If the pandemic shuts down TV production for many months, can the industry still crank out new seasons of television series that viewers will watch?
Tonight, CBS' legal drama All Rise hints at an answer with an episode crafted after actors and production staffers began isolating in their homes. It's the first network TV drama to film a new virtual episode about the coronavirus pandemic and it unfolds so seamlessly you'd never otherwise know it was developed during a global crisis.
The story centers on an ambitious idea by the show's lead character, Simone Missick's Judge Lola Carmichael, to conduct a trial over video chat – with attorneys, court staff and even the judge herself appearing from their homes in a proceeding livestreamed publicly (in the show's fictional world).
The trial is a metaphor for what the show itself is trying to pull off. Producers said during a press conference last week – held via video chat, of course – that they didn't want to end the show's season on the episode they filmed just before the lockdown.
So they asked actors to become one-person production crews: cobbling together technology, turning rooms in their homes into sets and handling makeup or costuming with whatever they had on hand, coached by the show's remote production staffers.
All Rise airs on CBS, a network known for its formulaic cops and crime dramas, so there are times when characters are a little too obvious in arguing over the legal and health issues – like watching the dialogue leading up to a Schoolhouse Rock song.
Like NBC's Parks and Recreation reunion last week, CBS' All Rise episode really centers on how friends and family – both biological and work-related – need to connect at a time of disconnection. It's an obvious note, but it's difficult to muster a profound, overarching insight on a pandemic when you're in the middle of it.
Producers of scripted TV face tough choices planning for the future: Do you make the pandemic a part of your show's ongoing story line, or ignore it the way Friends sidestepped 9/11? Can a scripted series feature multiple episodes filmed in lockdown before viewer fatigue sets in?
Projects like CBS' All Rise season finale, along with the Parks and Recreation reunion, still feel more like ambitious experiments than a way forward for scripted TV – a creative nod to the challenges we all face, crafted to tide us over until a new normal emerges.