Nobody ever anticipated having to make TV in a global pandemic.
To be fair, nobody ever anticipated having to do most things during a global pandemic, because of all the disasters most people plan for, pandemics are towards the bottom of the list. Pandemics are for dystopian dramas and horror movies. Pandemics are practically fictional, until they suddenly aren't.
There was no guidebook for how we were supposed to handle the past year and a half, or for how TV shows and movies were supposed to function. Sure, there were CDC-recommended guidelines for how to keep things safe off screen, but there was no screenwriting book about how to accurately portray a pandemic on screen, no film studies about whether or not that's even a good idea. There was also no earthly way of knowing how much the world might change between production and air date, so a lot of creative teams were really rolling the dice this past year.
But now, as we cautiously approach a world that looks a lot more like normal, we have the benefit of hindsight. We now know what it feels like to be in a pandemic, watching a fictional version of that pandemic on our favorite TV shows. We know what it's like to watch at least one of our favorite characters almost die from COVID-19. We now know what it's like to watch dialogue through masks. And we now know that we don't love it.
Grey's Anatomy is one of my favorite shows of all time. I've watched it multiple times over, binging it like it's water and I'm dying of thirst. The next time I do that, I'll be skipping season 17.
Back in mid-2020, showrunner Krista Vernoff revealed in a Hollywood Reporter interview that originally, she had decided to skip covering the pandemic on the show. She was having pandemic fatigue, and she gave her writers the opportunity to change her mind, which they obviously did. The doctors on staff, known as "Team Medical," convinced her that the biggest medical show on TV needed to cover the biggest medical story ever.
That makes total sense, and I know that if I had been the one to make that decision back in summer 2020, I would have said the same. It wasn't necessarily a mistake to address the pandemic on the show, and I'm not even mad that they gave Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) a case of COVID so bad that she was in a coma for weeks. The mistake that Grey's Anatomy (and subsequently Station 19) made is that they chose to set their season premieres firmly in April 2020, back when things were very bad—case-wise, and emotion-wise.
We were all frantically washing our hands and wiping down the groceries we either panic-bought or guiltily had someone else deliver to us, counting on the estimated "few weeks" that we might be having to deal with this. We were worried about toilet paper supply and working from home, while doctors were still trying to figure out how to treat a new, mysterious disease, while battling endless amounts of misinformation about masks and cures. It was weird and miserable, and things got better, but also worse, from there.
When Grey's returned in November, that trip back through time didn't feel so strange. We were still in the thick of the pandemic, with cases in Los Angeles about to hit their worst numbers all year. Then, in early 2021, numbers started to creep back down. The vaccine started rolling out, and the world started opening back up again, but Grey's and Station 19 were still in May 2020.
By the time those two shows got to the death of George Floyd, the real world was almost a full year ahead, watching Derek Chauvin's trial play out. The firefighters of Station 19 are just now joining the protests and addressing the damage done by some protest infiltrators who burned down Vic's (Barrett Doss) family restaurant. On Grey's, Schmitt (Jake Borelli) just joined a vaccine trial. In the real world, we've moved on to other versions of these stories with a whole lot of new context, and it's not just hard to watch these shows that are so far behind. It's annoying. It's exhausting. We're living in a new world, and I don't ever want to go back to the old one, especially not in the form of the shows I used to consider a favorite escape.
It's not that these current seasons aren't good, generally. They're telling important stories about one of the strangest things that most living humans have ever experienced, and they're doing it in a way that I would have found fascinating if I were watching them do it a year ago. The problem is that I'm not watching them do it a year ago. I'm watching them do it now, in a vastly different, post-vaccine world. And now, I don't ever want to go back to then.
It's not just Grey's Anatomy and Station 19 that I don't think I'll be able to rewatch when this time is firmly behind us. The final season of Superstore will forever be tainted, and while This Is Us did an extremely palatable job of addressing the pandemic, masks were still present. Some shows only exist at all because of the pandemic, and you will never catch me watching those again unless I'm writing some sort of 2020 history book. Even then, probably not! Same for the many Zoom reunion specials that felt, at the time, like the greatest gift. Now, they're just upsetting.
So far, there's exactly one pandemic-era piece of content that feels like something I won't mind revisiting in a few years, or at least one that feels good to watch right now, and that's Bo Burnham: Inside, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
I don't want to see people wearing masks or joking about grocery shopping or talking to each other on Zoom, but it turns out that I do want to see a 30-year-old comedian having a year-long mental breakdown over the course of an hour and a half. This was the year of slowly losing our minds while the world fell apart, worrying simultaneously about the health of our sourdough starter and the need for justice reform in the United States. Inside only actually mentions the pandemic a couple of times, but it's a perfect encapsulation of what it's been like to exist recently—laying on the floor, Facetiming parents, contemplating capitalism, watching YouTube, being afraid to even step outside.
Grey's Anatomy put Meredith in a COVID coma to reunite her with her dead husband and dead best friend and dead sister, and then killed off her most recent boyfriend via stabbing. It just...wasn't what I was in the mood for. I emerged a new person somewhere in early spring 2021, and Grey's was still chugging along, waiting for Meredith to wake up back in June.
Luckily, Grey's won't be torturing us for very much longer. Star Kelly McCreary, who plays the presently engaged Maggie Pierce, confirmed to E! News that the finale will do some time-jumping to catch the show up to present day. She also hinted that perhaps the viewers weren't the only ones who were starting to struggle with the show being so behind the times.
"We do move through time to sort of catch the world of Grey's up to where we are now," she said. "I think it was really worthwhile to spend a lot of time in the COVID storylines just because there was a lot of story to tell there, but it did start to feel a little bit like, 'Oh god, I'm so eager, so eager, for these characters to experience some of the relief that the rest of us are.' It's really cool. We get to move through time and see and see things changing a little bit, and the sun kind of coming out over Grey Sloan."
It's about damn time.
Grey's Anatomy's season 17 finale airs Thursday, June 3 at 9 p.m. on ABC.