featured a small outdoor wedding with no masks in sight, even after Bow's freakout in the premiere. It just feels off. 


The Conners (ABC)

The Conners has never been one to shy away from the things that make life hard for working class people, and it certainly has not shied away from the pandemic. At times it can get a little too real, but that's far better than not real enough. 


This Is Us (NBC)

The Pearsons are taking the pandemic incredibly seriously, but that doesn't mean This Is Us is going full tragedy. Even as the family got up to their usual tear-inducing shenanigans, the NBC drama also managed to capture the humor, the strangeness, and the coping mechanisms we've all been dealing with since March while also addressing social justice. They even had time for one of those classic This Is Us twists at the end, and so far in terms of the shows about normal people who aren't doctors or law enforcement or essential workers, This Is Us has it the most right. 


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