En español | When the ABC sitcom The Conners returned to TV this week, they did so with masks and urgent temperature checks in the very first scene.
"It would be natural that they would be in the middle of this,” says executive producer Bruce Helford of the coronavirus reality that dominates the early episodes of its third season. “We felt that it was an obligation to our viewers and to stay relevant and to show them what it's like for a family that knows how to get through hard times but is thrown a curve like never before."
But apart from addressing it in stories, how have this season's series been getting things done in the midst of the ongoing pandemic? Here's a look behind the scenes at how your favorite shows (and stars) are problem-solving.
Fewer Cast Members, and Spaced Out
"We are trying to really be mindful of how many actors we have in a scene,” says Dave Caplan, executive producer on The Conners. “We are trying to construct these stories and construct the scenes so we keep everybody reasonably distanced.” Also, “scenes with an awful lot of extras really are kind of off the table for now.”
Lots (and Lots) of Wipes
When the revived Supermarket Sweep began taping in July, “We cleaned that store like crazy between every round,” says executive producer Alycia Rossiter. “We Purell-ed our hands so much.” The only people allowed to go maskless were the contestants and host Leslie Jones, 52, who says of the nurses enforcing protocols on set: “They were not playing.”
Pretaping Togetherness (2 Weeks’ Worth!)
For casts that already don't have the luxury of long rehearsals, two-week lockdowns provided an opportunity to get to know one another. “We all spent quarantine together and we started chatting with each other every night and checking in,” says Katheryn Winnick of ABC's impending Big Sky. “We actually did a couple of game nights,” castmate Natalie Alyn Lind says, “which I was terrible at.”
Smaller Production Numbers
"Because of COVID,” Dancing with the Stars producer Andrew Llinares says, “we're not having backing dancers. We're not having huge set pieces.” But that helps the focus on individual couples, which is a plus, he says. “What's exciting overall on the show is that COVID has pushed it in so many creative ways.”
With the ongoing pandemic in mind, writers created new shows that both reflect the socially distanced moment and use its tools, like Zoom screens. That includes the new NBC sitcom Connecting… and the Netflix anthology series, Social Distance. Clever special episodes of Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet on Apple TV+ and a Parks and Recreation reunion were also created with pandemic-specific limitations as central.
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Green Screen Magic
A lot of talk shows still rely on the split screen of Zoom calls, but daytime's The Drew Barrymore Show is using an old-school bit of visual magic, the green screen, to make it appear as if guests are in the next chair over on the New York studio — even if they were actually in Los Angeles. “It's the best of both worlds,” says show executive producer Jason Kurtz.
Isolation Before the Love
Reality shows have had to quarantine players in the most intimate of shows, from Love Island to The Bachelorette before letting them loose among each other, maskless. But instead of a tropical getaway promised by the CBS’ summer dating show, hopefuls were confined to the rooftop of a Las Vegas hotel for the duration. The Bachelorette had to be delayed before it began a season that wouldn't venture to exotic international locales as usual, but plays out entirely at a resort near Palm Springs.
Intimate scenes are tougher than ever in the COVID era, as the actor Lawrence Saint-Victor found when he was supposed to make out on the soap The Bold & the Beautiful last month. Instead, it was clear in a close-up he was smooching a wigged mannequin. As the intended kissee, Kiara Barnes, Tweeted: “We def had to do a billion takes because everyone was cracking up.” In some soaps, actors swap in spouses for any necessary nuzzling.
More Remote Cameras
Shows like Big Brother have always operated like quarantine bubbles, apart from the outside world, relying on robotic cameras. But other shows are now relying on the technology, including Dancing with the Stars, where studio rehearsals are now shot by remote cameras instead of manned crews. Producer Llinares claims the new approach, caused by precautions, ends up creating scenes that are “more intimate, more exciting."
Cartoons Interact When Actors Can't
Count black-ish as another sitcom that addressed the lockdown when it returned for its new season Oct. 21. But an earlier fall special for the show depended on another visual approach when actors shied from gathering. “I was not ready and terrified to go back to work and be on a set,” star Tracee Ellis Ross says. “Would there be a way for us to do an episode that was animated?” The result aired Oct. 4.
No Audiences, Fake Audiences
Late night talk shows are still adjusting to shooting to the silence of empty studios (after a summer where most shot from home). Sitcoms are depending on canned laughter after barring the usual live audiences. Variety competitions have varied their approach, with American Idol having to drop its audience mid-season, to The Masked Singer using tape of past seasons’ cheering crowd to fill in.
An Excuse to Cancel Shows
The costs and complications of resuming production under current restrictions played havoc with some big ensemble shows, causing Netflix to pull the plug on its acclaimed GLOW even while shooting episodes for its fourth and final season. Also cancelled in part due to COVID concerns: the second seasons of ABC's Stumptown and Showtime's On Becoming a God in Central Florida, the seventh season of Comedy Central's Drunk History, the third season of truTV's comedy I'm Sorry, and the second seasons of two youth-aimed Netflix series, The Society and I Am Not OK With This.