Pandemics may seem to drag on endlessly, but they do end eventually. At least, that’s the lesson that history teaches us – and classic TV.
That’s right. As this blog has tried to demonstrate since it debuted in the spring of 2021, classic TV offers a lot of history lessons and can point the way toward better health, finances, self-improvement and numerous other areas. And, yes, depending on what you’ve been watching the last couple years, some classic TV (and modern stuff, too, of course) may have helped you get through the pandemic.
So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how TV shows from way back in the past and more recently have dealt with pandemics. Admittedly, there aren’t a ton of examples out there, but maybe there are just enough.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- How “Gunsmoke” Handled a Pandemic
- Did Gunsmoke get it right, with its depiction of cholera?
- How “Trackdown” Handled a Pandemic
- Did Trackdown get its depiction of typhoid right?
- How “Little House on the Prairie” Handled Pandemics (well, Epidemics)
- Did Little House on the Prairie get its depiction of typhus right?
- How “Superstore” Handled a Pandemic
- Did Superstore get it right, with its depiction of Covid-19?
How “Gunsmoke” Handled a Pandemic
Gunsmoke offered up a 30-minute episode called “Cholera” in its second season, and, boy, was it a doozy.
In many ways, it was a typical Gunsmoke episode. It doesn’t feature a pandemic surging through Dodge City, and alas, we aren’t treated to scenes of Kitty tending to the sick or Matt Dillon battling an illness while fighting a bad guy.
In fact, in the opening, as Marshall Matt Dillon tended to do in the early seasons, he strolled through a cemetery and talked about how some of the residents got there.
I thought he was going to talk about all the people who wound up in the cemetery due to cholera, but, no, instead, Dillon mentions how many of the bodies buried here knifed, lynched or kicked in the head – and that many of them died because of revenge. Not a word of cholera.
Instead, much of the plot, as Marshall Dillon foreshadowed in his opening dialogue, is about two families that really don’t like each other much and really have it out for each other – the McCreadys and the Gabriels. Still, cholera does figure into the plot, eventually.
It's a hot day – sometime in the 1870s – and sheriff deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver) is worried that it hasn’t rained and that the wells will go dry. It’s a hint of what is to come, considering that water later becomes a major plot point.
So let’s cut to the chase. The McCreadys are mean and vicious, and they want the Gabriels' land. In fact, they go so far as to cut most of the harness on the Gabriels’ wagon, apparently figuring that it’ll break on their way back from Dodge City to their homestead, and they’ll be stranded out in the middle of nowhere… and maybe they’ll die, or at least give up and leave the area.
Marshall Dillon warns the McCreadys to lay off the Gabriels. Of course, that’s not what happens. Later in the episode, Jim Gabriel comes to town to see Doc Adams. The Gabriels have relatives in from Philadelphia who have just arrived, and the relatives are sick. In fact, a young girl has already died, in a matter of hours of the family’s arrival, and Gabriel’s son, David, is now ill. He has turned blue, and he wants water and can barely talk.
“Sure sounds like cholera,” Doc says. He instructs Jim Gabriel to “burn everything the girl touched” and to not drink or eat from the same cups and plates.
Doc has to set a man’s broken leg soon, but he promises he’ll be out at the Gabriels’ home soon, to look in on the boy.
Jim Gabriel leaves, and Marshall Dillon and Chester pump Doc Adams for more information, wondering how bad this could be.
“Well, if it's cholera, it's bad. Real bad,” Doc says.
And then, just as we break for a commercial, we see that listening to all of this is the arch enemy of the Gabriels -- McCready (whose first name we never learn).
Later, we learn that Doc never showed up at the Gabriel residence. Marshall Dillon and Chester end up at the Gabriels’ house, and so does McCready, who professes to know nothing about Doc’s disappearance. He’s pretty believable. In fact, I thought maybe we’d learn that he had nothing to do with it.
But Jenny Gabriel, the mom, is a better judge of Mr. McCready’s character than I am. She is convinced that McCready kidnapped Doc, so he couldn’t take care of their son, David, apparently dying of cholera and who is now close to death’s door. C’mon, what kind of monster would do that? Except that she will turn out to be right.
Well, this is when Gunsmoke really turns dark, as the series sometimes did in those early seasons. Jenny Gabriel then informs everybody that earlier in the day, McCready’s teenage son, Billy, had been by the house, and, gosh, he was awfully thirsty.
