Artists sometimes have this romantic notion that by stripping everything down — by having fewer resources, not more — they’ll do their best work. You see this tendency when a superstar band makes their new album in a cheap little studio, or a blockbuster director makes their next film on a shoestring budget. The idea is that all the extra money and advantages actually impair creativity, sapping the crucial urgency, ingenuity and hunger that artists have when they’re starting out and trying to prove themselves. Great creative work needs an obstacle or a challenge. At least that’s the thinking, anyway.
So how come so much of the quarantine art we’ve received so far has been bad?
Taylor Swift’s Folklore, which she wrote and recorded during the lockdown, is a happy exception, but when it comes to narrative programs — TV episodes, streaming series, “special events” — few writers and directors have risen to the challenge. Not that that keeps them from trying: The latest such program, the Netflix anthology series Social Distance, is a heartfelt attempt to both confront the difficulties of telling stories in a pandemic and try to make sense of an emotionally turbulent year. Created by Hilary Weisman Graham, one of the writers and producers on Orange Is the New Black, it’s a hit-or-miss affair, containing some really touching segments and some you wish they’d not bothered including. But overall, Social Distance underlines all the obstacles that quarantine entertainment faces. If this pandemic keeps on stretching until late next year, maybe showrunners will finally be able to fix these deficiencies. But I don’t want to wait that long.
Social Distance consists of eight installments, each one clocking in around 20 minutes. Taking place in the early months of the COVID crisis, the segments (which don’t have any connective tissue) offer a smattering of different perspectives on how we’re all coping. One features an older married couple (starring real-life couple Becky Ann Baker and Dylan Baker) who discover that they have opposing priorities now that they’re in lockdown. On the flip side, a young gamer (Kylie Liya Page) works up the nerve to ask out her cute teammate (David Iacono), only to have the exchange play out very differently than she imagined. We meet a worried husband (Peter Scanavino) who discovers what life as a single dad would be like while his quarantined, COVID-infected wife (Ali Ahn) coughs her lungs out in the bedroom and refuses to go to the hospital. Meanwhile, a recovering alcoholic (Mike Colter) tries to stay sober while stuck at home alone, losing his mind about the fact that his ex-girlfriend seems to have moved on.
As the press notes advise us, each episode in the series is “told through a virtual lens and captures the unique emotional experience of being forced apart by circumstance and having no choice but to communicate remotely and rely on technology to maintain any sense of connection.” What that means is we see the episodes play out over Zoom chats, home-surveillance systems, smartphones and FaceTime. Obviously, there’s a novelty to this unconventional visual approach — we’re essentially watching people on screens, through our screen — but as the lockdown drags on and more shows try this approach, they can’t get around a dirty little secret, which is that they tend to look awful.
Never mind that movies like Unfriended and Searching years earlier innovatively exploited the screen-within-a-screen reality of our virtual lives — on the whole, it’s unappealing to watch stories told through the same prism that you “attend” amateurishly-produced graduation ceremonies or conduct chaotic workplace meetings. Even when the slipshod video quality of Zoom is part of the joke — like with this April’s solid, unspectacular A Parks and Recreation Special — you’re still looking at something that’s visually uninviting. And that’s to say nothing of the understandable makeup and hairstyling limitations that quarantine provides. Actors don’t just wake up beautiful — there’s work that goes into their look — and the unflattering lighting and flatness of the virtual lenses don’t help.
There’s also the problem that this format doesn’t play to a lot of actors’ strengths. As impressive as some of the virtual-theater performances have been, there’s often an awkwardness to the acting in Social Distance and other such programs. I talked about this a little with last month’s Coastal Elites, which was a collection of five monologues that ended up feeling stagy and inauthentic — presumably, the exact opposite effect you’d want if you’re trying to show us How We Live Now during quarantine.
Granted, most lockdown programming isn’t designed like Coastal Elites, but even in more conventional shows, there’s a sense that everybody’s a little rusty, their timing a little off. The most egregious example was 30 Rock: A One Time-Special, in which the lively rapport that Emmy-winning show once delivered on a yearly basis had seemingly evaporated. Sure, you can blame the writing, too — seriously, the whole special was an excuse to do a lame extended NBC/Peacock promo — but the air of naturalness that actors usually convey was nowhere in evidence.
