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What the Hell Is Happening With Masks on Network TV?

Clockwise from top left: Superstore, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Fire, and Chicago Med. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, ABC and NBC

When TV slowly started getting back into production late this summer, there was a lot of attention paid to COVID-19 safety. Some of it was haphazard and ineffective, but by and large, there was a widespread understanding that it was vital to try, or at least be seen trying. That was all about behind-the-scenes COVID policy, though. On-screen, in the stories that get broadcast to millions of Americans, the presence of COVID and how to incorporate it into fictional storytelling is haphazard at best.

At worst, it’s a nightmare of ridiculous, milquetoast, equivocating gestures. There are fictional police officers wandering around wearing neck gaiters they never put over their faces, offices full of doctors and lawyers blithely chatting to unmasked strangers, and scene after scene of protagonists with no face coverings standing in front of background extras who wander around wearing medical-grade masks. In some cases, it’s clear that TV shows are doing their best to negotiate the strange demands of COVID storytelling in fictional worlds. If there’s COVID fatigue in real life, there’s surely COVID fatigue for entertainment, and it’s difficult to walk the line between realism and the desire to escape from reality. Taken all together, though, network TV offers a portrait of COVID response that is often distracting, frequently dangerous, and sometimes almost hilariously out of touch.

Law & Order: SVU is fairly typical, as network procedurals in 2020 go. COVID appears quickly in the season’s premiere episode — the cold open is a play on the Central Park birdwatcher incident, and everyone in the scene is either wearing a mask or has one around their necks. Masked officers show up to deal with the confrontation, but when Olivia Benson and other SVU regulars appear, they remove their masks before questioning the people involved. It’s an outdoor scene so it doesn’t feel all that remarkable, except that when the regulars then appear together inside the squad room, no masks appear. Two scenes later, two SVU detectives question an emergency room physician while masked, but the doctor they’re speaking to takes off his mask and face shield.

There’s an impressive amount of hygiene theater. Temperatures are taken and hand sanitizer gets squirted. But then, Benson and Carisi walk into an interrogation room and have a long conversation with a suspect while taking zero precautions. Next, Kat and Rollins question a bartender inside his bar, with nary a mask to be seen. In general, the assumption seems to be that COVID is worth worrying about, but it’s not transmissible between characters with speaking roles or anywhere inside the precinct.

It’s even more perfunctory in the Chicago-verse, where both Chicago Med and Chicago Fire have explicit COVID story lines and hit-or-miss PPE use, while Chicago PD seems to have ignored the pandemic entirely even though the background is full of extras wearing bandanas and surgical masks. (Maybe “ignored entirely” isn’t fair. Several of the leads do wear neck gaiters, although it’s hard to imagine what good they’re doing if they’re never used as anything other than stretchy-looking turtlenecks). The same goes for FBI and FBI: Most Wanted — the latter has a scene where the protagonist’s father shows up for a surprise visit, and when he expresses concern, the father holds up a paper showing he got a negative COVID test last week. “That’s not how it works,” the protagonist mutters. But the father comes to stay for the weekend anyhow.

This is what the middle ground of COVID storytelling looks like, and it’s both unsatisfying and distracting. Yes, these characters seem to be living in a pandemic. But in the interest of maintaining the status quo, it is a pandemic that lives on the outskirts of their lives, a notable but not especially remarkable annoyance as they go about their usual business. It’s tough to watch, tough not to be distracted by all the instances where characters would absolutely be wearing masks if it weren’t for the fact of their being the lead on a TV show. It’s tough not to feel flabbergasted by the inconsistencies. I spent much of Station 19 trying to figure out the logic for when characters could and could not take their masks off, assuming there must be some guideline they were all following. Maybe there was, but it was much harder to tell than on its sister show Grey’s Anatomy, which is taking a more all-in approach by giving its lead character COVID and dedicating the season to pandemic stories. Even on Grey’s, though, I wondered about a scene where two characters exorcise their stress by yelling at each other, sitting at opposite ends of a conference table. It was meant to be a release, but all I could think about was aerosolized virus particles.

It’s no easier on comedies. On Superstore, characters are generally coping with COVID as big box store workers by wearing masks while they’re on the store floor and then taking them off in the staff-only areas. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than black-ish, which recently featured an episode where several characters traveled from out-of-state to attend an outdoor wedding. (No masks in sight). On Bob Loves Abishola and The Unicorn, the series have chosen to just ignore COVID entirely, a move that honestly feels like a relief.

The medical drama The Good Doctor has also chosen the “ignore it” route. The series did start the season with two pandemic episodes, but begins episode three with lead actor Freddie Highmore speaking straight to the camera. “The following episode portrays our hope for the future,” Highmore says, “a future where no one will have to wear masks or take other steps to stay safe from COVID. Until then, please protect yourselves and others.” I understand the impulse. It would be so nice if we could all just fast forward to that moment in the future. But there’s a different kind of cognitive dissonance in watching a happy light-hearted sitcom existing in a COVID-free fantasy world than there is for a medical drama. For a medical drama, it feels like a cop out, and it’s even worse if you happened to see the news that Richard Schiff, a lead actor on The Good Doctor, was recently hospitalized with COVID.

I’m still not sure how to feel about what’s happening on network TV this fall. My anxiety over the past year has totally reshaped my internal system of alarms; my brain registers masks on the faces of strangers in the same way I once registered characters obviously driving around in fake cars, totally ignoring the road. I’m instantly distracted, and whatever fictional suspense I was living in totally collapses. It would be lovely to turn off the alarm in my mind that shrieks at the sight of all these beautiful TV people striding around their workplaces with their nakedly exposed mucus membranes. I can’t; it’s all I can see.

At the same time, I also know that there’s a grim realism to these TV shows full of indifferent mask adherence. We would not be in the crisis we’re currently in if America was full of diligent mask-wearing citizens. While it might not be safe or respectful for all these TV characters to go through their day in public without masks, in many cases it is reflective of how these real people might be behaving. That knowledge does not make any of this feel better. If anything, it makes those internal alarms seem even louder.

It also makes me feel like a hopeless scold, the kind of moralizing censor I have always loathed. “These shows are bad because they demonstrate bad behavior!” I feel myself yelling, even though I have always hated that stance and am dismayed to find myself logging mask violations like a teacher ready to dole out detention. Is it the moral responsibility of a popular network TV procedural to demonstrate good public-health procedures in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic? Is this like the absurdity of TV in the ’50s that shied away from showing married couples sharing a bed? Or is this more like the pushback against depictions of characters smoking on TV? Even if it is the latter, these are not children’s TV shows, and Law & Order SVU and FBI: Most Wanted should not be put in the position of being a good public example when the federal government can’t even get its shit together. And yet I find myself yearning for it, anyhow.

The answer to “what the hell is happening with masks on network TV” is that on most shows it’s a disaster. On most network shows, masks and other COVID acknowledgements feel like sloppy and indiscriminately imposed half-measures, more of a shrugging evasion than an attempt to take any of this year’s calamity seriously. It is not chiefly their fault. It’s the result of the spectacular abdication of responsibility by the president and Congress and by state lawmakers who resist mask mandates. But I’m tired of being futilely furious at them, so my fury is getting funneled in the direction of network TV procedurals. I am one woman staring at Olivia Benson, just wishing she’d wear her mask consistently.

What the Hell Is Happening With Masks on Network TV?