Are we ready for a show about the early days of the pandemic? That’s going to be left up to the individual viewer. Netflix’s new anthology series Social Distance looks at many different quarantine experiences, particularly during the March – May period. Many of the segments are well-observed and interesting. Executive producer Jenji Kohan always knows how to put a fun, fresh spin on storylines. In some aspects, it felt nice to see some concerns and anxieties validated by various storylines. However, the pandemic is far from over, especially as new cases are higher now than they were in the early days. Is it too early to look back when we haven’t even made it out through the woods?
Star-power comes in handy in these short episodes. Some of the bigger names in the project help sell through some of the more tired concepts or provide fresh spins on the material. Orange is the New Black standout Danielle Brooks excels in episode three. She plays a retirement home nurse who is forced to spend all her time at work and take care of her young daughter solely through cameras in the house. Brooks’ character knows she must be upbeat at all times to keep morale high for her patients and daughter, but she also conveys weariness in these small pockets. Similarly, Becky Ann Baker and Dylan Baker instantly create believable characters as a retired couple who takes different approaches to the pandemic. Carolyn (Becky Ann Baker) goes back to work at the hospital to feel useful, while Neil (Dylan Baker) holes up in his home, trying to enjoy retirement while keeping his wife at a safe distance. Being a married couple, the two have a wonderful rapport that saves this from being an un-noteworthy chapter.
After eight episodes, the charm of the pandemic setting starts to wear thin. Only a few episodes throw interesting curveballs outside of their basic logline. One standout involves a gay couple (Max Jenkins and Brian Jordan Alvarez) whose relationship gets tested as they are forced to spend every moment together in quarantine. Their frustrations lead them to explore a “quarantine threesome” and leads to some pretty funny one-liners and physical humor. Mike Colter also stars in an early episode that takes an interesting spin on social media in quarantine. Ike (Colter), a recovering alcoholic, struggles with being alone during the pandemic and gains social media fame (and scorn) when he starts pretending his plant is his girlfriend. It’s treacly by the end, but has some inspired moments.
Arguably as seismic as the pandemic has been the outpouring of social justice protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other black people. Social Distance tries to deal with the racial tensions of the moment, albeit with mixed results. In one episode, Asante Blackk plays a young videographer who argues with his more conservative boss (Ayize Ma’at, Blackk’s actual Father) when he isn’t allowed time off work to attend a protest. The emotionally charged dynamic definitely captures the divide that was experienced in late May/throughout June. However, the subject matter is too large and weighty to be taken on in such a cavalier show. With past episodes being so lightweight, this meatier episode doesn’t carry the necessary weight and falls flat. Unfortunately, our current moment is too complex and fraught to be captured in a twenty minute two-hander.
While some episodes went down easier than others, one question lingered on after each episode. Why? It’s heartening to see an original anthology series get effectively made during quarantine. The production quality is high and the show uses technology in interesting ways to enhance each story. Yet, Social Distance doesn’t have much to say about 2020. Each episode basically ends with a shrug and a patronizing “we’ll get through this” button. We will get through this pandemic and will probably be greeted with many more shows and movies dramatizing this period in history. Let’s hope those future projects have a lot more narrative meat on their bones.
Social Distance premieres on Netflix on October 15th.