2020 may have been the year that coronavirus ground Hollywood to a halt. But 2021 marked the industry’s triumphant return to form. With entertainment’s post-pandemic resurgence came opportunities — and stumbling blocks — related to the world-stopping event and how we talk about it.
Over the past two years, how and why COVID-19 is portrayed on screen has grown more and more interesting. Some flagrantly fictional worlds have bent to accommodate the real crisis, while their more realistic counterparts sidestepped the matter altogether. So how was the pandemic addressed on TV this year?
Listed in no particular order, here are 12 note-worthy Covid moments from 2021 television.
1. Best: Superstore
Early in the days of quarantine, I drafted this tweet: “Shows that are allowed to cover COVID: 1. Superstore, 2. End of list.” It is a tweet I stand by entirely after NBC’s show about employees at a big-box store addressed how essential workers fared the pandemic during its final season. Over the course of a few episodes, Cloud 9’s employees face the same challenges we all witnessed during the spring of 2020 — from low mask supplies to customers hoarding sanitizer and toilet paper — but they themselves are indispensable for Americans weathering these times.
Superstore treated the pandemic the way it treated any social or political issue during its run: with critical thought, empathy, and pitch-perfect comedic timing. The show never took its characters “back to normal,” showing the lasting effects of the pandemic on so many lives and jobs around the world. It was hard to watch, but as always, Superstore gave us a weekly dose of comfort. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
2. Worst: The Morning Show
The Morning Show had made some capital-C Choices since it premiered in 2019, but the most baffling of all is the decision to address coronavirus in Season 2. Apple’s star-studded drama managed to build disturbingly toward the onset of COVID-19 in the United States while simultaneously becoming more self-absorbed than ever. In a global crisis that decimated so many lives and lifestyles, The Morning Show decided that the perspective we need is that of rich TV producers and a disgraced sexual predator. We needed to watch Jennifer Aniston, of all people, sweat out her COVID fever in a luxury penthouse in Manhattan, all while comparing her circumstances and the deadly virus to an imagined fear of being canceled. The season is tactless, tone deaf, irresponsible, and generally unhinged — but we’ll go with this superlative instead. — P.K.
3. Most Literal: Grey’s Anatomy
The fictional Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital had patients with COVID-19 this year. That meant Grey’s Anatomy had to render an even more precisely accurate portrait of its medical setting for viewers living through the global health crisis they were watching on screen. With fastidious attention to detail and the smarts to say the science of spread out loud and often, this beloved workplace dramedy did a service to the moment by capturing it well. There’s still the subjectivity of liking a show that’s so soapy. (Meredith’s own battle with Covid, played out in part on an imaginary beach frequented by ghosts, was an…interesting choice.) But overall, Grey‘s Season 17 was an important bit of representation in a TV landscape racing to keep up with the times. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
4. Worst Whiplash: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine could have been one of the best pandemic portrayals on TV, but an abridged final season meant prioritizing character resolutions and the flawed police system rather than coronavirus. Season 8 opens with Jake, Rosa, and Charles masked and social distancing in the precinct — and that’s it. After the cold open it cuts to spring 2021, where officers of the nine-nine are gathered unmasked in a bar and Holt mentions that “all first responders have been vaccinated.” Back to business as usual! We could easily have done Season 8 in a magical reality where COVID never happened. Who doesn’t love some escapism? — P.K.
5. Biggest Surprise: The Other Two
The Other Two‘s second season ends with a deadly sneak attack of a pandemic joke. After years of auditions and unfulfilling hosting gigs, Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) lands a part in a feature film. The finale’s end tag reveals that the movie begins filming on March 13, 2020, aka the day everything shut down. Poor Cary — just when you think he’s achieved his dreams, a pandemic rolls along to put everything in flux. According to showrunners Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the COVID joke was a last-minute addition to the season, all of which had been written prior to the pandemic. While Season 3 isn’t going to be a COVID-focused season, Kelly and Schneider noted that The Other Two satirizes show business so much that not addressing the pandemic, which has changed how the entertainment industry operates, would shift the show away from reality. — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Fellow
6. Most Rage-filled: You
You could have done an anti-vaxxer subplot with or without a pandemic. But contextualizing a fictional measles outbreak by explicitly commenting on real current events let the psychological thriller drive its prescient point all the way home. In Season 3 episode 3, when baby Henry mysteriously contracts measles, his mom Love (Victoria Pedretti) goes on the warpath to find out how he got it. Ultimately, it’s revealed a neighborhood couple knowingly put her child at risk due to disprovable pseudoscience. So, Love beats one of them over the head with a rolling pin and stashes his unconscious body in her basement. Watching all that go down is an undoubted guilty pleasure. But so is the show. — A.F.
