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Fall TV is here, Covid-19 and all

Here’s how production is happening during a TV season unlike any other.

Superstore cast members applaud departing cast member America Ferrera on set for the series’ 100th episode.
Cast members of the NBC sitcom Superstore celebrate their 100th episode while wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Greg Gayne/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After a frenzied spring and summer, when Covid-19 production delays left some in the television industry wondering if there would even be a fall TV season, we’ve finally reached a point where shows on the big broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC — are starting to come back. Most of them are premiering four to six weeks later than usual because of those production delays.

And if you’ve started watching any of them, you might have already noticed they look ... different.

They don’t have animated sequences or actors kissing mannequins — both early experiments in keeping TV production rolling during a deeply uncertain time. They feature the usual cast members, playing out their usual antics. But it’s also easy to see what’s changed.

The season eight premiere of The Goldbergs is a good example. ABC’s ’80s-set sitcom loves to indulge in occasional homages to famous movies of the era, so for its premiere, which aired October 21, the show took on the beloved 1980 satire Airplane! Here’s an ad for the episode — take a look and see if you can tell what’s missing:

That’s right, there’s almost nobody in the background of scenes set in an airport and on a plane! Outside of the show’s regular characters and a handful of key guest stars, the episode seems to take place on some sort of creepy ghost aircraft; in any other season, the plane (and the airport, for that matter) would be full of extras.

That’s the compromise The Goldbergs made to allow the show to continue filming in the pandemic. Every show that has gone back into production has made its own compromises in an attempt to approximate business as usual, as TV makes its best effort to keep everybody entertained in an era of great uncertainty.

It’s impossible to say what the future of every single TV show will look like in a succinct fashion. But in checking out the shows that are returning, some common themes have emerged. Here are five of those themes.

1) There’s no perfect formula for keeping a TV set Covid-19 safe

The Sharks of Shark Tank all sit six feet apart.
Production of Shark Tank has resumed with extensive safety features. Note how far apart everybody is on set in this photo.

There’s no central Covid-19 authority within the TV industry. A small group of entertainment industry unions — including the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America — came up with guidelines for how shows could go into production, but those guidelines aren’t ironclad law, and some shows went back into production before the regulations were even finalized. In theory, one of the unions could halt production if the guidelines weren’t being enforced, but that puts a ton of weight on the words “in theory.”

Before I started working on this story, I assumed that the solution TV shows would resort to so they could continue to make new episodes would involve something akin to the NBA bubble. Essential personnel and their loved ones would hole up somewhere, they would have limited access to the outside world, and they would be tested for Covid-19 frequently.

But it turns out the only real consistent answer to Covid-19 that Hollywood has come up with is frequent testing. I talked to people working on shows where standards above and beyond the union guidelines are being enforced, and I talked to people working on shows where the absolute bare minimum is happening. People are being tested frequently, but they’re also largely free to come and go as they wish. Film and TV production is so multifaceted, with so many moving parts — an in-demand guest actor might book roles on four or five different TV shows over the course of a season — that it becomes all but impossible to build a sustainable bubble around it.

Most shows have built sustainable bubbles within their sets, to a point. Some are using “pods” or “zones,” meaning, in some cases, that lighting technicians (one pod) come in and hang their lights, then set decorators (another pod) come in and do their thing, and so on, up until the actors (the final pod) are ready to film on set with a minimum number of people behind the camera (a director, a cinematographer, etc.). Before each pod’s arrival on set, everything is wiped down to minimize exposure between pods. Once filming is complete, post-production like editing and visual effects work can often be done from technicians’ homes.

Are the new guidelines and protocols working? Sort of. Maybe. The NBC series Chicago Med had to shut down for two weeks due to a Covid-19 outbreak, for instance. But the people I’ve talked to say that, so far, precautions have slowed things down but mostly become a fact of on-set life.

“Everything ran incredibly smoothly once we finally got [on set] and realized that all of the protocols had been adhered to as best as they could be,” says Noah Huntley, who stars in the CW’s sci-fi drama Pandora, which recently finished filming its second season in Bulgaria. (Though some shows have started filming in countries with lower infection rates, Pandora has always filmed in Bulgaria.) “We’re all dealing with the unknown and trusting that in the face of the unknown, people are going to take care of your safety and best interests.”

In a similar fashion to many American workplaces right now, TV sets are also rife with masks and other personal protective equipment, particularly for the actors who could grind a show to a complete standstill if they are exposed to or contract Covid-19 and have to quarantine or isolate for two weeks (or longer).

Returning shows, which are better able to roll with production changes due to the established rhythms of working on something over several years, are handling these production challenges better than new shows.

