How actors, directors and showrunners envision the future of TV amid pandemic [Video]

When the 72nd Emmy Awards are handed out on Sept. 20, the ceremony is going to look a little different than last year’s edition. After the nominations were announced last month, host Jimmy Kimmel and the show’s producing team circulated a letter that confirmed winners would be accepting their statues — and making their speeches and/or political comments (sorry, Ricky) — from home due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which is threatening to turn Hollywood’s lucrative awards season entirely virtual. On the other hand, the nominated shows themselves will look the same, as they were largely shot before COVID-19 halted film and television production across the U.S., a shutdown that the industry is barely starting to emerge from amid rising infection rates and the pervasive threat of new outbreaks. 

The many perils and pitfalls facing the restart of American television production mean that even if it’s safe to hold the Emmys in person again in 2021, the nominated shows will almost certainly be narratively and visually affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, some perennial nominees — think Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Netflix’s Stranger Things and AMC’s Better Call Saul — likely won’t be in the mix due to delayed production schedules. That speaks to a broader problem facing the larger viewing public beyond awards organizations: If the shutdown continues, are we going to hit a point where there’s simply nothing new left to watch? 

Over the past few months, Yahoo Entertainment has spoken with a broad cross-section of on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent within the television industry about the future of the medium in these unprecedented times. Taken as a whole, their comments reveal a fundamental optimism that the show will, in some way, go on. But the specifics of how that can and will happen remain very much up in the air, and differ depending on the genre or format of the show in question. For example, while some reality series are experimenting with methods like quarantine bubbles — that’s how ABC’s The Bachelorette went back into production — the demands of making a prestige drama like HBO’s Succession require more extensive safety protocols. Here’s how the future of television might look, as described by the artists who make it.

At roughly this time last year, Tatiana Maslany was spending most of her time in 1930s-era Los Angeles … without leaving 21st century Los Angeles. The Emmy-winning star of Orphan Black appears alongside Matthew Rhys and John Lithgow in a pricey reboot of Perry Mason, which just wrapped up its freshman season on HBO. In the tradition of the network’s richly detailed period productions like Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, the series employed a large main cast and an even larger cast of extras for exterior crowd scenes and dramatic courtroom moments. “Oh, my God, all those extras,” Maslany says now, marveling at the memory of being on a set with so many bodies in one place. “It’s so surreal that, at one point, that was totally normal.” 

A second season of Perry Mason has already been ordered, but the start date — as well as Maslany’s involvement — is up in the air. If she does return, though, she’s expecting those crowds to diminish substantially. “I think smaller numbers [on set] would be really good; it’s just going to require a lot of coordination and conscientiousness. The thing that’s so sad about it is that sets are such a vibrant, kinetic place, and I think there’s going to be a sense of calm thoughtfulness that might be a bit strange initially. I just can’t wait to high-five somebody! Baby steps, you know.” 

It’s no exaggeration to say that in the post-COVID era, the sets of high-profile TV dramas will be a numbers game. Limiting the size of the cast and crew that’s on a soundstage or on location at any given time is one of the safeguards that have been put in place on the select TV and film productions that have resumed shooting. On the U.K. set of the Universal blockbuster Jurassic World: Dominion, for example, only the most essential personnel — including stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, as well as director Colin Trevorrow — are allowed in the so-called Green Zone where the actual filming happens. According to the New York Times, COVID tests are administered three times a week for those inside the Green Zone, the sets are cleaned with antiviral mists and there’s a special area for the cast to rest between shots. “In order to get any of us on a plane, we had to thoroughly understand the protocols, who was involved and hear second and third opinions,” Howard told the Times. “We are the guinea pigs who are going to take the leap.”

One significant advantage that Jurassic World has over a series like Perry Mason in terms of keeping its on-set numbers small is that many of its locations — and all of the dinosaur co-stars — are virtually created or enhanced by F/X artists during postproduction. And it’s worth noting that Howard has previous experience in the TV equivalent of that environment. The actress directed a Season 1 episode of the hit Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian and helmed another installment for the show’s sophomore year, which wrapped production in March just before the pandemic shut the industry down. (Season 2 is scheduled to premiere on Disney+ in October.)

As behind-the-scenes accounts have revealed, The Mandalorian is filmed entirely on virtual sets against a giant screen known as “The Volume.” That method of production might allow a rumored third season to proceed sooner rather than later, provided that creative partners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are able to hit that magic number of on-set cast and crew. For her part, Howard views the show, which received a surprise Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, as a possible future for TV production. “The Mandalorian is one of the most exciting sets I’ve ever been on because of the use of emerging technology and the efficiency of the workflow,” Howard told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year. “[The pandemic] is a huge organizational challenge unlike anything our industry has faced before, and what is happening is that we are forced to become more efficient and more equitable.” 

