With COVID-19 still raging in many areas of the United States, and especially in Los Angeles and Georgia as major hubs of television production, we're going to have to face some very serious facts fairly quickly: TV as we know it may not be coming back anytime soon. While many shows with their productions based in Canada or Europe can likely continue, we need to start to get real that many of our favorites may not be able to return. However, there is still hope, and some of what we're currently seeing is both a guide to success and also a warning of what not to do.
Several shows and specials have already seen great success from embracing the low-fidelity, low production value of putting a show on via teleconference. The Parks and Recreation reunion was a specific early example, and Saturday Night Live has also embraced some of it as well.
The warning can come directly from the recent 30 Rock reunion special. The critical consensus is generally that the content was mostly funny, but the fact that it was essentially a giant commercial for Peacock was a giant troll. It's too bad, because if they had spent less time winking at the audience about corporate synergy (very on-brand for the show, but still not sustainable for an entire hour) it might have been a home run. It's also currently unclear how the use of animation to finish scenes from the final episodes of The Blacklist will play out. It could be (pardon the pun) cartoonishly bad.
But if our favorite shows can't come back in their normal formats, whither scripted television. Well, let's look at the unscripted side of things for some inspiration:
Late Night Leads the Way
Perhaps the best genre of television to adapt to this new normal is late night tv. The Late Show became A Late Show as Stephen Colbert broadcast from his house. Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, and Conan O'Brien all successfully adapted their shows to meet their personal strengths, and in many ways, the genre has never been better. Stripped of all its pomp and circumstance, live studio audiences and pauses for laughter, it's fun to watch our hosts put out joke after joke without any idea of whether or not they're bombing.
Their interviews have been far more real, as well. Never shy of important political issues, nonetheless it's been great to see an uptick in the number of interviews with Black academics and movement leaders about systemic racism. It also certainly helps to have the freedom to book W. Kamau Bell or Ibram X. Kendi when we aren't trying to book Gal Gadot to talk about Wonder Woman '84 (RIP Summer Movie Season 2020) but our hosts also seem more willing to tackle these issues.
This change has also laid bare who isn't quite ready to adapt to this new normal. It's never been a better time for Jimmy Kimmel to take a several-months-long vacation.
YouTube and Twitch are Still the Future of Television
The leaders in low-fi television are actually some of the ones who are most hi-tech. Gaming streaming has never been bigger than during the COVID outbreak, with Twitch seeing its viewership increase drastically, and this has been true for YouTube as well.
But that doesn't mean there haven't been changes. Venerable gaming duo Game Grumps have had to, for the first time ever, record remotely from each other. Putting a further wrinkle into their show, YouTube has vowed to demonetize any content mentioning COVID, so instead Dan Avidan and Arin Hanson refer to the ongoing outbreak as "The Backstreet Boys Reunion Tour" as code for their viewers.
I've previously opined that shows like Critical Role (and Critical Role specifically) are the future of television, and this is still true as they blaze a path towards safely putting on their weekly show. When Los Angeles went on lockdown earlier this year, they had just completed the 99th episode of their second season, on the cusp of a very special 100th show. And then fans had to wait. For months.
In the meantime, the show revamped some of its content. Their All Work No Play show now just became All Work, No Play: Unplugged — a Zoom chat between friends, mostly about their dogs, their kids, and how they were dealing with the lockdown, and how much they missed each other. It was an exercise in human connection, and it was so beautifully simple.
It also garnered hundreds of thousands of views every week, and it wasn't even a bunch of "nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons," it was the same nerdy-ass voice actors as a found family just connecting with each other and doing so many of the same things we were all doing.
But as Los Angeles began to relax and reopen, they revamped their studio to be as safe as possible, placing every person at least six feet from one another and allowing for the crew behind the scenes to social-distance as well. They vowed as they came back to continue as long as they could, but that their number one priority was the health and safety of everyone who worked on the show. If anyone got sick, they would shut down.
And so they returned on July 2nd with Episode 100, and have been back every Thursday since. It's unclear with LA possibly going back to lockdown if they'll be able to continue, but even if they can't continue their live shows weekly, they've provided an excellent blueprint for other shows looking to return: be human, be real about this moment; and set up your production so everyone's safety is the primary concern.
I love Critical Role, but not enough that anyone should get sick over it.
Whither Scripted Television?
Here's what is working about shows that are trying to work around the new realities of COVID: honesty, humanity, humor. Here are what isn't working: gimmicks, forcing things, "corporate synergy."
And here I'm going to do something I thought I'd never do: I'm going to say something nice about Quibi. Their Princess Bride remake is masterful. It is, however, likely lightning in a bottle and it's not clear it could be replicated with any other film less beloved than this.
But what works is you have celebrities and actors working within their known idioms to such a perfect degree that we don't care that the costumes are homemade or they're shooting on iPhones in their backyards. Could we do similar versions of other famous plays, films, and musicals?
Another of our favorite things we're seeing recently is "reunions." Josh Gad has devoted his YouTube channel to "Reunited Apart" by bringing together the casts of some of our favorite films: The Goonies, Ghostbusters, The Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and many others.
These are formats and productions that could easily fill in for missing scripted shows. But what if we really need to find out what's happening on those scripted programs? Could we switch those shows to an all-virtual format? If the drama or comedy and human connection are there, yes. If I'm willing to watch silly celebrities in homemade costumes remake a 30-year-old movie, I'm willing to watch a season of socially-distanced Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But it may also just be time for channels to fully reassess what they're doing in their lineups. We can get through this pandemic with some nostalgia and good humor, even if the production value is a little lower. Bring back Hollywood Squares if you have to (a fairly simple show to put together in quarantine). Just don't turn everything into a commercial for your streaming service, and we should be fine.