Writing for Television in the Age of COVID-19

BY Eric Wald | | Pandemic Diaries

You’re watching a romantic comedy on Netflix about a couple trying to make a long distance relationship work. In the climactic final sequence, the woman, Meg, is about to get on a plane back to Chicago. Her boyfriend, Tom, drops her off at the airport. They’ve decided it can’t work; they’re calling it quits. But suddenly, Tom has a change of heart. He races back to the airport and begins a romantic charge through the terminal. As the music swells, he arrives at the gate just as Meg is about to embark. Tom calls out to her, and with an audience of travelers watching, he gets down on one knee, professes his love for her, and proposes.

What’s wrong with this scene? All right, ignore the fact that a romantic airport dash is a pretty tired rom-com cliché. In a post-9/11 travel world, it would never happen. Tom wouldn’t be allowed through security without a boarding pass (not to mention the 45 minutes he’d spend waiting in line.) He’d be tackled and cuffed before he made it past the duty-free shops.

The point is, movies and TV/streaming shows need to authentically reflect the world we live in. This is a problem for writers. Because the world we live in just changed, in an epic way. Nobody really knows what the future will hold or how things will look a year or two from now.

From the view of quarantine, it already feels strange to watch people hugging on screen or crammed into crowded bars. Will every show that takes place in the here-and-now be forced to reflect the new normal? Will social distancing appear on screen? Will characters wear face masks? These are among the questions network executives and writers are asking themselves as they try to figure out how and when film and TV production can make its return.

I suppose there are a few ways to tackle this creative obstacle. The first is to fully embrace how the world looks right now. “Parks & Rec” did a remote episode that worked well, and fans seemed happy for the chance to check in with characters they know and love. But I imagine this format will get tiresome pretty quickly. A few new TV projects have sold that deal with social distancing and quarantine, but the general response seems to be “too soon!” While we’re still living through this nightmare, we’re not ready to experience it as entertainment just yet.

Another approach is to ignore the coronavirus crisis altogether and hope that by the time the project sees the light of day, things will have more or less returned to normal. The risk here is creating a show that feels out of touch and inauthentic (see Meg and Tom, above.) Sci-fi, fantasy, and period pieces obviously will have less of a burden to depict the look and feel of our post-Covid world, but writers in those genres will still need to be mindful that their themes resonate with the anxieties of our new world order.

With all this uncertainty, I personally have found it difficult to work on new material. It’s weird to try to predict the future, and it feels intimidating to comment on what the pandemic means, especially when my thoughts about it seem to change daily. I know my creative urge will return soon enough, but first I want a bit more stability beneath my feet and some much-needed perspective on the past few months, which have felt more like a bizarre dream than reality. It doesn’t help that I’m an extraordinary procrastinator, and suddenly there are so many dishes to wash and kids to homeschool.

That said, I had an idea for a TV show that I was preparing to pitch shortly before the pandemic broke out and lockdown began. I have since updated it to reflect the new reality, and will probably be pitching it via Zoom in the next few weeks. Here’s what I did: I assumed it’s taking place a year or two from now, and life has gone back to some semblance of normalcy. I then went through character by character and looked at how the coronavirus experience motivated their actions in the story. For example, the protagonist is a physician who loses his medical license when he gets busted for falsifying insurance claims. I added that his practice (a cosmetic vein repair clinic) had been deemed “non-essential” and was shuttered during the pandemic. This financial hardship is what led him to make the poor choice of writing phony claims. It actually added a nice layer to the story — his dramatic arc is now about how he must learn to become essential.

Maybe the world won’t return to any kind of normal — perhaps we’ll still be masked and socially distanced for years to come. Or maybe there will be another massive paradigm shift, and things will look entirely different than anyone could have expected. We’ll have to remain flexible, and be ready to make adjustments to our stories so that they feel authentic to the world we’re living in, whatever that world looks like. 

One thing is certain, this global experience will indelibly alter the types of stories we tell on the screen. There will most likely be a lag, as our collective PTSD settles in and we begin to process all of the anxieties that this crisis has wrought. Then we’ll see what emerges on the other side. Ghastly horror movies followed the real-life horrors of the First World War, screwball comedies were the rage after the Great Depression, the protests of Vietnam gave birth to the cinematic rebellion of the 1970s. How will Covid-19 manifest artistically in the coming years? Hard to say, since at the moment, we’re all just trying to get through this disaster movie.

Eric Wald, ’91, Creator/Executive Producer SIREN (Freeform/Hulu), Los Angeles, CA