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Effects of the pandemic will play out on our screens for years to come

From the redundancy of sex and intimacy, to scaling down on on-set personnel, the pandemic has pushed most productions to their creative limits, and this is how it affects your viewing
Author: Gabi Mbele
Thu, Feb 25, 2021

Greys Anatomy season 17

Change has been inevitable for a while now.

It will continue to be the main feature on many shows to come and it is clear that television fans will have to adjust visually by staying glued to their screens and forget lip reading, as masks take over the mouths of some of our favourite characters. Adding to this, these two words – "social distancing" – will also become the most articulated words across all scripts.

This month saw two shows return on the television screens: Grey’s Anatomy's 17th season started this week, and it will showcase a coronavirus-centric plot – through the eyes of the frontline workers – like never seen before since studios returned to operations late last year.

Police drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit also returns with its 22nd season to showcase how police departments are managing the pandemic with common use of masks on the characters and occasional scripts of "social distancing, please" being heard in the storylines.

The premiere of Grey's Anatomy commences with a global tour of how "essential workers/ frontline workers" are impacted by the pandemic. While there is romance, drama and funny scenes – audiences will be reminded just how tragic the pandemic has been and how it has affected medical field workers and their mental health. After two decades of its existence, this season will be by far the best time for its executive director Shonda Rhimes to showcase a very realistic storyline in this medical drama.

For the other essential workers – the police – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will continue to reflect the issues facing the real world, such as the continued Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

"Like everyone in New York, our characters have gone through a series of crucibles in the last nine months: the horrible losses of spring, the George Floyd uprising of summer, the isolation and depression and stress that permeated the entire year," said showrunner and executive producer Warren Leight to ET Online. "All of what the city has gone through will be reflected in what our characters go through. Their actions as police officers will be viewed through a different prism than before."

Later this year, we will also see the return of the hilariously dysfunctional Gallagher family on Shameless, who, through their deranged lives, also showcase masks and variety of social distancing, while there are less explicit sex scenes. We also see how the popular drinking hole The Alibi showcases just how local bars are affected globally by this pandemic.

Speaking to tagged!, creative producer and scriptwriter at Tshedza Pictures – the production house responsible for 1Magic's The River and M-Net's Legacy – Bonga Percy Vilakazi sheds some light on how the pandemic has affected their local productions.

"We have had to completely change the way we do things – we can't have a lot of people on set at any given time. Weddings and ceremonies are affected… The way we made changes is like how we held the wedding outside so that were stuck in one room, to adhere to social distancing regulations.

"Before the cast returned on set, all cast members were tested for Covid-19 because they don't wear masks when shooting. We just have to take extra precautions as they sometimes interact relatively close to each other."

Vilakazi confirms that there are major changes in both sets for The River and Legacy as they had to hire health officers who frequently test the cast and ensure everyone on set abides by the Covid-19 regulations.

He also mentions an incident where someone tested positive, which resulted in "the entire production being halted, later [forcing] us to double up the workload, which was also a challenge as we couldn't have too many people on set.

"We just had to find different ways of doing things. However, we decided not to adapt the script to reflect the pandemic as we wanted the shows to remain a form of escapism for our viewers. Many shows showcased masks on screens, however, we opted with relative frequent dialogue about Covid-19 to raise more awareness about the pandemic to our viewers," Vilakazi says.

Actress Nokuthula Mavuso, who stars as Amo Twala in the M-Net drama series Lioness, says the acting industry has been hit hard by the pandemic which has resulted in "stories being trimmed and written in a way that there are fewer actors in scenes, meaning that some are out of work". The actress (who also plays the delinquent Angelique on The River) is also a mother in real life and shares how she has changed her home routine after being on set.

"Changing behaviour on and off set. Being aware that I have a responsibility to look after those I work with by looking after myself and watching my behaviour… When I get home from set, I touch nobody and head straight to the bathroom for a good scrub and put the clothes I've been wearing in the washer. My kids are used to it by now. Hugs and kisses follow after this ritual," she says.

Since the start of the pandemic, Mavuso has worked on three sets and applauded all the teams she collaborated with for adhering to the Covid-19 regulations equally.

Over at the public broadcaster SABC2's soapie 7de Laan, which has been on air for over two decades, the pandemic has had just as much of an impact on director Neo Matsunyane, who says he was "pushed to my limits creatively in achieving what's written in the script and to make things seem normal at the same time", while the set has been downsized to minimal crew and cast. This also in turn made him realise that "sex has become redundant on screen".

"Suddenly, the actors couldn't come as close as before to each other, and I have to respect those legitimate concerns too. I loved the challenge because it also made me realise that in essence, we don't need kissing and sex scenes any longer on our screens.

"I don't feel that sex still sells on screen. There are creative ways to suggest anything and the mind will complete the picture. Audiences have become wiser as well with exposure to modern and different kinds of media.

"Covid-19 has brought some much-needed relief to a lot of actors who've been concerned with intimate scenes. The audiences will have to understand too, unfortunately," Matsunyane says.

One thing that will remain true for all these shows, actors like Mavuso, executives at production houses such as Vilakazi and all avid television audiences, for months and years to come is that, everything will continue to changed, and we need to embrace the "new normal". 

  • Watch Grey’s Anatomy on Mondays at 8pm, on M-Net, DStv channel 101
  • Watch Law & Order: Special Victims on Wednesdays at 8pm, on Universal TV, DStv channel 117
  • Watch The River every weekday at 8pm, on 1Magic, DStv channel 103
  • Watch Legacy from Mondays to Thursdays at 7pm, on M-Net, DStv channel 101
  • Watch Lioness every Thursday at 8.40pm, on M-Net, DStv channel 101