With the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. first getting attention for cases in the state of Washington, it’s no surprise that Seattle-set “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” will incorporate the health crisis into their storylines. But Krista Vernoff, showrunner of both series, debated another path.
“I truly considered allowing our fictional world to be a non-pandemic world,” Vernoff says. “Things are so dire right now and the social isolation has been so difficult, people are looking for escape. I wanted to give them escapism. Ultimately, we found a way to do both.”
Specific storylines for the new season are being kept under wraps and Vernoff declined to answer questions about what, if any, of Seattle’s real-world experience will be incorporated into “Station 19” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” which have their season premieres at 8 and 9 p.m., respectively, on Thursday, Nov. 12.
Other prime-time medical series will also wrap the pandemic into their plots, including NBC’s “Chicago Med,” premiering at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11.
“There was no question that we would include the pandemic,” said “Med” executive producers Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider (“Northern Exposure”) in an email. “The question was, what would be the balance between COVID and non-COVID stories. We wanted to show that regardless of the pandemic, other medical conditions have not gone away and still need to be treated.”
“Grey’s”/“Station 19” showrunner Vernoff says she ultimately decided to incorporate the pandemic into her shows after hearing health-care professionals who advise the programs discuss their experiences.
“I wanted to tell their story — the story of the impact of the pandemic on our ‘front-line’ workers,” she says. “Think about that: Doctors and nurses and orderlies are being called front-line workers. But they have not been trained or equipped to fight a war.”
ABC’s “The Good Doctor” (10 p.m. Mondays beginning Nov. 2), set in San Jose, California, delves deeper into the pandemic in its Nov. 9 episode, according to actor Hill Harper, who moved to Seattle in the show’s first season so his now-4-year-old son could attend a foreign language immersion school. Harper commutes from Seattle to the show’s set in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he plays Dr. Marcus Andrews.
“My character has a wife and obviously I don’t want to risk infection for her so that starts to beg the question, how do you interact in your off-time when you know you are at extremely high risk of infection?” Harper says. “We’ve heard multiple stories from doctors and nurses about the way they’ve had to live through the earlier, most dangerous parts of the pandemic and how they can’t live at home. In many ways, it’s a very isolating experience.”
Some TV comedies also have pandemic plots, including ABC’s “The Conners” (9 p.m. Wednesdays), which returned to prime time in October with its titular family facing the possibility of foreclosure on their longtime home.
Jonathan Green, showrunner of recently returned comedy “Superstore” (8 p.m. Thursdays, NBC) with writing partner Gabe Miller, said network executives were game to see the COVID-19 crisis incorporated into the series.
“In some ways we’re a show that’s uniquely qualified to deal with these issues and show what it’s really like for essential workers out there on the front lines,” Green says, noting “Superstore” offers a different take on essential workers “including not being treated as very essential. They’re called that but all of the old problems and ways they’re undervalued by their employer are there and [are just exacerbated] during this time.”
Green says the pandemic remains prevalent on “Superstore” even as the show mines the quarantine experience for humor.
“We’ve really been thinking of this as the COVID season of ‘Superstore,’ ” Green says, ticking off plots about curbside pickup, store promotions to woo customers back to in-person shopping and the different levels of precautions some characters are willing to take to prove they’re taking the pandemic seriously. “It’s the shadow looming over everything this season, but it’s also providing a lot of the comedy.”
A gag in the season premiere with employees hoarding toilet paper for themselves and hiding it from customers in the store’s drop ceiling proved comically effective.
For TV series that have resumed production, COVID-19 safety protocols have extended the time it takes to film an episode. Green says “Superstore” went from filming an episode in five days in past seasons to six days this season.
“The primary way that COVID protocols affect us is that they make shooting slower,” “Grey’s” showrunner Vernoff says. “When you have to socially distance the crew, no one can work at the pace that they’re used to working. So the shows will have fewer scenes than usual and fewer characters in the scenes. It changes the pace of the shows. And yes, [we’ll have] more exterior scenes.”
Vernoff says the pandemic also nixed any filming on location in Seattle as has been routine in the past: “We really hope to be back next year.”