7. Most Relatable: Love Life
Credit: HBO Max
Rather than having Covid loom large over the excellent second season of Love Life, the team behind the HBO Max dramedy instead focused all of the pandemic’s destabilizing horror onto the strong, poignant penultimate episode of the William Jackson Harper-starring series. Taking place over the course of the pandemic, Marcus goes through the stages we all went through in 2020 —apprehension, horror, and depression aplenty. Tackling the Black Lives Matter protests and the draining exhaustion of dealing with overwhelmingly clueless white co-workers was an added dose of much-needed reality. Happily, all was not hopeless as Marcus began to take a hard look at himself and take concrete steps for a better, healthier post-pandemic future — an aspirational move for us all. — Erin Strecker, Entertainment Editor
8. Most All-Around Impressive: Shameless
There’s a lot in Shameless‘ brilliant eleventh season that represents its impressive approach to the pandemic well: creative use of face masks in acting and blocking; of-the-moment dialogue that somehow never feels dated; and plenty more that’s simultaneously insightful, entertaining, and effective. But perhaps more than anything that’s actually in the show, how Shameless‘ final season was made remains a staggering feat of TV excellence. Creator John Wells steadfast commitment to adapting production of his beloved Showtimes series (the longest in the network’s history), while helping its topical moments match broader themes of the show helped its finale feel both fresh and fitting. Regardless of the circumstances, the Gallaghers were able to get the send-off they deserved. That felt good in a year so tough. — A.F.
9. Most Fantastical: Mythic Quest
Mythic Quest knocked their 2020 pandemic special episode out of the park with a poignant reflection on loneliness, boredom, and their characters’ bizarrely endearing rapport. Then, right before their Season 2 aired, Mythic Quest released “Everlight,” another bonus episode that bridged the gap between the Covid-19 pandemic and the events of the upcoming season. Mythic Quest has always been smart about what makes fantasy gaming fun, but “Everlight” took that understanding to another level with a plot that begins with Mythic Quest employees live-action roleplaying an end-of-pandemic celebration that transforms into a magical fantasy sequence where light always conquers the darkness. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Mythic Quest is streaming on AppleTV+.
10. Most Handwave-y (tied): Gossip Girl, And Just Like That, and The Sex Lives of College Girls
Credit: Mashable composite; HBO Max
At the end of the day, television is a form of entertainment. Not everyone needs to get into the gritty details of everyday life, especially if those details are a commonly experienced biological disaster that many would rather escape. This is all to say that being handwave-y about the pandemic is not a bad thing; rather it’s a sign that certain shows are committed to their duty of being fun even though they take place in the “real” world. Both And Just Like That and the Gossip Girl reboot take place in a post-pandemic New York City where everyone has already dealt with Covid. They’ll mention masks, quarantining, and not seeing their friends for a while, then enter a crowded room or get on a subway platform unmasked and unashamed. As for The Sex Lives of College Girls, there’s one quick mention of someone getting Covid in the past, after which they dispense with any pandemicalia and move on to better things. — A.N.
11. The Carpe Diem Award for Pandemic-Era Filming Opportunities: The White Lotus
The White Lotus is a special case where the characters don’t deal with the pandemic in-universe, but the show itself only exists because of Covid-19. After production delays left HBO with fewer shows than they had slots for, creator Mike White whipped up The White Lotus as a pandemic-friendly series that could start shooting immediately. The fictional White Lotus Hotel is really the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, which lay empty during the pandemic and was easily transformed into a totally different venue. Many of the scenes take place outdoors or between small groups of characters who rarely interact beyond their immediate plotlines, which is a remarkable feat of writing considering the number of characters to juggle and the murder mystery that builds over the course of the season. Mike White made delicious, if bitter lemonade out of restrictive lemons, and so he earns the special Carpe Diem Award for Pandemic-Era Filming Opportunities. — A.N.
12. The Cassandra Award For Bleakest Prophecy: Dear White People
Season 4 of Dear White People opens in a not-so-distant future, with Lionel (DeRon Horton) and Sam (Logan Browning) in extremely cool masks. They live in a world plagued by…well, plagues — a world where three cases of something called “Irish flu” lead to mandatory preemptive lockdowns. “God I wish bio-lock was the made-up future-y thing it sounds like instead of the every day reality under which we now live,” Lionel groans. As disquieting as it is, the hardest part might be that Dear White People’s reality has much better control of viral diseases than ours does. And they have orgasms in pill form. — P.K.