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A Primetime Pandemic: Medical Drama Showrunners Reflect On “Moral Imperative” To Address Covid-19 On-Screen

When Covid-19 touched down in the U.S. last year, reality wasn’t safe from the virus’ grasp and neither was fiction. As frontline workers and medical personnel worked tirelessly to care for coronavirus victims and stop the spread, showrunners and executive producers behind TV’s most popular medical dramas thrust the pandemic into primetime.

Now a year into the historical health crisis that has killed more than 538,000 people nationwide, Deadline spoke with medical drama showrunners who reflect on the discussions that led to their coverage of the coronavirus, how they advanced a story that still has no end and where their shows will go from here. 

“I have never written about something while we were in the midst of it, and certainly not in a way where I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring,” said The Good Doctor executive producer/showrunner David Shore. “Frankly, that’s a challenge I hope I don’t face again.” 

The Good Doctor
Courtesy of ABC

Like almost everybody across the globe, showrunners and executive producers found themselves in uncharted territory working amid the pandemic. They adapted to virtual writers’ rooms and socially distanced sets (which would occasionally close due to positive tests). All the while, their future stories were at the mercy of the virus’ unpredictable trajectory.

But even with the pandemic-era obstacles and difficulties, showrunners felt they needed to leverage their reach to honor the work of frontline workers and to address the health crisis that has challenged the durability of the American healthcare system. 

“I would be so ashamed, I could never leave my house, if we didn’t address [coronavirus] fully, responsibly,” said New Amsterdam exec producer/showrunner David Schulner. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror…we’re a hospital show set in New York City, and it was a moral imperative on our part to tell this story.” 

ABC

Grey’s Anatomy executive producer and medical expert Zoanne Clack, whose own personal experience with the virus informed Dr. Bailey’s tragic coronavirus storyline, said the ABC drama has “never been a pulled from the headlines kind of show.” However, when other medical experts including Dr. Naser Alazari warned that Covid-19 could change the practice of medicine entirely, showrunner Krista Vernoff, who was originally iffy, decided to take the pandemic head-on, Clack said. 

“It would feel a little bit irresponsible to us, that with all the opportunity afforded by being such a long-standing show, to not showcase, give light and put a face to basically the biggest medical story of our lifetime, that could potentially change the whole face of medicine forever,” she said.

Discussions further developed into those about how long pandemic stories would run in new seasons, and how much audiences can take of a crisis they were living out in real time. Schulner, Shore and The Resident exec producer/co-showrunner Andrew Chapman said that while they felt the responsibility to highlight the everyday fight frontline workers have been facing since March 2020, they also wanted to give viewers a break.  

Fitting the Covid-19 pandemic into their dramas was not an exact science. Although showrunners could not foresee how the pandemic would end, they had developing news at their disposal. Others had consulting teams composed of doctors and nurses who shared their own first-hand experiences combatting the virus. While some left their stories flexible enough to account for the latest coronavirus news, others took the leap and blindly navigated an end to the pandemic.  

The Resident Season 4 picks up in an indeterminate future, where loved ones can gather by the dozens to celebrate the marriage between two leads, without masks and social distancing. The season premiere and its imagery about a post-pandemic world hit screens when vaccine rollout began in January, and the prospects of a return to normal became more realistic.  

“I can’t believe we got that right, but it was luck, honestly,” said Chapman. “It was a lot of research, but it was luck, too.” 

Chapman said The Resident medical consultants’ own experiences with trial-stage Moderna vaccines gave him the confidence to realistically write in inoculations and a post-pandemic future. He added that Dr. Daniela Lamas and Dr. Eric Lu, who wrote the Season 4 premiere, and E.R. doctor Josh Troke said that the pandemic would start to look different in 2021. 

“They saved our asses by saying that… that was huge,” he continued. “If we had made the wrong choice there, if vaccines never happened, if we didn’t have a vaccine now, we would’ve looked really stupid.”

The Resident
Everett

Although not as precise in timing, New Amsterdam and The Good Doctor also opted for time-skips to a post-pandemic world, after their early episodes touched on the Covid crisis in varying degrees. 

While the later episodes discuss the financial and emotional impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, inspired by real-life repercussions, the current seasons pick up right where they left off, though only slightly delayed and with a bit of a coronavirus slant.  

