How pandemic writing is changing TV

In his book, The Red and the Black, Stendhal said that a novel is a mirror travelling on a great road reflecting the concerns and the trends of the times. Even though TV may seem more like a rear-view mirror today because it still reflects the world as it used to be, pandemic writing is changing TV in more ways than you might think.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the scripts for Radio-Canada’s Bête noire TV series were good to go but shooting hadn’t yet begun. “While no one knew when the pandemic would end, it was hard to imagine it would still be raging a full year later when the series was scheduled to go on air,” said Patrick Lowe, who co-wrote the series with Annabelle Poisson. 

The production team decided to stay the course and continue with a pre-pandemic storyline. Looking back, Lowe believes it was the right choice for a series as consequential as Bête noire. “If the pandemic isn’t an integral part of the story, there’s no reason for it to be in the script, especially since that would really date the series,” he said.

Patrick Lowe Crédit Inis
Screenwriter Patrick Lowe - Photo credit: Inis

Mylène Chollet, lead writer on TVA’s L’Échappée, was faced with the same dilemma but because her series is a 24-episode annual that tends to be more in line with current events she opted to write the pandemic in. “I immediately imagined the worst-case scenario,” she said. “I figured the pandemic would be with us for a year or two, so we decided to incorporate it into the script but only in the background.”

Chollet nixed any scenes that were to take place in public places. The police wear masks whenever they appear and a student in the series attends school remotely. In the second half of the season, life returns to normal on L’Échappée. “Taking the pandemic into account does pose some serious problems,” she said. “With masks on, it’s hard for characters to express their feelings as events unfold. And, of course, it also puts key locations like the restaurant and the auberge off limits.

Chollet also pointed out that the last thing most viewers want to see is anything that reminds them of the pandemic while they’re enjoying their favourite show. “In the first few episodes, there was even an epidemic of sorts in terms of audience complaints about characters wearing masks on screen,” she said. 

Visible on screen or not, the pandemic has had a major impact on the creative process. For starters, scriptwriting teams must participate in creative sessions on Zoom, a significantly less inviting and less spontaneous ambiance than they’re used to. The health directives imposed on film sets can also take a toll on any script. “The production crew has to do some pretty fancy footwork every time two characters get close together, whether it’s to embrace each other or to beat each other up,” Chollet said. “We have to put in clear protective partitions or shoot from certain angles. So, we tend to shy away from this type of dramatic interplay...for better or for worse.”

The pandemic as muse

There are a few series that decided to focus on the pandemic front and centre. The showrunner of This Is Us in the US tweeted that the show would be taking the subject head-on while sticking to its original plan for the final episode of the season. One entire episode on the CBC’s new season of the Coroner is devoted to COVID-19. 

Quebec screenwriter Emilie Ouellette (Les Parent, Radio-Canada and L’oeil du cyclone, is among those favouring the head-on approach. “The first few weeks of the pandemic really got me down. Writing comedy just wasn’t on my to-do list anymore,” Ouelette said.

“I was working on some great stories, but all of a sudden talking about relationship problems while people in nursing homes were dying in droves didn’t make much sense. What did make sense was diving in with both feet and writing about it with total creative freedom.”

In L’après, Ouellette envisions a post-apocalyptic dystopia where only kids and teenagers survive. The story was first published online and then by Éditions Petit Homme. The author is currently adapting it to a youth series format for television. “The project was a kind of catharsis for me. It helped me to break through the gloom and start writing comedy again.”

Floyd Kane, lead writer and executive producer of the CBC crime series Diggstown, has also taken his story down the post-pandemic route but one that ends up a little closer to reality. Season 3 (still in the writing stage) will explore the legal consequences of the pandemic, addressing the management of long-term care facilities, landlord-tenant conflicts, and domestic violence exacerbated by the lockdown. “All these issues raise tons of legal questions, and we can expect to see a flood of lawsuits in the years ahead,” Kane said.

Floyd Kane 1
Author and executive producer Floyd Kane

On the personal front, crusading lawyer Marcie Diggs, the series’ main character, is coming off a year of lockdown home alone. “She rebuilt an entourage of her own and is gradually letting other people in,” said Kane. “This is something we’ll all have to cope with when we emerge from the pandemic and realize how much the health crisis has changed our lives.”

Time to take a step back

This doesn’t mean we should expect to see a tsunami of pandemic-related TV series when it’s finally behind us. Casablanca Productions founder Joanne Forgues says it’s not surprising that she hasn’t seen a single proposal for a pandemic-themed project to date. “I think people are desperate to put it out of their minds and move on,” she said.

No pandemic projects have crossed Encore Television content producer Patrick Lowe’s desk either and he’s no hurry to start negotiating if one ever does. “When you’re in the middle of a perfect storm it’s not the best time to write about the experience. You’re nowhere near understanding all the consequences and psychological ramifications,” he said. “It’s like trying to write about a personal trauma before you’ve gone through the healing process. It requires a certain distance from the event, and I know I’m not there yet.”

Lowe cites the Quebec City mosque shooting as an example. Only now, some four years after, his Bête noire series is finally addressing the subject of the mass murder on screen. “The event clearly had an impact on the way we think as writers. But it really takes time before you have something relevant to say and the right way to say it.”

The consensus is that an important story, like a fine wine, must be allowed to age before it can be properly told and fully appreciated.

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
Read Bio