Over the past few years, telling a story largely through computer screens has become its own subgenre of horror. First came The Den in 2013, an actual-horror spin on the social horror of sites like Chatroulette. Then came Unfriended, the 2014 teen movie about cyberbullying gone (even further) awry. Then came Searching, the 2018 surprise hit starring John Cho as a panicked father.
But this is 2020, when all our lives are a horror movie. And so a stylistic stretch that began as a way to earn big scares with a small budget has become part of a broader attempt to reflect The Way We Live Now—which, these days, is mostly on our screens.
The Netflix anthology series Social Distance is the latest, glossiest, and most formally diverse of these efforts. Perhaps relatedly, it’s not the first. Created by Orange Is the New Black writer Hilary Weisman Graham, executive produced by Jenji Kohan, and starring a cast that includes such Kohan-verse alumni as Danielle Brooks, Sunita Mani, and Tami Sagher, Social Distance is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of stories set during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, captured with an eclectic mix of recorded video calls, shared screens, home surveillance cameras, and even animation. It’s the most polished example yet of what might be called QuaranTV: entertainment produced under, and defined by, the constraints of an airborne virus without a vaccine. Social Distance arrives just in time to put the cherry on top of what’s already become a time capsule. More QuaranTV may still come, like the workplace comedy Remote that’s in development at CBS All Access. But as in-person production tentatively starts up again, shows like Social Distance and its peers are settling into what they were always designed to become: a strange, ingenious dispatch from a strange time that demands ingenuity.
Like most episodic anthologies, Social Distance is understandably uneven. It can err on the mawkish end of the emotional spectrum, as in episodes dedicated to a chaotic Zoom funeral or a dad trying to explain his wife’s illness to their young son. There’s also the inevitable awkwardness of actors addressing lengthy monologues directly to the camera, a practice that triggers phantom pains of art school earnestness even in those who didn’t attend. And the premise has the unmistakable whiff of a shared writing exercise; “write an episode shot entirely on screens” feels like the third week in a workshop that starts with “write an episode with no dialogue” and “write an episode that fails the reverse Bechdel test.”
Yet Social Distance can also recall High Maintenance, the gold standard for episodic anthologies with a seemingly narrow concept that broadens over time. (Max Jenkins, an actor who’s recurred on High Maintenance as half of a terrible twosome, costars in an episode.) The weakest episodes are the ones that try to match the world-historical scope of the pandemic with major life events like the death of a patriarch or a relapse into addiction. The best are the ones that show how the small disruptions of everyday life continue among the major ones: two teenagers work up the courage to confess their feelings for each other; a married couple, played by actual spouses Dylan and Becky Ann Baker, share anxieties about their impending retirement; live-in partners try to open up their relationship, albeit safely. At around 20 minutes apiece, the episodes’ structure is closer to a sitcom than a drama. As is Kohan’s signature, the tone is a keenly realistic mix of both.
Besides, the obviousness of Social Distance’s limitations makes it all the more commendable when its writers, performers, and directors manage to push through them. An actor of Brooks’s caliber is able to sell the awkward hilarity and anxious struggle of trying to babysit a child over FaceTime. The Zoom meeting is an obvious template for a pandemic-friendly group scene, but what about a Discord chat, or two avatars in a virtual reality game? That Social Distance can struggle to make its characters’ interactions seem natural is no surprise to viewers who’ve winced through the awkward social cadence of a desktop happy hour. It’s the moments of genuine emotion, hilarity, or connection that disarm.
Social Distance’s accomplishments also stand out against less successful, or even just less ambitious, examples of QuaranTV. Last month, HBO aired Coastal Elites, a collection of five star-studded monologues directed by Jay Roach and scripted by Paul Rudnick. A feature-length presentation, Coastal Elites is more unrelenting than Social Distance’s rapid sequence of 20-minute chapters. (By now, everyone knows that half an hour on a video conference call is worth an hour of in-person meetings.) That impression is only compounded by Coastal Elites’ format, in which five actors address the camera for up to 20 minutes at a time in a single take. Roach and Rudnick attempt to make up for the visual monotony with the high profile of their cast, composed of Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, Issa Rae, and Kaitlyn Dever.
As for substance, Coastal Elites is an attempted satire of a worthy target: Trump Derangement Syndrome, the collective hysteria among liberals now made worse by an impending election and months spent indoors. But over its 88 minutes, Coastal Elites turns into the very mode it’s making fun of. It starts with Bette Midler’s Resistance Grandma type, a collection of obvious-if-accurate punch lines about Jewish boomers who worship The New York Times; it ends with a groan-worthy twist—the revelation that Katilyn Dever’s nurse has been caring for a COVID patient who is actually Bette Midler. Midler’s character starts as an object of gentle critique, but Coastal Elites can’t resist turning her into a tear-jerking martyr. Alongside Paulson’s lament for her MAGA family and Rae’s pure fan fiction about hanging out with Ivanka, it’s an apt illustration of a certain left-leaning mindset, just not in the way it thinks.
Connecting…, on NBC, is more modest in its aims. Network television is forever in search of ways to tweak evergreen templates with a twist of novelty: the medical drama where the hero has autism; the workplace comedy about blue-collar retail workers. Seen through this lens, QuaranTV presents an obvious opportunity. Sure enough, Connecting… is a classic friendship sitcom told in relatively innovative fashion. Last week’s premiere laid out a tried-and-true group dynamic among its diverse, telegenic stars: a will-they, won’t-they; a perhaps improbable mix of professions and lifestyles; a moment of dramatic tension broken by a cutesy joke. In this case, the tension comes from a New York doctor venting about the horrors of her job, and the joke is about the Clippers being unable to resume their thus-far winning season. (The episode is set in March, pre-bubble and pre-Clippers implosion.)
In its way, Connecting… is as much a signal of a modified status quo as the renewed spate of flesh-and-blood productions. Behind the scenes, remote filming was a tremendous logistical lift. But where Social Distance and Coastal Elites highlight the surreality of this extended purgatory, Connecting… embraces convention as comfort. Some QuaranTV highlights how different the pandemic feels from the lives we lived before. Elsewhere it shows how certain dynamics, and time-tested ways of structuring TV, remain eternal. Either way, the result is the rare form of storytelling whose best-case scenario is to become obsolete. Regardless of quality, the sooner we can look back on QuaranTV as a temporary curiosity, the better for us all.