For New Amsterdam, Ryan Eggold’s Dr. Max Goodwin returns to repairing Bellevue Hospital’s flaws, which the events of the pandemic have only worsened. In The Good Doctor’s post-pandemic future, Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy explores new levels of romance with girlfriend Lea Dilallo (Paige Spara), returning to the series’ hopeful themes, Shore said.  

“We’re a show about hope, and we wanted to get back to normalcy, even though our stories aren’t always happy stories, they are stories about hope. We wanted to get back to the world we’re hoping we all face sooner, rather than later,” Shore said.  

Grey’s Anatomy takes a different approach, thrusting viewers into the heat of the Seattle surge back in March and highlighting the social issues only exacerbated by the pandemic. From portraying the dangers of asymptomatic carriers and Covid dreams to showcasing the aggressions against Asian Americans and the virus’ disproportionate effect on the Black community, Grey’s Anatomy seems to leave no Covid plot untouched.    

“I don’t believe that we let up on Covid. When it was about Covid, it was about Covid,” Clack said.  

While the coronavirus certainly made future storylines feel a little less predictable, Clack found that the circumstances of the pandemic raised the stakes and provided Grey’s with opportunities to experiment with its storytelling.  

The ongoing crisis presented chances to bring back fan-favorites while showcasing specific effects of a coronavirus infection, such as hallucinations and “Covid dreams,” Clack said. Patrick Dempsey and T.R. Knight’s beachside return, though a product of Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) own hallucinations, surprised fans throughout Season 17. Clack revealed that the buzz-worthy sequences only happened because of the pandemic, as it was a way to highlight the real-life side effect and supply joy to viewers.  

Coverage of Covid-19 was not limited to just medical dramas, as several other series opted to reflect the pandemic, including All Rise, Bull and This Is Us, broadcast TV’s highest-rated entertainment program.

This Is Us executive producer/co-showrunner Dan Fogelman said the drama’s latest season aspired to speak “to the regular movements of life that had continued and stopped amid the pandemic.” In the latest season, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) quarantined and endured multiple Covid-19 tests before embarking on a journey to New Orleans to learn more about his family. Chrissy Metz’s Kate and Chris Sullivan’s Toby donned masks and maintained 6 feet from the mother of their adopted daughter.

Fogelman even added that the pandemic helped develop the relationship between Justin Hartley’s Kevin Pearson and his now-fiancée Madison (Caitlin Thompson), who found themselves in a quarantine bubble.

“These two characters are going to be kind of forced together in this somewhat arranged type of marriage brought together by his desire to do the right thing and be a responsible parent,” Fogelman said. “The pandemic only heightened that storytelling.” 

This Is Us
NBC

As some Covid-19 patients still experience symptoms even after the virus has left their bodies, some showrunners say that the disease will continue to linger in, but not terrorize, their post-pandemic worlds.  

While the crew over at Chastain Park Memorial will work to expose further corruption in their ranks, Chapman says that The Resident will continue to highlight the aftermath of the coronavirus. An upcoming episode will feature a recluse terrified by the pandemic and hesitant to get the vaccine. He added that a brand-new coronavirus variant “can easily” be a Season 5 storyline.  

Schulner said that even in the post-Covid setting, New Amsterdam will feature the “aftershocks of the pandemic,” from the psychological toll of kids being isolated from their peers to storylines about domestic abuse and eating disorders.  

Grey’s Anatomy is still undergoing discussions about how long the pandemic will take over Grey Sloan, Clack said. She added that the ABC drama will continue to take cues from the latest medical protocol and from developing pandemic news, noting that the show may touch on relaxed Covid-19 rules in the future. Masks, face shields and the subtle actions like hand-washing and sanitizing may also remain on-screen, she said.

Looking back on how they tackled the pandemic, some showrunners say they would have approached it differently, and others are content with their coverage. However, none said they regretted their decisions to do so.

Shore said he’s proud that The Good Doctor recognized frontline workers’ ongoing work. Schulner, who admitted that New Amsterdam “missed the mark by a couple months,” shared that the pandemic “invigorated” him to shed even more light on inequities of the healthcare system.

Chapman touted pride in his coverage, sharing that The Resident team “made the astonishingly correct call.” Similarly, Clack sad she would not have approached the pandemic in any other way.

“Living with the moment and living with the pain and putting it on the screen so that we could all collectively grieve and be there for each other, even though we were apart, was a beautiful outcome of this season,” she said. 

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