What pandemic? Holiday TV movies stick with escapism over COVID-19

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - “Grey’s Anatomy“‘s fictional surgeon Meredith Grey was stricken with COVID-19, while the “Superstore” staff hoarded toilet paper. But Christmas - complete with carol singers, family gatherings and romance - will be a largely coronavirus-free zone on television.

TV shows are adopting varying approaches to the pandemic in their regular-season storylines, with shows like “The Conners” embracing it, comedies like “Mom” ignoring it completely, and drama “This is Us” working it in, but not as a central theme.

But, when it comes to Christmas, escapism still rules.

The Hallmark Channel and sister network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is putting out some 39 holiday TV movies this year - all of them made since the pandemic yet none of them mentioning the virus.

“The Hallmark brand is about connections and relationships and love and celebrations of the holiday season,” said Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming at Crown Media, which owns the Hallmark channels.

In original Hallmark movies this year like “Heart of the Holidays” and “Christmas She Wrote,” millions of viewers will see characters heading home for the holidays, falling in love, and gathering around festive tables.

Despite strict filming protocols that meant more special effects and less kissing, Hallmark’s holiday movies have all the comforting touches that viewers have come to expect, Vicary said.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

“There’s a lot of places where you can get darker or edgier or issue-related movies, but what people come to us for is to feel happy and positive and warm and loved,” she said.

Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said Christmas movies aren’t meant to reflect reality.

“That isn’t to say there isn’t waiting out there ‘A Very Pandemic Christmas,’ in which people at a small Vermont inn find they can’t join each other for Christmas because one of them is quarantined,” Thompson quipped.

On the other extreme, “Grey’s Anatomy,” set in a busy Seattle hospital, returned in November set in the early weeks of the pandemic. It quickly combined the shock of star Ellen Pompeo’s Dr. Grey contracting COVID-19 with the return of fan favorite “McDreamy,” played by Patrick Dempsey, in dream sequences.

“It was my job to find a way, once we determined that we were doing the pandemic, to also bring joy, and escape, and fan candy, and all the things that at ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ we give people,” Executive Producer Krista Vernoff told Hollywood website Deadline of the decision to bring back Dempsey’s character.

Thompson compared TV’s differing takes on the pandemic to how writers handled the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York.

“That was a one-off horrible event and this (the pandemic) is a long process,” he said. “But even then, some shows, including those that took place in New York, chose to completely pretend it never happened.”

Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jonathan Oatis