Of course, not every drama series has the combined might of Lucasfilm and the Walt Disney Company behind it. In the absence of their own versions of “The Volume,” several network shows got creative in their attempts to produce episodes during the shutdown. The CBS legal procedural All Rise, for example, ended its freshman season on May 4 with a remotely produced finale filmed on Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms. Speaking with Variety, executive producer Len Goldstein said that the idea grew out of conversations about how the characters would have to adjust to working from home, like the rest of the country, in the early months of the pandemic.

“We were thinking they would probably be figuring out how to handle the justice system and they would probably be checking in with each other like we’re doing,” Goldstein said. “From those initial conversations, we started to think, ‘What if there was a way to be able to achieve a season finale and tell a satisfying story using the technology of the times?’” While the cast initially enjoyed the novelty of working from home, All Rise star Simone Missick didn’t seem eager to make it a regular thing. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the way that any of us would want to do ensemble drama,” she told Variety.

Meanwhile, NBC’s long-running series The Blacklist wrapped up its seventh year with an episode that employed animation as a way to fill in the material that the production wasn’t able to shoot prior to the shutdown. As executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath revealed in a Variety interview, it took five intense weeks and a large team of animators and editors to make that wild idea a reality. “We hope the audience can understand and appreciate the effort that went into completing this episode in the difficult circumstances that everybody is facing,” Eisendrath said, adding: “I think the final product is very exciting, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s super exciting because it’s the only time we’ll ever do it, or it’s super exciting because it offers an insight into how to do other episodes like it in the future.”

Although Los Angeles officials gave the go-ahead for film and TV production to resume on June 12, the reality is that few of the primetime, cable or streaming series that shoot in the city are up and running. (Daytime soap operas are a different story: The Bold and the Beautiful resumed filming in June at L.A.’s Television City, and shows like General Hospital and Days of Our Lives are in the process of starting up again.) In July, the Los Angeles Times reported that the financial and safety complications caused by the pandemic have made production slow to rebound. Since then, infection rates have risen throughout California: On Aug. 13, it was the first state to reach the grim milestone of over 600,000 reported coronavirus cases

Outside of the city, though, at least one returning drama was able to film an entire season of fresh episodes: Tyler Perry’s BET series Sistas started shooting at his expansive studio in Atlanta on July 15 and wrapped on July 25. (Perry then filmed Season 2 of The Oval, which also airs on BET, from Aug. 5 to Aug. 14.) Prior to production, the producer, writer and director released an extensive guide to the bubble he called “Camp Quarantine,” outlining rules that included social distancing, regular testing, face masks and the immediate removal of anyone testing positive. “My crew, man, these people came in here with such vigor and tenacity and wanted to make this work,” Perry proudly told CBS This Morning in late July, after Sistas completed filming. “I’m so proud of them and how they behaved and what they did. I’m trying to make sure that they can not only thrive and survive in their livelihood, but also keep them safe.”

Perry’s “Camp Quarantine” rulebook could very well serve as a model for other producers with multiple TV shows to their name — someone like, say, Jerry Bruckheimer. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment about his summertime Starz series Hightown, the prolific producer behind the CSI franchise acknowledged how the pandemic will affect his currently airing shows, as well as future projects like the TV version of American Gigolo. “There’ll be a whole protocol on how you film: There’ll be a lot of testing, and we’ll have to work out deals with the insurance company,” Bruckheimer said. “A lot of people will still be working from remote offices, and the actors will be tested, the crew will be tested, we’ll check people’s temperatures and there will be protective face masks. I started in commercials where we had a cameraman, a sound man and a director — that’s how we filmed. So the crews will be smaller, and they’ll come on the set in waves. It’s going to be daunting, but we’ll get through it.” 

Love to laugh 

Rob McElhenney had a dilemma. In the first month of the pandemic, he and his collaborators on the Apple TV+ comedy Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet decided to use their newly acquired free time to make a special quarantine episode. Since the show is set at a video game studio where the characters are regularly interacting with screens anyway, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a scenario in which they’re all working, and communicating, remotely. “We broke the story in one day and wrote the script over two or three weeks,” the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia creator tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The idea was that nobody would leave their house in the making of this.” For that reason, the bulk of the episode unfolds entirely through videoconference calls, which the cast filmed from home with specially sanitized equipment that was delivered by production assistants. 

But McElhenney also knew he wanted to end the episode, which premiered on the streaming service on May 22, with a moment of emotional — and physical — connection between his character, Ian Grimm, and the company’s lead engineer, Poppy, played by Charlotte Nicdao. “We were talking about isolation, and how people felt they were struggling,” he explains of that potentially controversial choice. “The coronavirus is a major health concern, but that also extends into mental health. We realized that we wanted to honor that, and be respectful of the idea of these characters breaking quarantine.” 

