TV Time: Masking up on TV — too much, or not enough?

Here we are, a year into our masked-up lives, and while vaccines provide a glimmer of hope, it’s still way too soon to start stashing away our supplies of snazzy custom masks.

Side question: How many pretty/fun masks do you own? I’ve been pretty restrained, I think, and yet I somehow find myself with a drawer full of colorful fabric masks. They’re cute!

I’ve been having some mixed feelings lately about seeing TV shows featuring mask-wearing in their current season’s episodes. On the one hand, if the show is supposed to be set in our current day and age, they can’t come off as realistic if the characters aren’t quarantining, observing social distancing, and wearing masks.

On the other hand… well, there are two main negatives that have been coming up for me:

1 – I watch TV for escapism and entertainment. I see enough masks and hear enough COVID-COVID-COVID nonstop in my real life. Do I need to see it on my sitcoms too?

2 – For the shows that choose to go there, they’d better be doing it right. And that just doesn’t seem to be the case across the board, especially when it appears that masks might be inconvenient for storylines.

A couple of examples of mask usage, one mostly good but not perfect, and one just baffling:

On This Is Us, the show has mostly been very good about showing the characters in the modern-day storylines following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Whether on a movie set or in a hospital giving birth, they’ve been pretty consistent about having masks in place where appropriate — but they still make some iffy choices, such as having a teen daughter’s boyfriend come to dinner without explaining whether he and his family are in their bubble. And if they are, that’s a pretty big bubble, considering that another daughter is planning to go over to a friend’s house too.

I give This Is Us pretty high scores on the realism of their COVID world, showing Zoom interviews and FaceTime hospital visits, but just wish they would get a little tighter. If you’re going to do it, do it all the way.

Then there’s Black-ish, which seems to have lost interest in COVID after a brief couple of episodes where they focused on it. People come and go from the family’s house, without masks. The main character goes to work and interacts with colleagues, without masks. There was an episode with a backyard wedding that had some people wearing masks, but then other people showed up after traveling and were not wearing masks.

If they want to pretend to live in a COVID-free world, that’s fine — but going partway and then ignoring it doesn’t make any sense.

At the other end of the mask-wearing on TV spectrum is the (always phenomenal) Queen Sugar. The currently airing 5th season is set squarely in the real world, moving through the early months of the pandemic (so far — we’re on the 5th episode, set in May 2020) with a very specific focus on what the show’s community would have experienced at that particular time. So far in the season, we’ve seen the characters go from the early days of learning about some distant virus to vague worries to quarantine and isolation, with the first death of a supporting character as well.

The characters on Queen Sugar experience all the shocks of the pandemic, from job loss to economic downturns to the isolation of Zoom school to the grief of losing a loved one, and it all feels hyper-real and powerful, especially knowing that the characters don’t yet know what’s still to come in that awful year. The characters responsibly wear masks, and even for gatherings such as a wedding, they maintain social distancing, stay outdoors, separate by family units, and — again — stay masked up.

Queen Sugar — in a promo pic for an upcoming episode, the main character is wearing her mask, but I’m worried about the guy she’s standing next to. Why can’t guys keep their masks over their noses? For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is the show not doing what it should — it’s (sadly) accurately showing how sloppy some people can be!

Another shot of the Queen Sugar wedding, mostly just because it makes me so happy, but also because this shot again shows how thoughtfully the show is approaching the characters’ lives and their commitment to being safe. I love how they throw a beautiful wedding with only a few people present, all except the bride and groom masked, and keep the people present outdoors and at a safe distance. Well done!

As a viewer, I do get frustrated sometimes watching characters interact and show emotion from behind a mask, especially if the dialogue isn’t super clear — but if the show is asking us to believe that the events they’re showing are contemporary to our time, then they need to do this piece right. Queen Sugar is spot on.

At the same time, I’m fine with shows being only vaguely “now-ish” and not showing masks and social distancing — but I feel like they should either do it or don’t, nothing in the middle. Either go full-on COVID aware and be responsible, or have the show set in a pandemic-free bubble, but don’t give mixed messages about whether the characters are being safe. Frankly, it sends a terrible message to kind-of show appropriate pandemic behavior but then be inconsistent — are they saying this behavior is okay?

What are your thoughts about masks on TV shows? Do you appreciate the realism, wish they did it better, or feel like you’d rather just watch TV and pretend none of this real-world mess exists?

11 thoughts on “TV Time: Masking up on TV — too much, or not enough?

  1. I don’t really watch shows, but I think I’d rather people just ignored COVID, to be honest. Unless the storyline is somehow about the pandemic, it just seems depressing, and I can see how actually having people stay home and social distance would limit storylines. “Here is a season of people sitting in their house. Maybe they work outside the home, but otherwise they don’t leave.” Exciting…

    • I’m leaning toward this point of view as well. I don’t particularly want to see a lot of quarantining and sheltering at home during what’s supposed to be entertainment. I’m guessing there will be a bunch of movies released in the new few years looking back on the pandemic, and I won’t be rushing to see them — after all, we’re already living through it!

  2. I have to say when shows first came back I wasn’t a fan because like you, I watch TV for escapism, but I’ve kinda gotten used to it now. I agree with you, This is Us has been really good about the masks but I agree this past episode they started to relax and I even made a comment to my mum when we were watching, she thinks maybe because the vaccines have started to roll out that that could be why it’s more relaxed but I thought it was weird.

    • Hmm, good point about the vaccines, but then they should have said so! I was disappointed because This Is Us has managed to work in masks and social distancing even while pursuing other storylines, but then they should explain if they’re loosening their protocols!

      • I agree! I thought it was so strange for all of them to all of a sudden just start having people over and just overall less mask wearing. Hopefully in the weeks to come it will be explained better because I agree, they’ve been doing a great job!

  3. This is a great post, Lisa. I hadn’t thought much about this, mostly because the shows I’m watching are all pre-COVID (Seinfeld and The Affair). I think I vote for no masks in a COVID-free world, fantasy or not!

  4. For me, seeing shows without masks is actually a bit creepy right now, especially if I know it was shot during the past year. For example, the new season of The Resident picks up at a time in the future after the pandemic is over.

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