“General Hospital” counts both a Lassa fever epidemic and a water pathogen story among its most successful medical-themed sagas. However, although COVID19 would have undoubtedly provided ample material for ABC’s daytime drama, it chose not to incorporate it into its storyline.
In fact, while all four daytime dramas that aired on broadcast television during the pandemic (NBC’s “Days of our Lives” and CBS’ “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless”) worked under new health and safety guidelines to produce the shows during the past year, none of them brought the behind-the-scenes mask-wearing in front of the camera.
“We wanted viewers to be able to jump into a world that was unencumbered from the fear we all felt during the pandemic,” says “General Hospital” executive producer Frank Valentini. “Also, there were so many new production costs with testing and protocols. The most expedient and cost-effective way to go back to work was to go with the scripts we already had.”
“The Bold and the Beautiful” was the first scripted show to return to production following the initial spring 2020 shutdown. It added social distancing and wearing masks and face shields on set for the crew, and it rethought how intimate scenes could be shot with the cast.
Bradley Bell, executive producer and head writer, went from writing multi-character scenes to one-person scenes. He had Thomas Forrester (Matthew Atkinson) suffer a mental breakdown, imagining a mannequin (that resembled his true love Hope Spencer, played by Annika Noelle) had come to life for intimate scenes. (Noelle read the Hope mannequin’s lines from a safe distance.) In other instances, such as for Denise Richards, real-life romantic partners of actors were cast as love interests. But while the half-hour serial shines in showcasing social-issue stories, including characters dealing with mental health issues and being harmed during distracted driving, Bell maintains those tales must be told responsibly.
“We want to learn every aspect of a social issue so that we can present it to the audience in an informative way,” Bell says. “With COVID-19, there were so many unanswered questions.”
Incorporating COVID-19 into the shows responsibly would have also meant constantly chasing the new developments in the virus, the guidelines and the development of the vaccine. Since these series air weeks after they are filmed, “there was no way we could have written the news,” Valentini says.
“Days of Our Lives” had several months of episodes already shot when the pandemic struck. If producers had chosen to include COVID, it wouldn’t have come on-air until October, which would have been a jarring jump in events.
“We tape eight shows a week for budget constraints and we’re in production 39 weeks a year,” says executive producer Ken Corday. “It’s a bone of contention [for some] that we’re so far ahead, but it was wonderful to not have to go into repeats.”
Additionally, though, Corday says the show needs to be an hour of romantic escapism, rather than something true-to-life or reflecting the headlines.
“Viewers didn’t want another blow to the head over something we were already being bludgeoned with,” he says.
Now that the vaccine is being widely distributed and the world is reopening, the hope, says Josh Griffith, co-executive producer and head writer of “The Young and the Restless,” is that daytime drama can resume regular-sized celebration scenes and more intimate moments between characters. “We’re moving in that direction, for sure.”
Valentini also says there is “light at the end of the tunnel” but cautions that “we’re not out of the woods yet.” So, while “General Hospital” has “slowly been upping the number of supporting characters [in scenes], everything else, in terms of physical-distancing and testing, is still in effect.”