In a separate interview, Nicdao says she and McElhenney initially discussed breaking quarantine themselves to film the scene where Ian shows up at Poppy’s apartment as she’s in the midst of a near-breakdown and they share a hug. “Because we had both been taking quarantine seriously, we thought, ‘It’s not a huge problem,’” she remembers. But McElhenney ultimately erred on the side of caution and deployed some old-fashioned TV magic instead. “That’s not me,” he reveals of Ian’s sudden appearance at Poppy’s door. Instead, McElhenney filmed himself on an iPhone walking out of his house and onto the street. “At that point, I walked back onto my own property and into my garage, and then I cut my camera.” 

Meanwhile, across town, Nicdao stood up from her computer to answer a knock at her door. That person was her real-life husband, musician Bayden Hine, dressed in the same outfit as Ian. “Bayden’s a fairly good body double for me, and we did little visual effect to change his silhouette,” McElhenney says. “So she’s hugging her husband and sobbing all over him, not me.” To sync up the shots, Nicdao says, Hine was holding his phone in the same position as McElhenney. “As Rob let the phone fall to his side, Bayden did the same thing, and then [in editing] they cut from Rob’s footage to Bayden’s footage so that it’s pretty seamless. I can’t even see where it changes.” Hine’s entrance was almost spoiled by a stray extra, though. “One of our neighbors came out into the entrance hall and saw him there, and I think it gave him kind of a fright,” Nicdao says, laughing. “Bayden was like, ‘It’s fine, we’re making a TV show,’ which definitely sounded like a lie!” 

Unlike primetime dramas, television comedies were early adapters to the concept of remotely produced episodes. Saturday Night Live aired its first “at home” episode on April 11, and went on to air three more with the help of guest stars like Brad Pitt and Alec Baldwin. And on April 30, several weeks before Mythic Quest dropped its quarantine episode, the cast of Parks and Recreation staged an emotional (and hilarious) virtual reunion that raised $3 million for Feeding America’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. “I honestly didn’t think that Parks and Rec was ever going to reunite for any reason, because I thought that the show had a point to make, we made it and we ended the show,” co-creator Mike Schur remarked on a press conference call before the episode aired. “It just didn’t seem like there was a compelling reason [for a reunion]. But this is a compelling reason.” 

If you’ve been victim to a Zoom call that goes wrong, you’ll understand why the format lends itself more naturally to comedy than to drama. (SNL even used #ZoomFails as fodder for a sketch.) “I think that there is something inherently comedic about the way we’re all having to communicate now,” Nicdao says. “Anyone who has tried to talk to grandparents on FaceTime knows that’s funny. I also think that it’s easier for audiences to suspend their disbelief. Like, I would love to see a Succession quarantine episode, but I know what those characters’ homes look like, and it’s not what the actors’ homes look like!” (She may get her wish to see more Succession, though: Showrunner Jesse Armstrong recently revealed that he’s hoping to resume shooting Season 3 in New York City before Christmas.)

Having separately gone through the laborious process of producing remote episodes, those involved in all three shows have wildly different reactions to whether they’d want to keep “working from home.” Schur, for example, is a hard no on making more television over iPhones and Zoom. “This is not the way TV is supposed to be made,” he told reporters. “TV is a team sport from beginning to end. It’s about groups of people functioning in holistic ways and collaborating with each other. I don’t think this is a sustainable model. … It was fun to see everybody, but it’s not any kind of model going forward.”

SNL player Pete Davidson similarly looks forward to adding the “Live” part back to the show’s title. “I assume we’d love to get in front of a nice live audience as soon as possible whenever it is safe,” the star of The King of Staten Island told Yahoo Entertainment, while ultimately leaving the final decision up to his boss, Lorne Michaels. “No matter what state the world’s in, Lorne knows what to do. He always makes the right decision.” 

On the other hand, both Nicdao and McElhenney are willing to make another quarantine episode of Mythic Quest. “We kind of had to rewrite the playbook in terms of how you make TV, but by the end of it we had a pretty good system going,” Nicdao says. “I already had a big appreciation for how many jobs and skills are necessary to make a film set run, and when you’re in charge of executing a lot of it you become even more appreciative.” Adds McElhenney: “Do I want to do another episode where the interface is a teleconference platform? Maybe. There might be more interesting ways to do it. It was hard, but I enjoyed the process, and I want to get people working again.”

