2021 is a television year like no other. With a global pandemic still running roughshod through much of the world and new variants cropping up, film studios are having to take more and more precautions for the sake and safety of actors. So far, Richard Schiff (of The Good Doctor) is the only main cast member of a TV show who caught COVID, which means things are working.
These things are laudable. The protection of humanity should be far above and beyond our drive to make art or money. At the same time, in our world people need to make money to afford to live, which means a number of people in Hollywood who don’t get steady pay checks when they’re not filming really need to work. Keeping them as safe as the actors we recognize, following all the state restrictions to film, has significantly changed how television is made and seen.
It’s All About The Benjamins
Let’s start with the numbers. According to reports, implementing the safety protocols for COVID costs about $200-300 thousand per episode for a multi-camera comedy series. It’s about $300-400 thousand for single-camera comedy. Dramas are looking at a cool half-million. Again, this is per episode. That works about to be about a 10% increase per episode.
On the other hand, if a show has cast or crew who fail COVID tests, they may not be able to film. And every day a series can’t film costs them around $100 thousand per day. This means, filming or not, once a series has committed itself to production, it’s going to see a massive bump in costs. This is simply unavoidable.
Obviously, the smaller budget a show is, the less it can withstand these costs. A number of highly popular shows are working on pretty small budgets to start with, but on top of that its become harder to film certain scenes when you need to socially distance both cast and crew. Which has led us to a peculiar situation.
Long Distance In Person Relationships
The Bold and the Beautiful and EastEnders have both shown behind the scenes clips that demonstrate how hard the alternative is, that they use wigs and mannequins. On EastEnders, they have to do their own hair and makeup! Their costumes are left outside their dressing rooms, and there are notes on what to wear and how. But soaps have to churn out a lot of content in a ridiculously small time. which means perfection is often sacrificed for content amount.
Still, the kind of trickery that flies on a soap won’t pass for a show like a Big Three network show, and probably would be a topic of derision for smaller channels. The expectations for a scripted series is different than soaps and telenovelas.
If you watch Charmed on the CW, you may have noticed that the characters had a pretty isolated story for the first half of the season, where a ‘magical allergy’ kept every about six feet apart. This resulted in all three sisters not being able to be with their partners. Now that COVID restrictions are lessened, and more people are vaccinated, they’re able to make changes. Ruby and Mel finally got to hold hands, which is really where we come to this.
Fade to Black
Early on in the life of the site, Tracy complained about that ‘fade to black’ trope with lesbian sex scenes on TV. As she, rightly, pointed out to me, there’s a lack of equitability in romance as portrayed by heterosexuals and homosexuals on television. At the time, we’d finally gotten the sex scene with Waverly and Nicole and, lo and behold, it did a pan away just as they hit the bed. It was sweet, it was romantic, but at the same time you looked over at Wynonna and her menfolk and you noticed the difference.
Of course, Wynonna Earp has since then given us much more and better rep. Stairwells anyone? The barn right before the wedding? They moved on to equal time for equal relationships. The same cannot be said of shows like Élite, which have scene upon scene upon scene of gay men fucking, of heterosexuals screwing every which way from Sunday, and then a much more sweet-sapphic lady loving moment.
The dichotomy of representation is enough to drive you mad. So when, with the lessened COVID restrictions, we get handholding and not a makeout scene, it brings me right back to the place where I too ask where the intimacy is on television? Are we back to the days of Gal Pals who can be in a relationship but never show it (see Friends)?
But it also makes me wonder if I’m conflating two separate but related issues.
Intimacy Without Sex
Executive producer of Batwoman, Caroline Dries, addressed concerns people had with the perceived lack of intimacy on her show.
One sort of thing that’s been coming up on Twitter a lot [is] the lack of lesbian intimacy on the show this season. We were very happy to be able to get Sophie and Kate their kiss in the finale. I was thinking about that because I felt little bit like, “Oh, did we not deliver on the lesbian story line for Batwoman this season?” And I remembered where we were at the beginning of the season. Our show started before any of the other [Arrowverse] shows, and we were still under the most rigid rules for COVID. So by the time Ryan’s love story evolves to friendship with Angelique [Bevin Bru], that’s when the rules opened up slightly and we had more clarify on what was allowed with COVID. [So that’s] when we could pursue a love story, which is what we ended up doing with Alice. But it made me think back on why we made the decisions we did, and we were so early on in the beginnings of how to film in a pandemic that we were never able to put Ryan in a situation, so we wrote around putting her in a situation where she could be intimate with Angelique.Entertainment Weekly – Batwoman boss unpacks Kate Kane’s finale fate and that ‘intense’ cliffhanger
Over on Legends of Tomorrow they hilariously resolved that by having characters separated, or walked in on. And that’s the sort of trope that works well for a show like theirs. When it was possible for the characters to get together, they very much did right away. Good ol’ dragon passionfruit smoothies.
But that’s sex. Legends and Batwoman absolutely managed to keep their characters intimate without kissing. We spent the whole season of Legends knowing how much Sara loved Ava. And on Batwoman we saw Ryan struggle with love for someone who was historically problematic, but loved none the less.
How do you film sex?
In recent years, much has been made about bringing on Intimacy Coordinators on set. Their role has been to support actors in any intimate actions on set, from kissing to touch to simulated sex. They help plan and choreograph the scenes, working directly with the actors and the production team, to make sure everyone is comfortable. This does mean they check to make sure the people filming feel okay too.
But what good does an Intimacy Coordinator do when you can’t be within 6 feet of the person you’re supposed to be kissing? Like I mentioned before, some shows used life-like mannequins, the same they used for dead bodies on sets. Other shows have used the spouse of actors, having them check for COVID and then filming the scene. Station 19 took the Legends trope and had it offscreen, where you only hear the sounds. But again, that was played a bit for laughs.
Since the majority of queer characters are still played by non-queer actors (we’re at 18.6% right now), that really won’t work as well for queer content. And instead of trying to find a workaround, a lot of writers’ rooms have decided “If we can’t film it, we don’t write it.” and that leads us to where we are today. Less sex for everyone. Yay.
The perceived lack of intimacy (and sex) on TV these days is going to be a while in changing. Film, with their larger budget, can use CGI, soaps can use mannequins, but the majority of mid-range shows are simply going to have to continue to not write what they can’t film.
The real challenge I think will be with what The L Word: Generation Q is able to pull off. While skimping out on sex scenes can be hand waved on a superhero show by yeeting the protagonist to another planet and killing her again, the backbone of The L Word has always been the prominent display of physical intimacy. Hopefully it will manage to set the bar again and move us back into a place where we get the same quality as everyone else does.