Robert Jackman

Covid virtue-signalling has infected our TV dramas

Covid virtue-signalling has infected our TV dramas
Image: Superstore, NBC
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Not for the first time in its history, Eastenders managed to make a bit of a stir last week.

In a break from the more harrowing stuff, viewers were treated to the sight of the ever-sprightly Patrick Trueman waltzing into the Minute Mart to jubilantly announce he’d received his second Covid vaccine. ‘Good for you! I’m due my first one later today,’ replied the shop-keeper, before dismissing the objections of a vaccine hesitant customer (called Karen, of all things).

As you can imagine, the scene went down like a cup of cold sick with conspiratorially-minded types online. But you don’t have to believe odd things about Bill Gates to ask the more obvious question: which is why soap operas are tackling the pandemic in the first place.

I get it. Soap operas are supposed to be ‘issue-led’ dramas. But has the BBC learnt nothing from The Archers and its failed lockdown monologues? Furthermore, did the bright sparks of Broadcasting House not think that the reason people watch soaps - and drama more broadly - is to get away from this never-ending pandemic?

Apparently not. For ever since Eastenders returned from its lockdown hiatus, the residents of Albert Square have been doing their bit for social distancing too - from bumping elbows and wearing masks, to reminiscing about a long lockdown that (mercifully) took place off screen.

There are, as you'd expect, some inconsistencies. Inter-household socialising, of course, remains rampant. Likewise, the famous Queen Vic boozer remains open (presumably the writers, like so many of us, failed to predict pubs being closed for a third time). But these glitches do at least serve one purpose: they end up upsetting the Covid curtain-twitchers.

In January, some viewers even complained that scenes involving a houseparty might encourage people to break lockdown rules. Leaving aside, the fact that anybody using Eastenders as a life lesson would likely have wound up dead or incarcerated years ago, is it really up to television dramas to set a good example?

Some clearly think so. Over in the US, it’s become de rigueur for long-running network shows to virtue-signal about social distancing. Take ABC's The Good Doctor, a medical drama that at least had better cause than most to cover the pandemic. But was it really necessary to begin with a solemn down-the-camera reminder to 'wear a mask' - an instruction Americans probably hear quite enough already?

Sitcoms are it too, albeit slightly more subtly. The popular US comedy series Superstore - a knock-off Office set in a large Target-style supermarket - was one of the first shows to return after the lockdown. In its comeback episode, it set out to send up the pandemic, with an episode referencing everything from toilet paper shortages to incorrect mark usage.

The problem is that, with so much of this stuff still so very real, even the better jokes - like the one about how quickly Tiger King grew stale - feel too familiar to be funny. Maybe this kind of thing will work better in a few years, when stand-up comics are doing nostalgia routines about the time we all went mad and put traffic lights in supermarkets. At the moment, not so much.

Right now, if anything, the joke is on Superstore, which now finds itself stuck wearing masks some 15 episodes later. And just how many jokes can you squeeze out of social distancing in one season? It's all a far cry from South Park's delightfully deviant pandemic special.

Thankfully, the bigger dramas appear to be taking a different route. In a recent interview, Succession’s Sarah Snook (Shiv Roy) indicated that the show would be very unlikely to address the pandemic head-on in its third series. That's good news. But even having masks in the background would be a mistake.

The pandemic isn’t just an editorial challenge: it's a full-on dramatic dead-end. Too big to leave to a side plot, yet too dull to elevate to the main stage. Far better, I would say, to pretend it never happened and carry on as normal. No masks, no vaccines, and no silly elbow-bumping.

In many ways, it’s not necessarily all that different from what we’ve seen before. Bigger conceptual shows have always been presumed to occupy their own universe, albeit with subtle tweaks we rarely think about. Who is the president in Succession, for example? Does Rupert Murdoch exist? Likewise, presumably there’s no such thing as Malcolm in the Middle in the Breaking Bad universe.

Of course, television writers haven’t dealt with anything as all-consuming as a worldwide pandemic before. But as we’ve all found out, unprecedented events call for similarly unprecedented actions. For the sake of our collective sanity, let’s take one right now and delete Covid from all fictional universes.