So Mrs. Gabriel offered him a drink – from a cup that David has drank out of.
She suggests that maybe McCready should let Doc go – so Doc can tend to her son and then take care of Billy, who is no doubt going to soon be pretty sick himself.
McCready relents and admits to having Doc squirreled away in a cabin. He and Dillon and Chester go off riding to get him. Doc Adams then takes care of David, and we know that pretty soon, he’ll take care of Billy, and all will be well.
Except that that’s not what happens. David dies, and so does Billy.
Mrs. Gabriel is aghast. She wanted Billy to get sick, as leverage to get the doc to return to help her son, but she didn’t want to kill the kid.
But once they got cholera, neither of them stood a chance, Doc says.
“They’d have both died, whether I had been here or not,” Doc Adams said, and then he referenced both the limitations of 19th century medicine and the crazy things people will do when they declare war against each other. Doc Adams laments: “I don’t know how to cure cholera any more than I do insanity.”
Did Gunsmoke get it right, with its depiction of cholera?
Essentially, yes. Cholera is a bacteria disease that causes diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration, none of which are seen in the Gunsmoke episode, fortunately. But there was cholera in the Old West – and it came from people traveling across the country and spreading it. They wouldn’t spread it from person to person, but if you drank the same water, you could give it to somebody else. So with the Gabriels’ had family coming from the East, it’s easy to imagine everyone drinking from the same cups of water.
How “Trackdown” Handled a Pandemic
Unfortunately, Trackdown (1957-1959), which starred Robert Culp and for a couple years aired on the cable channel MeTV, appears to now be available, nowhere. But I’d be remiss to not mention that in 1957, during the second season, Trackdown aired an episode called “Terror.” It was about a typhoid epidemic.
I caught the first half of the episode during the spring or early summer of 2020, when Covid-19 was going strong, and there were no vaccines yet, and lockdowns were still popular, and I was riveted. I had to leave the house, and I never caught the ending. But all I can say is, what I saw of the episode was gripping. Trackdown actually really dealt with the pandemic.
During a time when we were all practicing social distancing, it was a little jolting to see Culp’s character, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, and the townspeople all doing their best to not get close to each other, lest they catch the disease. No idea how the episode ends, however.
Did Trackdown get its depiction of typhoid right?
Well, let’s just say that Hoby Gilman and the others were correct to try and stay away from each other. While the show was probably set in the 1870s or 1880s, as most of TV westerns seem to be, this was an era in which typhoid was not widely understood, but everyone knew it to be highly contagious and deadly. In 1864, the fatality rates for typhoid fever were 60 percent.
So it appears that Trackdown probably was fairly accurate in how it showed a tiny western town completely rattled by the appearance of typhoid in their community.
How “Little House on the Prairie” Handled Pandemics (well, Epidemics)
The townsfolk in Little House on the Prairie were always up against incredible odds, with the Ingalls family certainly being one of the unluckiest (or luckiest, depending on one’s point of view and given that the family members all managed to survive the series, except for the baby, Charles Frederick Ingalls, who was born and died in Episode 114).
So maybe it should be no surprise that the town of Walnut Grove had brushes with not one but five epidemics during the course of the series:
- In the 1975 episode “Plague,” they were up against typhus, which is not to be confused with typhoid fever.
- In the 1977 episode, “Quarantine,” Walnut Grove has an encounter or scare with mountain fever.
- In the 1979 episode, “Mortal Mission,” Walnut Grove deals with an outbreak of anthrax.
- In the 1982 episode, “A Faraway Cry,” Caroline and Doc Baker travel to a mining camp to take care of people sick with influenza.
- In the 1983 episode, “A Child With No Name,” Laura and Almanzo’s daughter Rose becomes sick with smallpox.
They’re all entertaining episodes, but “Plague” is, in my opinion, the best to watch – if you’re ever looking for something to view that will remind you of Covid-19. (Sure, why would you want that? But just saying.)
For instance, “A Child With No Name,” while it involves Laura and Almanzo’s daughter, Rose, catching smallpox – about as contagious and deadly a disease as you’d want – it’s really an episode more about Laura Ingalls blaming Doc Baker for the death of her baby boy (a death that actually happened to Laura Ingalls in real life).
But in “Plague,” anyone who has experienced Covid-19 will definitely recognize elements of their own lives – especially from the early days of the pandemic when we were all a little bewildered and uncertain by everything and going into lockdowns and social distancing.