Social Distance is a little better in this regard than earlier programs, but you never forget that just about no actor is in the same space as his co-stars. It’s a subtle difference, but you sense the disconnect — just like how seeing a friend in person is simply more satisfying than talking on the phone or engaging on FaceTime. Perhaps that’s why one of the anthology’s most striking episodes involves a rising disagreement between a frustrated young Black man (Asante Blackk) and his more measured boss (Ayize Ma’at), who’s an event coordinator, about whether they should skip the graduation ceremony they’ve been hired to film for a white private school when people are protesting in the streets over George Floyd’s murder. It’s one of the rawest installments, and part of that emotion comes from the fact that the two actors are right in front of one another, debating face-to-face. It’s a livelier exchange than just about anything else in Social Distance.
Speaking of Black Lives Matter, the Netflix series admirably tries, in a couple installments, to address the most pressing social issue that’s sprung up since the COVID crisis began, while also tackling the fragility of our health-care system and the sort of ancillary anxieties (like alcoholism and depression) that too easily get ignored amidst bigger front-page news. Social Distance does a good job of being ethnically diverse, as well as spanning different age groups — there’s a commendable attempt to make the show as truly universal and inclusive as possible.
And yet, as with Coastal Elites, it’s very hard for Social Distance’s commentary to feel especially trenchant. Everything in our lives is still in flux — no one knows exactly where this all is headed. (Coastal Elites had the additional challenge of trying to offer definitive portraits of liberals in 2020, which sometimes resulted in cartoonish depictions.) Writers are doing their best to reflect the magnitude of this mightily terrible year, but the truth is we’re all still too shell-shocked to entirely make sense of it. Artists can provide perspective, but none of us are far enough removed from the current circumstance to adequately define what this period of our lives means.
But perhaps what’s worst of all about quarantine entertainment is that, despite its desire to provide insight or comfort to viewers, a program like Social Distance can’t help but come across as slightly privileged. To be clear, we’re light-years removed from Gal Gadot’s titanically cringe-y “Imagine” singalong, but nonetheless, watching the anthology’s actors playacting COVID dilemmas is a reminder that they’re the fortunate ones. Granted, the actors and filmmakers may have lost loved ones to the virus — we can’t know the pain they’re enduring — but I find myself pushing back against storytellers who want to create fictional scenarios around this ongoing tragedy. (I have yet to try NBC’s new Zoom-based, silly-but-also-serious sitcom Connecting for this very reason.)
To be fair, there are some really moving episodes of Social Distance that speak to what has been permanently lost because of this crisis, but when a particular episode is a little too glib or gimmick-y — when a scenario feels more like a “fun” dramatic exercise than a genuine expression of our shared trauma — I start to understand why some people instinctively hate Hollywood’s self-absorbed do-gooderism.
Maybe that’s why TikTok has taken off during quarantine. While professional creative types are laboring under an old set of rules about how to make entertainment, a swarm of proudly unprofessional, everyday people are happily shooting short videos that show off their sense of humor or untapped ingenuity. Even when they’re just silly bits of content, TikTok videos are inherently commenting on our quarantine reality — they’re the things we’re making during lockdown to keep ourselves sane and amuse anyone who cares to watch. Because they don’t try so hard, they’re far more satisfying than what the big studios have come up with.
On the one hand, I don’t want to be too critical of mainstream quarantine entertainment. In their heart of hearts, these storytellers are simply trying to respond to this harrowing moment in the only way they know how, deciding that saying nothing would be worse than attempting something imperfect but sincere. But frequently during Social Distance, I was reminded of a familiar sensation when watching lockdown-centric series: This is a pretty mediocre representation of what I’m going through.
And I think that, ultimately, is the problem with these programs. Each of us is experiencing this lockdown — each of us has his own unique story that’s ongoing — and so we don’t really need entertainers to invent that drama and dark humor. No matter how talented they are, they can’t match the bitter comedy and anguished uncertainty that’s now our daily lives.