When comedies do return to some semblance of a normal production schedule, the next challenge is deciding whether to make the pandemic part of the humor. Besides plotting Mythic Quest’s future, McElhenney is working on fresh episodes of It’s Always Sunny, and he’s already revealed that Season 15 will directly acknowledge the coronavirus pandemic. (In a strange bit of foreshadowing, a 2013 episode of the show featured the gang locking themselves in quarantine.) “The major difference between Sunny and Mythic Quest as it pertains to a global health crisis is that the Sunny characters do not believe in science unless it suits them in the moment, and they definitely do not respect the law,” he says with a laugh. “So I believe the pandemic episodes of Sunny will be very different from the Mythic Quest episode.” 

In contrast, Ricky Gervais is seriously considering fast-forwarding past the pandemic altogether for the third season of his acclaimed Netflix series, After Life. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the firebrand comedian says he hopes to resume filming in the U.K. in April, by which time there may be a vaccine — or, at least, more concrete treatment options — to combat COVID-19. “As a writer, I try and reflect the world as it is to some degree, but obviously I don’t want to write a thing about the pandemic because you could get that wrong. When it’s all over and they’re back to normal, people don’t want to watch a thing about a pandemic six months late. I think a mention might be fine if it’s funny enough, unless it’s still ongoing. Then all bets are off anyway.” 

Our animated reality

Fox’s fall season may change, but come what may, The Simpsons will still premiere on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. Unlike their live-action brethren, animated shows are a TV staple that have so far proved immune to COVID-19. Some of the spring and summer’s most high-profile premieres were cartoons like Central Park on Apple TV+, Looney Tunes on HBO Max and Season 2 of Harley Quinn on DC Universe.

“We could see a lot more cartoons start to get made and less live action, because we have the opportunity to stay distanced,” says Kristen Bell, who, prior to the pandemic, juggled an equally busy voiceover and live-action career. (Bell was part of the vocal ensemble on Central Park but left the show in June amid growing concerns over white actors providing the voices for characters of different races.) Similarly, Patton Oswalt is grateful that he can perform his roles on cartoons, like Adventures in Wonder Park and Hulu’s upcoming Marvel series MODOK, at home. “I want to wait for what the CDC says,” he replies when asked when he’ll feel safe leaving his house and returning to a physical set. “I don’t have any medical training, so I’ll wait to see what they say.” 

But as The Blacklist’s producers found — and Bell and Oswalt are already well aware — animation isn’t a cure-all for coronavirus-induced production delays. “Cartoons take a while to animate and come out,” Bell notes. And that length of time can increase if the animators are working remotely instead of in a studio alongside each other. “You can’t ask animators to be in a studio animating stuff; they can only do it remotely,” says Oswalt. “So everything that involves people having to come together and work in enclosed spaces has slowed down.”

That specific mix of lots of people in enclosed spaces is the main hurdle facing the return of competitive reality shows like ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and HBO Max’s Legendary. The very premise of both shows demands two major no-no’s in the current climate: extremely physical performances and the energy of a live studio audience. “It’s hard for me to envision Dancing the way we’ve known it with 700 people in the audience and 24 sweaty dancers,” former DWTS host Tom Bergeron told Yahoo Entertainment in May. “I can see them wearing visor masks or something. It’s going to look very clinical. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a studio setting that was that populated.” (Bergeron and fellow host Erin Andrews parted ways with ABC’s long-running reality hit in July; Tyra Banks will host the series when it returns.) “We’re living in different times now,” adds returning DWTS judge Carrie Ann Inaba. “We have to keep reinventing. For the next season … we want to keep entertaining people and bringing new things to them and making them feel good.”

As a judge on Legendary, Jameela Jamil is also expecting a possible format overhaul for Season 2 of the competitive voguing series that would address crowd and performer concerns. “By the time we would be filming that, I’m hoping there’ll be some sort of infrastructure and safety — maybe less audience members. I really just care about people not dying! What I don’t want is to be on a set where the talent are protected and the most underpaid staff are crammed in together picking up germs.” Legendary host Dashaun Wesley sees similar concerns facing the real-world ballroom scene that inspired the show. “Because a ball deals with numbers of people, it’s going to be very interesting to step back into that world. We’re all under one umbrella, and there’s so much going on. We have to just wait this out or wait until we get the correct information to move forward. So far what’s been happening is that we’ve been doing balls on Zoom, because we can’t get enough!” 

Whether television’s immediate future means more bubbles, Zoom calls or animated episodes, McElhenney stresses that the most important thing the industry at large can do right now is find new ways to generate new content that pays a living wage. “We have to start wrapping our heads around the fact that most of us are not going to be on a soundstage anytime soon,” he warns. “So we have to start figuring out a way to get back to work. Otherwise, we’re going to have a town that’s not working for a long, long time.”

Additional reporting by Gisselle Bances, Kerry Justich, Nick Paschal, Kevin Polowy and Taryn Ryder; video produced by Jon San.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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