The coronavirus pandemic has been reported extensively on TV news over the last eighteen months, but it is curious that it has not been examined more in TV drama. UK mainstream TV programmes such as Silent Witness and Vera, both of which returned to our screens over the last few weeks, have essentially ignored the pandemic. And in soaps, where the effects of coronavirus on daily life seem harder to ignore, the virus has rarely become a central concern. With some notable exceptions, it’s as if we’ve been watching parallel worlds where the pandemic has passed.
Coronation Street producer Iain MacLeod offers one explanation for this: ‘I don’t think people tune into Corrie wanting to see more people banging on about the pandemic’, he told the Guardian in June last year. As Peter Elkoff, executive producer of medical drama The Resident, put it to CNN: ‘We believe that audiences would be a little bit fatigued by their own lives, living under the shackles of the pandemic, and that maybe what we needed to offer them was a show set in an imaginary post-vaccine world. But of course, we didn’t want to pretend it never happened.’
But has coronavirus emerged in TV drama in other ways? The pandemic has of course been experienced very differently by different people along all-too-familiar lines of inequality; but in the broadest sense, the last eighteen months have also been a collective trauma – physical, psychological, and emotional. Are the effects of living in such times resonating through cultural production in unforeseen ways?
In BBC One drama Vigil, we’ve watched DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) deal with confinement and isolation. She’s been separated from those she loves and confined against her will. Her mental health has slowly deteriorated. She’s been forced to work in a space where she and others are not supposed to touch. All the while, people have been falling ill with an unknown illness, and have worn masks to combat an invisible killer.
If you’ve been watching Vigil, you’ll know this is not a drama about coronavirus or the pandemic. Silva is investigating a murder on a nuclear submarine. Her working conditions reflect life submerged beneath the North Atlantic for months at a time. COVID-19 has not been mentioned once. The show has given viewers an escape into an, at times, outlandish world. But there is also something acutely familiar about the show’s premise – life is precarious, everyone is a source of potential danger, surviving day to day is about coping with the stresses of confinement and isolation.
Vigil can be seen as a drama that explores the psychological and emotional toll of the pandemic without ever mentioning coronavirus. Certainly, the cast and crew would have been very conscious of the pandemic even although the drama was written and had begun production before the pandemic struck. Filming began in the first months of 2020 but was then delayed by six months while the production company put in place the safety measures which enabled the TV industry (impressively) to return to work. It is inevitable that the filming that took place after the pandemic interregnum would have kept the social and psychological effects of coronavirus ever-present for all involved.
Given this production history, Vigil’s plotlines take on added meaning. Metaphors of waves and their disorientating effects are there as Silva and the crew, unable to surface, deal with an enforced isolation lasting from days into weeks. We’ve witnessed the politics of cross-governmental decision making, in this case between the police and royal navy, though the uneasy relations between the English and Scottish governments have here provided the backdrop as they have done to decisions made throughout the pandemic. And there has also been paranoia over the unpredictable actions of global operators, mainly Russia, but also China and the United States.
We might see TV dramas produced in the last eighteen months as narratives of a future after the threat of coronavirus has passed. This is what Elkoff calls ‘an imaginary post-vaccine world’, a world that some countries might now be entering. Yet, as in Vigil, the effects of the pandemic are refracted in different ways through these imagined, post-COVID futures. Even as TV dramas give us worlds where things seem ‘back to normal’, they indicate that life is unlikely to return exactly as it was before the pandemic. Even as the physical threat of the virus recedes, psychological, cultural, and geopolitical responses to coronavirus are likely to play out for many years to come.