TV Needs To Get Back To Pre-COVID Normal

Why are so many shows still cosplaying the pandemic?

When CBS announced on Monday that The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was going to return to the Ed Sullivan Theater with a full, vaccinated audience of 400 on June 14, it felt like the first acknowledgement that, with proper precautions in place, late night talk shows can start getting back to normal. Later the same day, NBC followed suit, saying The Tonight Show will have full, vaccinated audiences starting the same day, after two-plus months of Jimmy Fallon performing in front of scattered, distanced studio audiences.

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But it got me wondering why this announcement was such a long time coming. Sure, New York City had yet to lift indoor gathering restrictions in the wake of a lower level of COVID infections, mainly because of vaccinations. But, as Fallon had proven since March, and Saturday Night Live had proven since the start of its season last fall, there was a way to perform with a studio audience and stay safe, as long as they implemented sensible COVID protocols.

Right now, every aspect of TV, from daytime to local news, to daytime talk shows and late night guffaw-fests, to all scripted programming, should be returning to the studios they occupied and the presentation styles that they had pre-COVID. But, for some reason or another, some shows are still acting as if we’re still in the peak of the pandemic, keeping hosts isolated and audiences away, sending a message to viewers that they likely no longer need to send.

Take the example of Live with Kelly and Ryan. Despite the likelihood that both Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest are both fully vaccinated (assuming the availability of these vaccines in the last month and the fact that both of them have been eligible for some time), they both sit 10 feet apart from each other on camera, stitched together during their “host chat” segment by some clever digital effects. They’ve been doing things this way since returning to the studio last fall, and it’s been fairly awkward to watch.

If vaccinated people are now allowed inside stores without masks, Kelly and Ryan can sit two feet from each other again.

However, despite regular testing and now vaccinations, the two of them continue to distance. John Oliver continues to do Last Week Tonight from his “white void.” Late Night with Seth Meyers continues to not have an audience. Trevor Noah continues to do The Daily Show from his condo. The hosts of The View continue to scream at each other via Zoom-style on-screen squares. Jimmy Kimmel still performs in front of his staff. All of these choices made sense as recently as this past spring. But they don’t make sense now.

Why? Because the industry needs to help its viewers understand that things are starting to get back to normal, even if it’s not 100 percent the way it was before the pandemic started. 

Think about how things have changed for you if you’re now fully vaccinated: You might be eating in restaurants when you refused to do so before, or you’re shopping at Costco for the first time in a year, or going on an airplane. If vaccinated people are now allowed inside stores without masks, Kelly and Ryan can sit two feet from each other again.

Yes, there’s the idea of personal comfort levels. For example, I still wear masks inside Target or Trader Joe’s, even though I don’t have to because I’m fully vaccinated. But those comfort levels, whether they belong to the hosts, the producer, the crew, or the network, pale in comparison to having a raucous audience laughing and cheering at every word the host and guests say.

Despite the fact that we’ve actually enjoyed Colbert in the intimate settings of his South Carolina home then his tiny makeshift studio in the building housing the Ed Sullivan Theater, you can see his visible discomfort of not getting feedback from an audience that consists of more than executive producer Chris Licht and occasionally his wife Evie. Oliver, whose show has adapted quite well to the no-audience model, mainly because his show doesn’t depend on guests, has admitted in interviews that LWT is very hard to do remotely, recording on Saturdays instead of Sundays because of the lengthy process inherent in remote production. For a current-events-driven show, that day is critical.

So what’s the holdup? Are these shows making theater out of the fact that the pandemic is still here, despite the fact that even cautious voices like Dr. Anthony Fauci are telling the public that we likely won’t see another surge anytime soon? Or is there something else in play?

In the cases of Oliver and Noah, there may be logistical issues involved in transferring their operations back to their studios, or they may feel things are running so well now, why make a sudden change? But in some of the other cases, it makes no sense to continue to distance. Kelly and Ryan can move their chairs closer together with no effort. The hosts on Inside the NBA can return to goofing on each other from a desk that no longer looks like the size of the Enterprise’s bridge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Shaq, Ernie, Kenny The Jet, and Sir Charles, cosplaying it safe on TNT.

And, while we’re here, let’s hope that every scripted show returns to a post-pandemic world, across the board. The shows that did acknowledge that we’re living in a world with COVID were so inconsistent in their messaging, it was laughable. Whether we were looking at behind-the-scenes COVID protocols that showed actors sitting alone in makeshift wood-and-plexiglass cubicles that did nothing to help prevent the spread of droplets to seeing people wear masks on screen then take them off as soon as they have to talk to someone, without any rhyme or reason as to who that person is, the scripted universe never sent a consistent or useful message about living in this world. The shows that decided to ignore the pandemic in their fictional worlds ended up being much less frustrating to watch.

If we’re ready to exist in a post-pandemic world–albeit one that’s changed from the pre-pandemic days–then TV should be ready to, as well. Don’t you think we deserve it after living in isolation for the last 15 months?


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Joel Keller

Joel Keller spends way too much time watching TV, but now that TV is pretty good, he doesn't feel as bad. His writing about entertainment, food, parenting and more can be found at Decider, The New York Times, Billboard, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and other very clickable websites.

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