When Prince Amponsah nabbed a supporting role in HBO’s Station Eleven, the Toronto-born actor knew that the post-apocalyptic series set in the aftermath of a pandemic would be a tough sell for some.
The show was adapted from a wildly successful 2014 novel by B.C.-born novelist Emily St. John Mandel, about a future society that was ravaged by a plague-like disease 20 years prior. While technology has been rendered all but obsolete, a traveling theatre group performs Shakespeare for survivors, demonstrating the value and meaning that art can bring during times of despair.
“I know a lot of people that were pretty hesitant in saying, ‘I’m not sure if I really want to watch this, you know, based on the things that we’re … still dealing with today in real life,'” Amponsah told CBC News.
An increasing number of TV shows are trying to address the elephant in the room: Does the COVID-19 pandemic exist in their universe or not? Some programming executives are shunning COVID-related content, while others find creative ways to address the pandemic, both directly and indirectly.
‘A post-apocalyptic show about joy’
In the case of Station Eleven, despite a gritty first episode, it’s ultimately a hopeful story, said Amponsah.
“I’m glad that people are taking the time to invest in the story and the outcome of the hope that it sort of tries to portray,” he said.
And the show’s time jump saves it from lingering too long on how things fell apart.
“I think the reason some people are able to watch Station Eleven right now is that it abstracts the apocalypse; it mostly happens off screen,” said Emily VanDerWerff, a TV critic for U.S. news site Vox. “That gives us space to imagine our own version of it.”
Before it began airing in December 2021, a TV adaptation of the novel had been in development at WarnerMedia — HBO’s parent company — for two-and-a-half years. The series began filming in January 2020 and was put on hold when the pandemic began two months later. A year passed, and the show started shooting again in February 2021.
WATCH | The trailer for HBO Max series Station Eleven:
When asked if the studio had thought about nixxing the show in light of the pandemic, creator Patrick Sommerville told Rolling Stone magazine it was never a consideration.
The first episodes “were following through on the premise we had pitched, which was a post-apocalyptic show about joy,” Somerville said.
“We had just enough proof of concept that there was a feeling that Station Eleven wasn’t leaning into despair, exactly. It was filtering terror out of the equation, to make our executives and the studio feel safe that whenever we could get up and running again, this would be a worthy venture to keep pursuing.”
WATCH | The trailer for Netflix series Sweet Tooth:
Like Station Eleven, Netflix’s post-apocalyptic show Sweet Tooth began development years pre-pandemic and was released in 2021. Adapted from a Marvel comic book series, Sweet Tooth is set in a future world where a pandemic has led to the existence of a hybrid human-animal species, widely hunted by those who believe they caused the catastrophic event.
Its creators have said that they sought to make the show a happy hit — and they did. Light and comic, Sweet Tooth was a fixture on Netflix’s Top 10 list during its first weeks on the streamer, with audience research firm Nielsen reporting that the series clocked 1.434 billion streamed minutes between June 6 and 13.
Some TV shows tackle COVID directly, others demur
Some shows have addressed COVID-19 directly. Genre shows, in particular, might be more prone than others.
ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy had a COVID-19-themed 17th season in which its lead character, Meredith Grey, was in critical condition after catching the virus. NBC’s Superstore, about a group of employees who work at a big box store, focused on COVID-19 in its sixth season through the lens of essential workers. And CBC’s The Coroner, about a woman who investigates suspicious deaths in Toronto, aired an episode about a personal support worker in a long-term care home during COVID-19.
But some content producers say they’ve avoided plugging COVID-19 into their television slate in an effort to keep the programming timeless.
“Quite honestly, we try to tell our stories through a lens that will have a little bit of an evergreen feel to it,” said Craig Junner, vice president of programming at Blue Ant Media in Toronto.
For the most part, among Blue Ant Media’s channels like Cottage Life, BBC Earth and Love Nature, audience preferences have trended toward escapism during the last two years. Channels airing content about travel, nature and lifestyle “have really done quite well during the pandemic,” Junner said.
Montreal screenwriter Patrick Lowe says that he won’t be developing any series that directly address COVID-19 for production company Encore Spectacle, where he is the director of development and a television content producer.
The primary reason he chooses not to do so, he said, is because the time between the development and airing of a show can take years. Future audiences might tune in and immediately feel that the work is dated, he said.
If we are still in a pandemic in three years, “I’m pretty sure it won’t be exactly the same thing,” Lowe explained. “People won’t have the same [relationship] with masks, the same [relationship] with restrictions … so how do I put it in my script? I don’t know.”
‘Remember when we had to legally stand 6 ft. apart?’
Lowe points to Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That as a show that swept the pandemic out of the way with a single line: “Remember when we had to legally stand six feet apart?” delivered by Carrie Bradshaw during an early scene. Since then, the show has made a few references to COVID-19 in past tense.
Other shows mentioned it early and never again, like HBO’s Sex Lives of College Girls and NBC’s Mr. Mayor, which jokes that the pandemic ended when “Dolly Parton bought everyone the vaccine.” Viewers know, now, that things are not that simple — the line is bittersweet to an audience with the benefit of hindsight.
But that display of hope might also be a comfort to viewers. Amponsah says that working on Station Eleven during COVID-19 has made him think forward to what a post-pandemic future might look like.
“We were trying to grasp what it means to not just survive, but to thrive … and to find happiness and life again in what you find important as a human to help you to keep existing, to keep living.”