As the coronavirus continues to dominate life in the U.S., Hollywood TV shows and movies are debating whether they should portray the horrors of today on-screen. Do viewers want an inside look into the response to COVID-19, or are they looking for some good old-fashioned escapism, so they can forget everything that’s going on in the news?
The Resident, a fictional network drama on Fox about uncovering medical mysteries and healthcare corruption at Chastain Memorial, a fictional hospital in Atlanta, is taking the former approach. The show recently aired its fourth season, and this year’s special guest star is the coronavirus.
Dr. Daniela Lamas, who works in critical care at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has been writing the pandemic into the show. For her, it’s about more than just entertaining audiences. It’s an opportunity to show Americans and the world what it’s like to fight COVID-19 on the ground.
Deciding Whether to Show the Pandemic
Most movies and shows are filmed and developed months, if not years, in advance. Many networks and creators have struggled with whether they should incorporate the coronavirus into their respective projects. They could spend months detailing what’s been happening on the ground only to discover that most viewers would rather forget the horrors of the day.
Dr. Lamas, who uses her medical training and experience to write compelling, realistic narratives for the show, says the producers originally discussed whether they should include the pandemic at all.
“The question was, will people have the stomach for this in January? And the answer to that question was, ‘We don’t know,’” she said.
However, she says they eventually scrapped the idea of pretending as if the pandemic never happened in favor of the more interesting story unfolding right in front of their eyes.
“Whether they do or they don’t, we can’t in good faith, as a medical show that claims to have some degree of medical veracity, we can’t ignore the greatest public health crisis of our time. And we can’t expect people to see our characters and believe in them if these fictional health care providers have not experienced what real health care providers have in this fictional world.”
Educating Viewers on What’s Happening in the News
Many medical TV dramas have been incorporating the coronavirus pandemic into their storylines, including ABC’s The Good Doctor, NBC’s Chicago Med and the megahit Grey’s Anatomy, where main character Meredith Grey is currently battling the virus in the hospital’s critical care unit.
When approaching such a serious, delicate topic, Dr. Lamas said the creators tried to focus on what matters most.
“The goal — and presumably it’s one shared by a lot of television shows — which is, what can we show people that they might not know otherwise?” Lamas told the Associated Press.
The show is currently tackling many important issues of the day, including the virus’ disproportionate toll on communities of color, PPE shortages, and forcing patients and providers to quarantine, some of which do not have the means to do so.
“There are issues that come up in terms of money, in terms of resource, in terms of PPE, that also fit well in the kind of wheelhouse of our show,” said Lamas.
When many hospitals and facilities were running out of face masks and other essential PPE, The Resident team donated supplies to healthcare workers that would have been normally used as props. The cast and crew began using lower-grade masks, so they didn’t divert resources away from real-life heroes.
Dr. Lamas said her team felt an obligation to depict what it’s like to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Instead of filming fictional nurses and doctors running down the hallway at the last minute to perform a critical surgery, the show has started focusing on the quieter moments during the pandemic.
“People were wondering, ‘Can we take somebody for a big surgery?’ And I mean, sure we could. But does that reflect the real story? COVID is so much about waiting. It’s so much about decisions around intubation. It’s so much about isolation. And so, I think really being willing to tell that story, instead of the big surgery, alarms blaring, [the] recovery story was something that we had to get into as well.”
Despite the need to get it right, Dr. Lamas and her team decided they didn’t want to focus on the pandemic indefinitely, as most people could use a break from the news of the day.
Actor Matt Czuchry, who plays Dr. Conrad Hawkins on the show, said:
“COVID is always going to be a presence with us throughout the course of season four, but we hope it’s not something that’s going to overwhelm the audience and we can find something that is a balance between the two and something that’s cathartic and joyful and hopeful.”
Imagining a World without COVID-19
As the show’s COVID-19 storylines wind down, The Resident will start imagining what it will be like to come out of the shadow of the virus.
Dr. Lamas says these storylines are often about giving real-life providers and patients hope for the future.
“For many people, it is the way they see hospitals, people who have the good fortune not to see hospitals through themselves or their family. And for those of us who work in the hospital, there is something powerful about seeing this sort of escapism type of version of our reality on television.”