Netflix’s ‘Social Distance’ Cuts Too Close to Home: TV Review

“Social Distance,” a new Netflix anthology series comprised of short vignettes of life in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S., presents critics as well as viewers with a conundrum. On the one hand, it is, in the main, unimpeachably made: Using isolation-appropriate technology like Zoom and Nest cameras to tell what are generally sweet and thoughtful little tales of human connection, or disconnection, at a time of crisis, the show is a worthy use of Netflix resources. But is it worth watching? Only for those eager to relive what were for most of us months of dislocation and pain. This is simultaneously a creative response to the trauma of the past year and not quite transformative enough to possibly be recommended on grounds other than masochistic completism, a curiosity about how TV is addressing its moment that leaves the viewer’s comfort aside.

To wit: The show’s eight episodes take place entirely in the months of April and May of this year; not that things are good today, but the early days of confusing misinformation and early attempts to come to terms with how we were forced to live now were misery. This viewer felt a painful, tooth-grinding familiarity at jokes about a relative being accidentally muted in one episode, which takes place during a Zoom funeral. It’s an occasion just loopy enough to look slightly different from the ways all of us used Zoom, and yet not quite removed enough to be novel, or to say something unexpected. What purpose does simply being true-to-life serve when the truth being depicted, of our society-wide enforced isolation, is still so fresh and so raw? Aspects of the episode (with an ensemble cast led by Oscar Nunez) were funny enough, but there didn’t seem to be enough of a meaningful takeaway — members of this squabbling family ultimately vow to get together when they can — to justify the sit.

So it goes throughout the first six episodes: Frank and open-hearted conversations that tend to deliver us to a terminus we might have reasonably expected. This show is created by “Orange Is the New Black” writer Hilary Weisman Graham and executive-produced by Jenji Kohan, and it shares “Orange’s” impulse towards wringing something of worth out of national cataclysm. But that prison drama had the good fortune of working with characters we came to know over years: What happened to them felt less didactic, because these were people we knew, not just people getting us to the punchline. The show’s multifarious curiosity — about, say, a gay couple (Brian Jordan Alvarez and Max Jenkins) exploring their curiosity about monogamy in quarantine, or about a nurse (Danielle Brooks) trying to balance her elder client with the need to raise her daughter — is admirable. But in those cases and others, the show’s unique staging, using footage that might have been captured through these unhappy folks’ smartphones and computers, tends to expose how laboriously built towards a pithy moral lesson these stories are.

Creative though the means of depicting these lives through consumer technology is, it also exposes each story’s every weak spot, up to and including that having done so much work to set up these moral tales, the show tends to have little to say. Relationships are affirming, when all parties involved put in the work. It’s difficult not to see those we love. COVID-19 has made life really crazy; things are hard. The series moves towards addressing the national uprising around racial justice towards its conclusion, both effectively (through the story of a young man played by Asante Blackk and his coming into consciousness around racial justice) and less so (another character’s travails come to seem vastly less significant to them when they learn of the killing of George Floyd — a real phenomenon perhaps, but a rather trite and unworthy use of real footage of national upheaval to generate the contrast).

And yet the attempt is admirable. TV as a medium is agile enough to have produced a show that stands as a response to the events of this year, which is a start: The first draft of the prestige-streamer show about the COVID-19 era is now complete, and someone had to do it.  (In aspects, this series resembles the remotely-shot HBO series of monologues “Coastal Elites,” although that show was based on work the screenwriter Paul Rudnick had written before the pandemic: This is, then, a first of a sort.) What lies ahead for TV are shows that integrate the isolation and loneliness of 2020 into the lives of existing characters, or that do so in search simply of the truth rather than the carefully constructed ending notes of each “Social Distance” episodes. “Social Distance” has shown what some first steps towards a culture-wide artistic response to the moment might be, once enough time has passed that we want to relive this past spring and that artists can respond in a deeper way. It also shows us what are the pitfalls of responding too soon.

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