Every Tuesday night, I let primetime family dramas consume me. For one hour, the Pearsons weave together generational narratives on NBC’s award-winning series This Is Us. The other hour is dedicated to Queen Sugar, OWN’s flagship series, which follows the Bordelons, siblings who must put their differences aside to run the sugar cane farm they inherited from their late father.
When COVID-19 forced Hollywood to halt production, I naturally wondered how my favorite shows would adapt to filming safely. The other big elephant in the room was how these shows, and others like it, would pivot to the new, masked, socially distant world. Did they have to? Writers’ rooms seemed to think so. This Is Us returned to production last September, and Queen Sugar followed a month later, with the showrunners of both series revealing that they wrote new scripts adapted to reflect the times. For the Pearsons, the pandemic seems like a mere inconvenience. But life is disrupted entirely for the Bordelons. Although This Is Us and Queen Sugar, which are both in their fifth season, are committed to integrating the pandemic into their scripts, the differences between how they do so bear a striking resemblance to real life. These new storylines were meant to mirror the times, but what they actually highlight are the staggering differences in how COVID affects white communities and communities of color.
This Is Us has gained quite the reputation as being an emotional rollercoaster, and rightfully so. Over the years, they’ve killed off some beloved characters (think of it as a gentler Game of Thrones), so when creator Dan Fogelman tweeted that the writers had “decided to attack things head on,” fans were not sure what to expect for the new season. In the season premiere, we watched Beth and Randall’s collective shock at the news that Tom Hanks tested positive for the virus and watched Kevin share that he and Madison were expecting twins from Kate’s lawn to abide by social distancing guidelines.
Fogelman approached the season by keeping the “Same planned ending. Same route to get there,” ultimately making many of the COVID additions feel forced. There is a scene dedicated to choosing the right mask, like the moment Kate accidentally wears one with an exaggerated smile with missing teeth to meet up with Ellie, the woman whose unborn child she plans to adopt. When Kevin gets word that Madison is in labor, six weeks early, he leaves the movie he’s shooting in Vancouver, but not before pulling a man from a car wreck in a ditch—without a mask. It isn’t until he arrives at the airport that he realizes he left his ID in the jacket he gave to the man he saved, which poses a problem in the TSA line.
But anything is possible on television. Kevin had time to save a life, book a last-minute flight, get on the last-minute flight without ID before the birth of his children—all at the height of the pandemic. No biggie.
The show’s fixation on things like quirky masks and Zoom calls feels like a very shallow rendering of what’s going on. This Is Us squandered an opportunity to use Toby getting laid off to talk about unemployment as a reality for 14 million Americans. Instead, when Toby tells Kate that he withheld the information about losing his job on the day they brought home their newly adopted daughter so he didn’t kill the mood, Kate doesn’t seem to mind. “You’re not going to ruin anything, and you’re not going to ruin this day,” she says. “We can figure out the job stuff tomorrow. Let’s just be a family today.” We never actually see Toby work, although apparently he's in IT. Kate, who was Kevin’s assistant in earlier seasons, started pursuing music and took gigs doing singing grams, which we can only assume is also on pause due to COVID. How are they realistically financing a home, themselves, and raising two children under two? If this is what “attacking things head on” means, the writers have got some explaining to do.
Queen Sugar, created by Ava Duvernay, does directly approach COVID. Here, the scenes and language surrounding the virus paints a very different picture from the quirky masks and cute FaceTime calls of This Is Us. Queen Sugar manages to capture the anxiety we felt trying to stock up on toilet paper and sanitizing our groceries, and the paranoia over a cough. “Everything ain’t corona,” Hollywood’s mother says over a FaceTime call. It’s a feeling that was more relatable than many of us might like to admit.
Down in New Orleans, the Bordelons are in jeopardy of losing everything. Darla and Ralph Angel are newly engaged and planning a wedding. Hollywood is preparing to open a new business. Micah is a budding freshman at Xavier University. Charlie finally got a judge to block the passage of a highway that would have ripped through the farm her siblings inherited, along with other local growers. They were all on the brink of these memorable moments, and so were the Pearsons. Still, the difference here is that a COVID outbreak in a Black and brown community, which is disproportionately affected by the pandemic, isn’t just a temporary inconvenience. It will change their lives forever.
One of the first heartbreaking moments appears in episode two, when Mr. Prosper, an elderly farmer who became a father figure to the Bordelons since their father’s death, talks about his fears about what’s going on around him. “I just been keeping an eye out on that virus stuff… I hear it’s good at taking out us old folk,” he says. Later, when Ralph Angel and Darla hear news coverage on the radio, they think of Prosper, too. Ralph Angel is afraid of what it will do to their elderly population who are held in such high regard in their agricultural community where the elders hold the key to the next generation of farmers. “The ones we got are like treasures,” he says.
COVID stands not only to take some of their lives, but also their livelihoods. Crops will waste, leaving Ralph Angel to skip harvesting this year’s sugar cane and lay off his workers. Hollywood can’t open his business, and Aunt Vi isn’t having any luck receiving a small business loan. Blue, Ralph Angel and Darla’s son, is having trouble accessing the internet for school, which is a reflection of the real “homework gap” present in Black and brown communities. It even depicts the reality that Ralph Angel and Darla only have one household computer, which means Blue has to sacrifice time doing his work so his mother can take an emergency meeting for work. As it turns out, Darla has officially been laid off, and without two steady incomes, she and Ralph Angel are left to figure out what’s next and fast. There’s no handling “job stuff” tomorrow. When Darla mentions that a nursing home might be hiring but could be risky, Ralph Angel has the best line to encapsulate what we felt all last year: “What ain’t risky in 2020, baby?” This is not the kind of community where they can work from home. There is no telework for them. These are the essential workers, and their careers, and their legacy, are at stake.
Queen Sugar and This Is Us are just two examples of the horde of shows using COVID to tap into storylines that don’t feel out of step as the world continues to wait for the other side of a new normal. But writing for the pandemic isn’t a foolproof solution, and the shows coming up short have something in common: their intended audiences. Law & Order: SVU, which has gotten criticism for its “good cop” messaging, haphazardly included masks in its 22nd season. There is no rhyme or reason to who wears a mask and neither the detectives nor the medical professionals are consistently protecting themselves. Ice-T attributes that to the show being “make believe,” and while that is true, why include the pandemic at all? Then, there’s the Blackish episode where Bow reprimands Junior for bringing his girlfriend into their house, disrupting their quarantine. “I intubated a woman who was my age, Junior. She got COVID working at the supermarket because she had to go to work. She had no choice. The same way I don’t have a choice as a doctor. Having Olivia here is disrespecting everything that I’m fighting for.”
It can feel overwhelming to be living in a pandemic while watching storylines plucked from the headlines we’re experiencing in real time. But if television writers are going to insist on creating shows that feel relatable during COVID, it will take more than masks and mentions of “socially distanced selfies” to make it feel realistic. The first step starts with acknowledging that for people of color, COVID is not just an adjustment. It’s another barrier to a decent standard of living.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.