In “Plague,” the episode opens with Charles’ employer, Mr. Hanson, struggling to compete with another businessman, Mr. Peterson, who is selling cornmeal for a cheaper price and making a killing, since a lot of townspeople are snatching it up.
Meanwhile, Laura has a toothache. In other words, it’s a typical week in Walnut Grove.
But while Laura is getting her tooth looked by Doc Baker, a townsperson, Eric Boulton, shows up. Boulton explains that his boy has a fever.
“He’s had it a couple of days now,” Boulton says.
“Well, can't you bring him in?” Doc Baker asks.
“Well, I was hoping you could come out,” Boulton says. “He’s so weak from the fever. I hate to bundle him up and take him.”
Doc Baker promises that he’ll be out to see the boy in the afternoon. He pays a house call, and indeed, Boulton’s son, Paul, is sick. So is Paul’s mother. Soon Doc is warning the townspeople at church that there may be something going around, and that everybody should go home – and stay home. Yes, the town of Walnut Grove is going into a lockdown. Nobody’s going to school. People are advised to work from their laptops at home (oh, sorry, wrong century). Everybody needs to stay put in Walnut Grove.
From the congregation, Lars Hanson, founder of Walnut Grove, asks: “What do you think it is?”
Doc Baker looks pained. “I’m not sure, but I think it’s typhus.”
It is. The next day, Charles Ingalls finds a husband and wife, deathly ill, trying to steer their wagon but passed out, and brings them to the doctor’s office. Doc Baker sees a rash on the husband, which confirms it.
“It's typhus. There'll be more now,” Doc Baker says, referring to more cases. “There's no way to tell how many.”
Doc Baker quickly decides that they’ll turn the church into a hospital. They’ll need as many sheets as the Oleson Mercantile can spare. Because they'll need to pack patients in ice in order to bring down the fever, Doc Baker says that they will also want a key to the ice house, which really was a popular thing back in the old days. These ice houses were often insulated with sawdust, and so throughout the 1800s, there were quite a few newspapers with stories of ice houses burning down.
But we digress.
Charles Ingalls to the Oleson Mercantile and calls for Nels, who looks out from the window of his home over the store.
“I’ll be right down, Ingalls,” Nels says.
“No, no, stay there,” Charles says. “It’s typhus, Nels. I’ve been exposed to it.”
Yes, wisely, Charles Ingalls was practicing social distancing. Doc Baker had told him to not go around his wife and kids, and he was extending that courtesy – of not spreading typhus – to Mr. Oleson as well. So Charles tells Nels that Doc needs sheets and blankets, and that he’s going to make a hospital out of the church.
“You’re welcome to anything I’ve got in the storeroom,” Nels says. “At cost.”
No, no, he doesn’t really say that last part. Mr. Oleson was the greatest. You want a good role model, you could do worse than look to Mr. Oleson (and quite a few of the characters on Little House on the Prairie, for that matter).
“I don’t want to go into your place,” Charles says, thinking of the germs he could bring in. “Take everything you can over to the church and just leave it there.’
“I’ll do it right away,” Nels says.
Of course he will. That’s just the kind of guy Mr. Oleson was.
Things get bleak in this episode. When Reverend Alden shows up to help, Doc Baker asked him to go ask Oleson for more supplies to leave outside the church, including shovels.
“We’ll have to bury the dead right away,” Doc Baker says, in case the reverend somehow missed the point.
More things happen. Charles finds Eric Boulton with his dead son, Paul, in his arms, in completely denial about what has happened. It’s a pretty sad and creepy moment. A nicer moment is when Charles stops by Mr. Edwards’ place and refers to him as best friend.
Flash forward to three days later, and Charles brings another townsperson, a guy named Tom Carter, to the church. That makes 11 people who have gotten sick with typhus.
Doc Baker is getting discouraged.
“I thought by keeping everyone apart, we'd have a chance, but... I just don't know," Doc Baker says. "We have people in there from all over. Family from here, a family from there, and it's spreading. I don't know why. If we could only find the source.”
Eventually, Charles puts everything together and finds the source: a shed full of cornmeal. Peterson, who himself got very sick and possibly died – it isn’t clear but seems likely -- has been selling the cornmeal, real cheap, and now we know why. His shed is infested with rats, and the rats carry fleas, which are carry the typhus.
Charles Ingalls and Doc Baker burn the shed down.
Did Little House on the Prairie get its depiction of typhus right?
