“Sex and the City” always existed in a fantasy version of New York City, but in its HBO Max sequel, “And Just Like That,” there’s a different sort of illusion at work. In the opening scene, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) are waiting for a table at a very crowded, very indoor restaurant.
“Remember when we legally had to stand six feet apart from one another?” Carrie quips.
And just like that … Covid is over. At least it is in this show’s Manhattan, as well as in a cohort of other series that try, wishfully, to press the epidemiological fast-forward button.
In the real world, the Omicron variant may be driving case counts into the stratosphere, but on TV, the pandemic is playing dead. In the Season 11 premiere of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s HBO comedy of ill manners, chaos breaks out during a party (specifically, a premature funeral) at Albert Brooks’s house when Larry finds a closet stuffed with Purell, toilet paper and KN95 masks, exposing the “Lost in America” director as having been a “Covid hoarder.”
You know — during the pandemic. The one that is definitely over.
For nearly two years now, representing (or avoiding) Covid on TV has been a choice among bad options. Most shows ignored it altogether. A few, like “Social Distance” on Netflix, made the pandemic a direct subject, earnestly if clunkily.
But maybe most awkward have been the series that acknowledged Covid existed but declared or implied it was over long before Covid decided it was over. NBC’s time-skipping “This Is Us” played the pandemic’s greatest hits throughout Season 5 — quarantine, video calls, pandemic unemployment — but this week’s Season 6 premiere suggests that the show has moved on. Season 2 of HBO Max’s “Love Life,” a story that spans several years, includes one pandemic episode, then begins the next in a version of 2021 where an audience is sitting unmasked in New York’s La MaMa theater.
Some prime-time series about doctors, police and other emergency workers made fitful efforts to depict Covid, but their mask discipline sagged over time. “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance, brought the pandemic full-on to Seattle Grace hospital in fall 2020. By fall 2021, it opened with the disclaimer that it now “portrays a fictional, post-pandemic world which represents our hopes for the future.”
These are all understandable choices, and maybe the only creatively practical ones. But they make for some potent cognitive dissonance. When I watched a “post-pandemic” “Grey’s” episode recently on Hulu, it opened with a pre-roll ad urging me to get a booster shot.
For programs that simply try to show how people live daily life, the pandemic’s challenges are both subtler and more pervasive than those presented by past catastrophes. After 9/11, there was no need for homeland-security alerts to impinge on “Friends,” and the subsequent fixation on terrorism was even a natural driver of plot for action thrillers.
The pandemic, on the other hand, quelled action. Covid touched every aspect of mundane life. Masks limited facial expression. Real-life distancing practices meant that the basic engine of sitcoms — people in a room or a bar or an office, talking — was now fraught with angst.
Very occasionally, series have managed to capture this reality, as in the second and final season of HBO’s naturalistic comedy “Betty,” whose young characters skateboarded through pandemic-era New York in various states of matter-of-fact maskedness.
The remake of “Scenes From a Marriage” split the difference oddly, opening with the fourth-wall-breaking image of the cast and crew working under Covid protocols, then letting its domestic dissolution play out sans masks.
More often, TV has breezed past the situation, or wished it away. As long as a year ago, series were declaring early victory over Covid. NBC’s “Mr. Mayor,” which premiered last January, starred Ted Danson as the mayor of Los Angeles, a job in which managing public health is not a small detail. The pilot yada-yadas the pandemic away by having him mention that “Dolly Parton bought everyone the vaccine.” (A later episode does involve a lice outbreak.)
To its credit, a series like “And Just Like That” is at least trying to acknowledge the pandemic, rather than shunt it offscreen. It just does so in the past tense.
The Peloton on which Mr. Big (Chris Noth) takes his fateful last ride was a habit many other shut-ins of a certain income acquired during lockdown, which was also when he and Carrie began their evening ritual of listening to vinyl LPs. Anthony (Mario Cantone) runs a bakery, the offshoot of one more Covid-acquired sourdough hobby. And when Carrie calls Miranda out for her drinking in a recent episode, Miranda shoots back: “I am drinking too much. Yes. We all were in the pandemic, and I guess I just kept going.” Make mine a double.
There’s a note of wistful, wishful thinking in all this retconning of reality — would that we could write a time jump into our own scripts! But there’s also the simple matter of timing. TV generally works on a faster schedule than movies or books, but it’s not instantaneous (and shooting during Covid tends to take longer).
So TV creators — suddenly conscripted, like educators and restaurant managers, into making public-health decisions they never expected to be part of the job description — have been left to guess at Covid’s future like a hapless pop culture C.D.C.
In some cases, what’s onscreen now is a time capsule from the heady early days of vaccine optimism. The post-Covid “Curb” season wrapped production a few mutations ago, in May, when the virus seemed to be fizzling into oblivion. (The executive producer Jeff Schaffer told The Hollywood Reporter that the season takes place “Right now, if everyone had the brains to get vaccinated.”) A “comfy chic” challenge in the newest “Project Runway” season, produced in spring, had contestants adapt “those awful couch clothes that we’ve all been living in for over a year,” presumably for a post-Covid future.
“South Park,” which released a two-movie “Post Covid” special on Paramount+ in November and December, has one of the quickest turnaround times in TV — the first installment was released just as Omicron was discovered and the second worked in a reference to the variant. But it put the “post” in its “Post Covid” premise by using time travel and alternate reality to depict a future in which humanity had — well, almost — beaten the virus. (Maybe the most far-fetched twist is its resolution, in which, with the series’s frustrating both-sidesing, vaxxers and antivaxxers shower each other with apologies for getting so worked up during the plague years.)
Still, it’s striking that TV, whose strength is the ability to stay on top of the moment, has generally worked so hard to avoid the biggest thing to happen to its collective audience in the past two years. You could easily imagine face masks becoming a staple, even a cliché, of period dramas some day — a visual shorthand for “the turbulent days of 2020” the way a shot of the corner of Haight and Ashbury says “the ’60s” — even as future rerun-watchers puzzle at why they’re nowhere to be found in the TV of our own time.
Maybe it’s only fitting that TV producers should muddle through this garbage storm like everyone else, unsure what the rules will be by airtime, wishing they knew where the pandemic fell on the spectrum between temporary emergency and permanent way of life. And I’m sure plenty of viewers would rather be reminded of anything else.
But you’re reminded anyway, if only by the twinge of uncanniness from seeing TV characters act as if the pandemic were history, even as you’re still trying to get your hands on rapid antigen tests. I bet Albert Brooks has a ton of them.