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Should Medical Dramas Like 'Grey's Anatomy' Address COVID-19?

By Genevieve Burgess | TV | November 19, 2020 |

By Genevieve Burgess | TV | November 19, 2020 |


There are times I’ve struggled a bit to explain what I find comforting about a show like Grey’s Anatomy, which seems designed to be emotionally manipulative, but I’ve finally put my finger on it; medical dramas allow us a kind of detached emotional catharsis from some of our worst, occasionally wildly irrational, fears. What if I have cancer? What if someone I love has cancer? What if I get into a horrific car accident and no one knows who I am? What if my child (I do not currently have a child) is terribly sick? What if my parent is terribly sick? What if someone I love dies and I’m not there to see it? We get to see all these scenarios (and more!) play out on screen with dedicated, world-class doctors administering care and sympathizing with patients. Some people feel this way about horror movies, that they give viewers a chance to explore irrational fears in a “safe” context. I cannot watch horror movies. For me, the disaster-plagued halls of Seattle Grace Mercy West serve mostly the same purpose in an easier to handle format.

That detachment has evaporated this year as medical dramas decide to take on the very real COVID-19 crisis currently escalating in every corner of the US. When I first realized that I’ll admit, I blanched a bit. I’ve been working from home since mid-March, sometime in April I ripped up one of our flat sheets to make into masks so we could have some right away, trips we had planned to take were postponed with no hope of rescheduling on the horizon, and every minor errand seems fraught with danger. Do I want to see that represented on TV? Or do I want to settle into comfortable old shows that remind me of what the world once was?

Then again, how do you make a show set in 2020 without addressing the pandemic? Do you just… skip a year? Move forward to a world with a vaccine? Turn a medical drama into soft sci-fi by positing an alternate timeline with no pandemic*? There’s really no way around it. And the more I thought about it the more I thought it could be a useful way to bring home the reality of this crisis through fiction. Grey’s Anatomy has been one of the most popular dramas on TV for much of its 15-year run. Perhaps it’s a way to reach people who may not otherwise be heavily invested in the news about COVID-19. Maybe seeing Meredith Grey repeatedly call family members to say goodbye to their dying loved ones will reach someone who thinks this is just like the flu. Maybe watching Miranda Bailey walk through all the new policies and procedures the hospital has to contain the disease will convince someone to wear a mask to Target. Maybe seeing Maggie Pierce sleeping in a literal tent so she can be close to her nieces and nephews without direct contact will show that we can’t make exceptions for family. Maybe watching guest star T. J. Thyne solemnly talk about staying home to help save the lives of medical professionals (literally, he says this, the show has never been subtle) will get someone to rethink a weekend get-together with friends. Maybe not. I know some portion of the population has dug in their heels to the point of being unreachable. But frankly, I’ll take any hope we can get, and if a few laissez-faire types get more serious with their own habits that’s progress.

We’re in for a long cold winter with a federal government that has abdicated any responsibility to contain this virus. Things are very bad now, they are likely to get much worse before they get better. I don’t know if a drama on ABC can change hearts and minds, but I will take literally any port in this storm. Nothing about this is detached, and I don’t think any of us will have a true emotional catharsis anytime soon. I understand that some people won’t be able to watch this season of Grey’s now, or maybe ever, but I hope that the people who are watching are taking away some lessons.

*Admittedly with some of the medical advancements shown I already consider Grey’s to be soft sci-fi in a way but that’s a totally different piece.

Genevieve Burgess is a Features Contributor for Pajiba. You can follow Genevieve Burgess on Twitter.

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