“We’ve been doing this for five years now. We know what we’re doing. We know how to do it. The cast doesn’t need a tremendous amount of takes or coverage, they all come ready to go,” says Dan Fogelman, creator of This Is Us, which is in its fifth season. “We were able to kind of squeak by and get it done the way we want it as we were also wearing face shields for the first time in our lives and [wearing] masks. We have the actors literally in plastic bubbles between sets. It’s a brave new world over on set, but we found our normalcy really quickly, and we haven’t lost our rhythm.”

Reality shows like The Bachelor, where a consistent and predictable number of people will be on set every day and where there’s less need to, say, bring in guest stars for each new episode, have sometimes created an environment much closer to that of the NBA bubble. For instance, the ABC series Shark Tank has built a bubble of its own at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. For that series — in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to wealthy investors — the only people coming to the set for a new episode are the entrepreneurs, who are flown in separately, then only allowed to enter the bubble once they have a negative Covid-19 test result. The integrity of the bubble is also ensured via other means.

“Everyone was isolated from each other at the hotel when not in production. We built temporary walls to ensure the path to and from the set were maintained and strictly followed. On set, everyone wore PPE, except while on camera, and strict social distancing was maintained at all times — even the famous boardroom chairs on the set were spaced far apart,” says George Markantonis, the president and COO of the Venetian.

Shows have also taken far more minor measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, like delivering individual meals to cast and crew instead of having them line up for catering, or figuring out ways to warn people that they’re getting too close via high-tech wearable devices that sense proximity to each other.

Taken together, these efforts seem to be at least somewhat effective. I talked to only a couple of people working on shows where a positive test result meant someone had to quarantine for two weeks. But none of those shows’ cases involved a major cast member getting sick. For all of the safety protocols that have been established, most on-set bubbles are naturally porous and prone to failure, as happened on Chicago Med. Either there are more outbreaks than we know about, or Hollywood has gotten extraordinarily lucky. As the pandemic worsens throughout the country again, how long that “luck” will hold is anybody’s guess.

2) Shows that can incorporate Covid-19 into their storytelling are doing so. Other shows are avoiding it.

To return to The Goldbergs, that series takes place in the 1980s, where it wouldn’t make sense to suddenly write in a plague that first came into existence in 2019. So it’s ignoring Covid-19 altogether, plot-wise. Shows with science fiction or fantasy premises are largely doing the same.

But in general, if it seems like a show might tackle Covid-19, it probably is. This Is Us, for instance, released a clip from its season premiere in which two of the show’s main characters interact with each other on one of their lawns to minimize the risk of infection. One even wears a mask.

ABC’s Roseanne spinoff The Conners similarly opened its third season with the characters discussing Covid-19 and having to wear masks. (That show, typically filmed in front of a live studio audience, has switched to a pre-recorded laugh track so it doesn’t have to bring in more than 100 people per episode to laugh.)

So far, the show I’ve seen address Covid-19 in the most fascinating way is the NBC sitcom Superstore. The show’s sixth season premiere simultaneously had to deal with the fact that it routinely talks about important national issues, the fact that it takes place in the kind of big-box store that has remained open throughout the pandemic (often with little support for employees beyond lip service), and the fact that its last season halted production in spring 2020 with just one episode left to produce. That episode was set to write out a major character, too, and the actor had been released from their contract with the show at the end of season five, leaving no real certainty that the actor would come back to wrap up their character’s story in season six.

Superstore opted to open its sixth season with an episode that begins in March, when Covid-19 was first starting to dominate news headlines, then proceeds through the rest of the tumultuous summer of 2020, incorporating other major stories of the year (such as the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in many major cities). There’s even a murder hornets joke. (And in case you’re wondering, the actor who’s leaving the show did come back for the season’s first two episodes.)

The premiere, which aired October 29, is a dizzying episode of television, taking viewers from what the series’ showrunners call “a Covid period piece” right up to the present, via a series of time jumps. It’s notable for how much it feels like Superstore unless you look around the show’s edges. There are fewer extras shopping in the background of scenes, but you really have to know the show well to notice. The show benefits from the built-in plot device of many stores limiting how many customers can be inside at any given time to explain this seeming sparseness, too. But the premiere’s darkest joke just might be how quickly the workers at the titular superstore are taken for granted by a country that hailed them as “essential” mere months earlier.

“There are whole new ways to be taken advantage of in a crisis like this, of being underpaid or undervalued,” says Superstore’s co-showrunner Jonathan Green. “We had a lot of discussions about how exactly, time-wise, to deal with the pandemic. It came down to feeling like this phase that we’ve settled into now is definitely an interesting time to be living through. But the more interesting thing was to be spending some time in those early days and seeing the progression of what we knew and how things evolved.”

The show won’t directly discuss the pandemic in every episode going forward, but the pandemic will be a consistent fact of the characters’ lives. They’ll wear masks as they go about their daily business, and they might make jokes about various Covid-19-related topics, even if the main storyline is about something else entirely.

