It’s perfectly understandable that the TV industry’s creative types are eager to work, to tell stories, seven months into a pandemic that’s wreaked economic and emotional havoc worldwide. Stories, after all, can be a comfort in times of suffering. It’s less clear why anyone in Hollywood thinks there’s an appetite for shows about the COVID-quarantine misery the world is literally still living through. Dear God, guys, could you give us a few years? Perhaps let this tragedy steep in some much-needed time before serving it up to us as entertainment?
Nope. Two new series attempt to capture our current state of COVID-quarantine anxiety: NBC’s comedy Connecting, currently airing Thursdays, and Netflix’s anthology Social Distance, premiering today. Only one comes close to succeeding — though neither feels particularly welcome.
Connecting follows a group of friends in Los Angeles, who meet up for regular video hangouts (remember when we thought those were fun?) during the first several months of the pandemic. It’s a very 2020 variety pack of sitcom characters: Cheerful marrieds Michelle (Jill Knox) and Garrett (Keith Powell); pink-haired writer Annie (Otmara Marrero), who has a thing for Michelle’s newly-single brother Ben (Preacher Lawson); high-strung gay dad Pradeep (Parvesh Cheena); paranoid genius Rufus (Ely Henry); and wisecracking sports fanatic Ellis (Shakina Nayfack). They interact with each other via laptop, filling our screen in a shifting grid of Zoomscape squares.
A lot of logistical creativity went into making Connecting, which was created by Blindspot’s Martin Gero and Brendan Gall: Everyone worked from home, the cast filmed themselves on phones, and they also managed light and sound equipment with remote guidance from the crew. The effort and ingenuity is very commendable. But everything about Connecting — starting with the groaner of a title — is painfully on the nose. The characters speak in platitudes (“I know it’s all different now — these screens and these apps, it’s harder to stay connected!”). In the first three episodes, the tone takes a hard-right turn from “kooky quarantine quibbles” to “appalling 2020 reality” — a shift that feels obligatory and clumsy rather than earned or particularly insightful. Will Cassie Beck’s Jazmine, the doctor who popped up in the final minutes of the season premiere to deliver a gut-wrenching monologue about the horrors of treating COVID patients, ever return? Or was she just there so the writers could check “shout-out to healthcare heroes” off their to-do list? One of tonight’s episodes features the gang arguing over strict quarantine rules for their upcoming trip to Big Bear. This is paired, ham-handedly, with the news of George Floyd’s murder. It would take an exceptional series to make this kind of jarring transition work — though I’m not sure an exceptional series would want to.
Netflix’s Social Distance, the dramedy created by Orange is the New Black writer-producer Hilary Weisman Graham, fares better. We’re all now too familiar with the atmosphere of sameness that hangs over quarantine life, which makes Social’s anthology format — with its bigger variety of characters and deeper stories — very welcome. Like all anthologies, the episodes vary in quality, but unlike Connecting, Social Distance doesn’t lead with concept — it offers well-drawn characters with interesting pre-COVID lives who happen to be in quarantine. In “And we could all together/Go out on the ocean,” OITNB’s Danielle Brooks stars as Imani, a home health aide for a hilariously demanding ALS patient (played by Brooks’ mom, Larita), who’s forced to watch over her little girl (Rocco Luna) via webcam while she’s at work. What unfolds is a beautiful, meandering short story about mothers and daughters, trans-generational trauma, and whether Lyle Lovett lyrics qualify as poetry — all in just 19 minutes.
Even when Social Distance focuses on the pandemic — a desperate father (Peter Scanavino) cares for his toddler while his COVID-stricken wife (Ali Ahn) quarantines in a bedroom 10 feet away — there’s a humanity to the stories' specificity. In “Delete All Future Events,” an alcoholic (Mike Colter) tries to maintain sobriety while isolating, something recovering addicts work hard to avoid, while “A Celebration of the Human Life Cycle” centers on the surreal awkwardness of hashing out family tensions during a Zoom funeral. One episode about teenage gamers (“everything is v depressing rn”) ends with a graceless nod to George Floyd's death; the topic is handled far more deftly in the finale, "Pomp and Circumstance," in which two generations of Black men (Asante Blackk and Ayize Ma'at) argue fiercely over the whether the Black Lives Matter protests are helping or hurting their community.
So yes, if you are forced to watch a one of these pandemic-themed TV series, go with Social Distance. (But if you're in a position where someone is forcing you to watch a pandemic-themed TV series, perhaps it's time to dial 911.) Otherwise, go forth and stream whatever comforts you. I hear Emily in Paris is perfect this time of year. Connecting: C
Social Distance: B
Connecting airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. Social Distance is streaming now on Netflix.