A little too right. Typhus was a deadly disease, and it ran rampant in the United States during the 1800s, but it was generally a city disease because, you know, an abundance of rats. So you typically didn’t see typhus in little towns like Walnut Grove, based on the research I’ve done, anyway. Still, Little House on the Prairie offers up the logical reason that if there were hundreds of rats infesting a shed of cornmeal, that it could happen. So, okay.
But even more curious is that Charles Ingalls knew that fleas carried typhus, as he told Laura. That’s something that wouldn’t be discovered until 1913. But, you know, Charles Ingalls was a really smart guy, often ahead of the times, and so I’m going to give him a pass. Maybe “Pa” was just hazarding a guess, based on his farming intuition.
That a country doctor such as Hiram Baker was familiar with the rash that typhus victims get is impressive, but he could have read that in a medical book, or maybe he did some training back East. He was a smart guy, so we’ll give him a pass, too.
How “Superstore” Handled a Pandemic
Quite a few TV series in 2020 and 2021 addressed Covid-19 in some way. The Conners spent numerous episodes dealing with it – and did a very good job. Brooklyn Nine-Nine covered it. But Superstore seemed to lean into it in a way that I don’t think any other TV series in the Covid-19 era quite pulled off. As Vulture.com put it, Covid-19 was practically a character in the sixth season of Superstore. The sitcom dealt with the virus in every episode in their last season.
Did Superstore get it right, with its depiction of Covid-19?
Absolutely. Historians someday will want to look at Superstores sixth season. Seriously. They’ll be jotting down – and laughing – at scenes such as…
- The department store, Cloud 9, somewhere in St. Louis, is out of just about everything, and so a customer comes into the breakroom and snatches a jar of pasta sauce, saying that she needs it for medical reasons. Dina (Lauren Fox), the assistant store manager, plans to give pursuit, but not right away. “I’m gonna chase you,” she says, hanging back. “I’m just waiting for six feet.”
- When customers fight over limited grocery items, Garrett (Colton Dunn), the store announcer, gets on the microphone and says, “Attention shoppers, we ask that you please not physically wrestle things from your fellow customers. There's a highly contractable virus out there that our country does not have a hold of. None of y'all are listening, huh? Alright, enjoy the apocalypse!”
- Dina has another fun moment where she discusses how store employees were considered essential during the pandemic: “We are essential. Customers are like sheep looking for guidance. Without leaders, sheep start to eat each other. So unless one of us leads, this place is gonna be littered in haggis from here to Sunday.”
By the fourth episode, Jonah (Ben Feldman) is frustrated that Cloud 9 is having a big sale to lure people into the store, which, of course, would mean crowds – during a pandemic.
“So, Cloud 9 just thinks that the pandemic is over?” Jonah asks Garrett. “Because I'm pretty sure nobody told the pandemic that.”
“You gotta look at it from corporate's perspective,” Garrett says. "They love money, and they don't care if we die.”
“Ah, yeah, that makes sense,” Jonah says.
Throughout the season, the pandemic recedes a little in the background – but never for too long. Somebody’s always wearing a mask. Everybody’s tired of the pandemic.
Glenn Sturgis, the store manager (sometimes; his title changes a lot in the series), describes 2020 pretty aptly in one episode: “People have been working non-stop for so long and risking their health. You know, and then, we didn't even get Christmas! You know, we had to stay at home eating bologna sandwiches and watching church on Facebook Live. People have missed out on so much.”
Covid-19 has never been a laughing matter, but somehow, Superstore managed to wring some amusement out of the pandemic, anyway. And that is why television and most forms of entertainment, whether a TV show, movie, play, book or song, is essential. It's almost as integral to our way of living as the nurses, doctors, store clerks, truck drivers and all of the other people who keep society humming along, pandemic or not.
Where to watch these shows (at the time of this writing): Gunsmoke seems to be everywhere, including the cable channel MeTV and PlutoTV.com. Trackdown seems to be nowhere, for free. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. You can find the entire series of Little House on the Prairie on PeacockTV.com, for free (you’ll have to watch a few ads but not many). You can also find it on the cable channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, even though the TV series was neither a movie nor a mystery show. And Superstore can be found on the aforementioned PeacockTV.com and Hulu.com.
Articles similar to this classic TV pandemic story: Thankfully, this is the only article on The TV Professor that is about pandemics. If you want something medical related, maybe this story about the health tips you can pick up by watching Columbo?