‘Escapism Is a Cop-Out’: Two Years Into a Pandemic, Why Isn’t COVID on TV?

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A group of teens clap and cheer in an auditorium
The critically acclaimed HBO series 'Euphoria' is among the many TV shows that has not acknowledged the pandemic.  (Eddy Chen/HBO)

Before being slapped at the Oscars, Chris Rock joked about the unmasked celebrity crowd “just breathing raw dog tonight.” The lead-up to the ceremony was marked by dodgy COVID policies.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that there was nary a pandemic mention in the nominated works. Two years in, and the film industry is still ignoring the coronavirus.

TV is no better. Early on, a few shows made half-hearted attempts to incorporate the once-in-a-generation pandemic into their storylines: The Resident, 9-1-1 and Brooklyn Nine-Nine all paid COVID lip service before all the masks disappeared. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gave it two episodes, while And Just Like That…’s infamous first episode alluded to the pandemic in the past tense.

a crowded party scene with people cheering and raising their arms
A scene from 'And Just Like That...' with no masks in sight. (Craig Blankenhorn / HBO Max)

One could blame the long production schedule of film and television. Although lockdowns still produced new music (two Taylor Swift albums, a social distancing anthem from E-40 and a pro-vaxx redux of Juvenile’s “Back that Azz Up”), visual media requires more active participants and long-term planning. Sure, there are exceptions, but one doesn’t expect a long production like Bob’s Burgers to be as up-to-date as an episode of South Park (made in seven days).

Still, that excuse only goes so far—all pop culture becomes dated. Hell, an episode’s soundtrack becomes a playlist the next day. I’d argue that ignoring a major contemporary event is hypocritical when trying to stay current. COVID-19’s been around for two years. I think that puts it in the category of HIV/AIDS or 9/11, in that it’s not ending soon and worth discussing for a long time.


As a San Francisco native, I don’t bring up AIDS lightly. I remember when it either wasn’t mentioned at all or was used like cancer to show a character’s tragic end (Philadelphia, Boys on the Side). Yet, four decades later, we’ve seen narratives justifying AIDS as punishment for an “immoral” character (Tyler Perry’s 2013 Temptation). Entertainment we consciously seek out lingers in the consciousness and normalizes the behaviors of its characters. It’s why we say “representation matters.”

That’s why the absence of COVID-related content is unsettling, given the strides marginalized creators have made in entertainment. For us, COVID infection rates are as high as access to COVID resources is low. We need our voices heard and our struggle portrayed. Instead, those marginalized creators are ignoring that very struggle.

a group of people cheer at a birthday party
A birthday party scene from Season 5 of 'Insecure.' (Raymond Liu/HBO)

Pamela Adlon insisted the production of her show better things be as eco-friendly as it is safe for women (including banning co-creator Louis CK), but the show hasn’t mentioned COVID in its still-running final season. Issa Rae revels in the acclaim she garnered for Insecure, but its 2021 final season—shot partly here in the Bay—refused to address either the pandemic or the George Floyd protests. Even Euphoria, lauded for its portrayal of contemporary teens, shot two feature-length specials and an entire season during lockdown without a single virus mention on camera. (Meanwhile, one cast member’s notable absence may be COVID-related.)

How well can these works truly represent the characters they portray if they ignore what their audiences have now struggled with for two years? Like Euphoria, the CBS sitcom Mom was lauded for mixing entertainment with its honest portrayals of addiction. And like Euphoria, Mom’s final, lockdown-shot season ignored the pandemic, despite substance abuse emerging as a dangerous COVID-era coping mechanism.

Claiming “escapism” is a cop-out of toxic positivity. It assumes someone lacks the mental wherewithal to address serious topics. What’s more, most works ignoring the pandemic contradict what we already know of their characters. Most vampires on What We Do in the Shadows are multi-century-old Europeans, meaning they’ve been through multiple plagues. Hell, a common trope in vampire fiction—from Bram Stoker and Richard Matheson to San Francisco’s own Anne Rice and Christopher Moore—is for the vamps to hide in plain sight by letting the public believe their victims died of some illness. That makes it perfect for Shadows’ morbid humor, but somehow this plague has passed them by.

a woman with blue hair wears a face mask as she passes by protestors
Zoe Kravitz in a still from 'KIMI,' during a scene where her character wears a mask while encountering protesters in Seattle.

I haven’t seen Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI, which I’m told is one of the few recent films to truly acknowledge the pandemic. But I’ve seen both great seasons of HBO’s Betty, the latter of which features its teen leads living in a post-George Floyd world of COVID and Karens.

I wish those weren’t outliers in mainstream pop culture. I haven’t been to the movies in two years, but I hope films and series lean more heavily into COVID-related material. After all, if I wanted to watch shows where everyone ignores the virus, I’d just watch the news.