“There’ll be Covid-specific interstitials [short vignettes between scenes, which Superstore uses to humorously depict customers doing strange things while shopping]. And then we also have some stories where it won’t be a big dramatic story, but they’ll be exploring social protocols during the time of Covid,” says Superstore co-showrunner Gabe Miller. (Green also told me that dating during a pandemic will be something the show has a go at.)

3) Adding Covid-19 protections has been incredibly taxing — and expensive

Issa Rae and Justin Bieber promote the October 17 episode of Saturday Night Live.
Rosalind O’Connor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Beyond the raw cost of frequent testing (which is considerable), TV shows have had to add an entire department devoted simply to keeping their sets Covid-19 safe. That effort has, according to the Wall Street Journal, added about $150,000 to the budget of a half-hour episode and $300,000 to the budget of an hour-long episode. Many shows have also had to add an extra shooting day for each episode, due to how time-consuming it is to set up new shots when each department has work separately. Every extra day costs more money.

These newly established Covid-19 departments administer tests, make sure sets are disinfected when possible, enforce social distancing, and perform several other tasks depending on what’s needed by a particular show. They have also become a safety net for a lot of people in the entertainment industry looking for a steady gig in uncertain times, as staffing them has opened up new jobs.

One production assistant in New York that I talked to was hired to help maintain Covid safety procedures on set. They said they worked alongside people whose normal jobs are in live theater or the performing arts but who currently can’t collect paychecks from Broadway or Lincoln Center due to the ongoing shutdown of live performance venues.

But these regulations are definitely stretching budgets thin, which has led to cuts in other departments.

“Even though the studio added an extra shoot day because they knew that that had to happen, they were very strict about trying to not go into overtime [which most shows do at least somewhat regularly] and keep to certain hours when we’re shooting,” Superstore’s Green says. “There have been a lot of budget cuts across the board. We’re lucky we’re able to still produce a show at all. But every department has been slashed.”

4) Several shows that were renewed have been un-renewed in the wake of Covid-19-related production shutdowns

Shows that featured lots of romance or action in close quarters have been especially hard-hit by Covid-19 production shutdowns and new safety protocols. For instance, ABC’s private eye show Stumptown was renewed for a second season in early 2020, but that renewal became a cancellation once the network realized the show wouldn’t be able to safely resume production until Covid-19 was less of an immediate concern, simply because so much of it revolves around a love triangle and necessarily involves lots of kissing.

Consider, also, the case of Netflix’s critically acclaimed comedy about women’s professional wrestling, GLOW, which could not find a way to continue telling stories about something as intimate as its many wrestling matches in a world where Covid-19 continues to spread relatively unchecked. GLOW had previously been renewed for a fourth and final season, which will now never exist.

Covid-19-related un-renewals have disproportionately hit shows with female leads, which are more likely to feature storylines about intimate relationships, romantic or otherwise, than the umpteenth crime procedural starring a generic white guy. But make no mistake: If these series were bigger hits, they would probably still exist. They might even be back in production, despite the extensive safety measures that would be required. If a show is huge, a studio will almost certainly incur the expense of making it Covid-19 safe.

There’s no one “type” of show that is guaranteed to thrive in this new era, beyond a vague sense that for at least a little while, networks will probably greenlight fewer new shows that rely on lots of kissing or close-quarters fighting. However, a dark offshoot of Covid-19 shutdowns and cancellations could be that the growing diversity both in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood might be slowed or even halted by the pandemic as studios retreat to what they think is “safe.”

5) Despite everything, peak TV rolls on

It seems quite likely that 2020 will be the first year in more than two decades in which there are fewer scripted TV series on the air than there were in the year preceding it. First the cable boom, then the streaming boom, led to more and more and more (and even more) shows going into production, resulting in more than 500 scripted TV series airing, scattered across a variety of platforms, in 2019.

In that sense, peak TV — the phenomenon defined in 2015 by FX network president John Landgraf, wherein there are so many shows that no one person can keep up with all of them — might have finally deflated just a little bit.

But with that said, the TV industry is a massive machine that is designed to make lots of money for major corporations. It can be slowed, but it won’t be stopped, at least not for long. New seasons of TV’s biggest shows have continued to find ways to return to production, and a few barely shut down at all. (Showtime’s documentary series Couple’s Therapy, for instance, filmed an entire special amid strict quarantine measures, simply pivoting to videoconferencing software like most therapists nationwide have done anyway.)

It’s impossible to say just how Covid-19 will permanently change the TV industry, but for now, everybody’s trying to pretend that this “new normal” is as normal as the old one.

“It’s like muscle memory. You kind of go back to, ‘Oh yeah. This is how we interact,’” said Pandora’s Huntley. “But I was more interested in the subtle psychological difference. We’d all gone through this experience. And now we were going through the same thing [as before on set]. But in what we’re referring to as ‘the new normal,’ it was like what we’d done before, but it was also a different version of that. ... I really wanted to be there. I really enjoy the show. And I wouldn’t want to give that up for anything.”

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