It is an irrefutable fact that 2020 took a toll on everyone, everywhere. Facing a vicious political landscape and an unforgiving global health pandemic, people were desperate for an escape from reality. When reading, working out from home and learning to bake everything from sourdough to banana bread grew stale, Americans reverted to one of the most steadfast pastimes of our culture: watching television. And, if the 73rd annual Primetime Emmy Award nominations for drama series are any indication, they were looking for escapism when doing so.
Except for NBC’s “This Is Us,” all the drama series nominees this year opted to omit mentions of a pandemic in their storylines. Some, such as Netflix’s “The Crown” and FX’s “Pose,” didn’t have the option to be that topical, as they take place in earlier time periods. Others, including Amazon Prime Video’s “The Boys” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” could have laid in references, even if not made it a plot point, if the showrunners so desired. Both of those shows, after all, are already steeped in tough political and cultural themes and escapism can come in many forms.
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“We’re sort of a strange animal because we are both escapism and not at all escapism,” says Eric Kripke, creator and showrunner of “The Boys.” “There’s a read of the show where it’s an outrageous superhero show, but there’s also a read of the show where it’s a fractured funhouse mirror of what it’s like to live in America in this exact moment of everything from the intersection of celebrity and authoritarianism, which has proliferated over the last couple of years.”
“The Boys,” which peels back the layer of celebrity on superheroes to show their (sometimes criminal) flaws, was written and shot ahead of the pandemic, so there was never even the opportunity to make a pandemic a major plot point. While the show could have thrown references of a similar event happening in the characters’ past through ADR, they opted not to. However, with a third season on the horizon, it might not be kept completely out of the world.
“We’re really using the superhero metaphor to talk about the things in society that, frankly, the writers are angry about, but we also have people shooting lasers out of their ass,” Kripke says.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” on the other hand, produced its entire fourth season amid the pandemic and kept such an event out of the world of the series because “television, by definition, is the ability to get away from your cares and problems for a while. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the other people on TV can’t have cares and problems, but they’re not yours, so you can escape from your own,” says creator and showrunner Bruce Miller.
According to a study done by Nielsen, at the beginning of the lockdown last March, the average viewer was clocking in roughly 40 to 41 hours of TV time, which is a sharp contrast to the 33 hours documented during the same span of time in the previous year. At the end of the summer, Nielsen reported that viewing habits increased again, especially on streaming platforms, which saw a 6% bump in consumption from the previous quarter (from 19% to 25%).
Series such as “Pose,” which are set in previous periods (the final season spanned the 1990s New York City ballroom culture scene), inherently come with a level of escapism, simply due to lifting the audience out of their own place in time. This one came with an extra level, co-creator and showrunner Steven Canals notes, due to his show’s setting.
“Ballroom, as a whole, was always an opportunity and a place for this really beautiful community for these queer and trans, Black and Latinx people to live out a reality that often is taken away from them, is stripped from them,” he says. For viewers who hunt for parallels to their own lives, “Pose’s” final season storyline of Black and brown AIDS patients not accessing clinical trials might have felt close to home, given the state of healthcare amid COVID-19. But for those who did want to see modern-day issues reflected on their screens, there was “This Is Us.”
NBC’s long-running family drama not only brought COVID19 into its modern-day storyline, featuring characters wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart while speaking out on a lawn, but it also reflected many of the conversations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement resurgence in summer 2020.
This required undoing some of the plans the show had made for the season, which the writers’ room began mapping out before the pandemic hit, says creator Dan Fogelman. But he felt it was worth it for the layers it provided.
“When [the pandemic] started taking hold, I took a step back and said, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to continue down the path we’re on? Are we going to make 180-degree shift?’ The choice we made was to land somewhere in the middle,” Fogelman says. “We were going to put world events and particularly the pandemic into the show without hopefully letting it overtake the show or without letting it drastically alter the big picture decisions that we’ve made for the series in full.”
“We had two characters who we knew were going to have an accidental pregnancy,” he gives as an example. “What we hadn’t planned on was that that already unusual relationship could be made more interesting by two people having to essentially quarantine together [though they] barely know each other and [are] having a baby together.”
Since there are different levels to escapism, Canals points out the importance of viewers embracing their own idea of such storytelling.
“For me, as a cisgender person who sees myself both as an advocate and an ally to the trans community,” he says, “if I’m tired of seeing my narrative rooted in my trauma, then I know damn sure that the trans community is feeling that times 100.”
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