I live alone in New York City, which is really cool when there isn’t an isolating pandemic ravaging the country. But despite the way covid-19 can exacerbate loneliness and has, on occasion, left me when fuck all to do, I have endured. Much like Grey’s Anatomy, which first premiered after the 2005 Super Bowl. Grey’s Anatomy had its 16th season premiere Thursday night and, because it is a medical drama, and because, apparently, the writer’s room insisted it wanted to cover covid-19 despite showrunner Krista Vernoff initially objecting—Grey’s Anatomy did a very special episode about the pandemic that affects us all.
No, sorry. Grey’s Anatomy, and its spin-off Station 19, did a collective three hours of very special episodes. Commercials on Twitter repeatedly told me Grey’s started at 8 p.m. EST, so I settled in for what I thought was an hour of TV, only to realize I was settling in for Station 19's premiere, which was then followed by two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. All were focused on covid-19 and burning through footage shot last season before the shows’ productions were ended in March.
These aren’t the first network shows to deal with the pandemic. This Is Us has been tackling it, and Black-ish had a very special episode where Rainbow (the mom) screamed at Junior (the oldest son) for sneaking his girlfriend into the house while Rainbow was busy saving lives at the hospital. Then Dre (the dad) got upset when he realized his job as an ad exec wasn’t as important to the country surviving the pandemic as his wife’s job as a doctor. We all learned something.
That seemed to be the intent of Grey’s and Station 19, too. Network TV shows tend to start working on scripts months in advance of their season premieres, and these three hours felt like a series of memes ripped straight out of May 2020 instead of November 2020. In the first six minutes of Station 19, viewers witnessed a montage of masked characters delivering groceries to loved ones and waving from afar, private firefighters training inmates to fight wildfires, and two characters having a conversation on how long could covid-19 last, anyways. It was the exact sort of thing I wanted to see from a weekly drama full of familiar characters...three or four months ago. The show seemed eager to explore the new normal, but the rest of us have already passed that new normal by.
So it was less than exciting when we got that same six minutes, essentially on repeat, for three hours. The paramedics found a group of kids stranded on the side of the road, clearly having escaped stay-at-home orders to celebrate their canceled graduation from high school, and then the kids started a wildfire (and cried about missing graduation).
The firefighters hung out in the station and kept talking about their “social bubbles”—which is a concept largely abandoned as a method of dealing with covid and still seeing friends and family.
Actor Robert Picardo randomly showed up as a hypochondriac seeking a covid test, and was turned away because they were only being given to those with symptoms. (Also, oddly, he was the only character in the three hours of the show to be wearing a real N-95 mask.)
The firefighters drove through a neighborhood in slow motion as people stood outside waving signs in slow motion and a child in a firefighter hat ran in slow motion alongside the truck waving his own toy truck, also in slow motion. Sad music played. Everyone smiled. Someone on screen cried in gratitude.
A firefighter grieved her dead father (he died last season well in advance of the pandemic) and then they held a socially distanced funeral complete with a giant montage of other characters watching via Zoom.
Oh, she also had to deal with flashbacks which were clearly scenes shot pandemic where she learns her then-recently-deceased father had faked her mother’s death to cover up the fact that her mother abandoned her as a child. Her reunion with her mother was fraught. The flashbacks felt inelegant. I was totally riveted.
And then Grey’s Anatomy began to play, and I prepared myself because I hadn’t watched Grey’s since the bizarro episode where they wrote off Justin Chambers’s Dr. Karev. I remember this episode airing late last year and I figured I had a lot I’d have to catch up on.
Apparently, that episode aired in early 2020 just before the show was forced to end early due to the pandemic.
I had missed little, but the show still did a time-jump, which meant there was suddenly a scene of DeLuca sobbing over his bipolar disorder diagnosis and the Chief in pajamas at the hospital juxtaposed with Meredith in a kicky helmet cursing over all the dead and dying while Bailey delighted over a fancy robot she bought to disinfect rooms with UV light.
The beauty of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 is that you can generally pick things up and any time and sort of settle in quickly. The passage of time is defined by haircuts and which actors leave because of contract disputes or a wariness to keep working on the same show for 10 years. Watching old episodes of Grey’s with “Chasing Cars” playing on a loop doesn’t as much feel like a time capsule as just an earlier episode of the show.
But over and over again, last night I felt like I was watching a time capsule. We talk often about how long this year has felt. How so much has happened. And here were three hours of TV that had been written a few months ago and felt positively dated. Black-ish’s very special covid-19 episodes felt similar, at least until that show slowly eased back on the references.
The only show that hasn’t felt like a time capsule for a brief month or two of time has been Superstore, which explored months of the pandemic in its premiere before letting covid become background noise to the other challenges the characters face. They wear masks on the floor, and there’s sometimes covid-19 related gags, but I never have to brace myself for a Tiger King reference as I did through all three hours of the Grey’s Anatomy deep dive into our collective misery.
There’s absolute comfort in seeing characters you love face the challenges you face. Meredith’s frustration over covid’s unending death march on Grey’s, or Dre’s boredom over being forced to work from home on Black-ish, or Amy’s struggle to find enough material to use as masks on Superstore are all issues many of us have had to confront and it’s deeply cathartic to see these characters struggle in the same way.
But for many shows, the impulse still seems to be to treat covid-19 as something special and awful and temporary, and as we head into month eight of this pandemic increasingly ravaging the United States, it doesn’t feel like a few “very special episodes” is enough to capture the nationwide ache. As Grey’s Anatomy sought to shove as many covid-19 references into an episode as it could, I felt more exhausted than healed. Maybe that’s why I found myself laughing for three straight hours. All those characters feel at least three months younger than the rest of us. They have no idea what’s coming.