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It would be impossible to capture in several episodes, or even several seasons, of television just how strange it’s been to live through Pandemic 2020. Yet, the new Netflix anthology series Social Distance, from the team behind Orange Is the New Black, definitely has a knack for tapping into the odder realities of this moment, from the mundane to the momentous. In the dramedy’s screen-based world of Zoom funerals and remote learning, VR chats and Grindr hookups, a cast of familiar faces — including OITNB‘s Danielle Brooks, Scandal‘s Guillermo Díaz, and Will & Grace‘s Brian Jordan Alvarez — reflect the myriad ways people are staying connected, while forced to remain apart.
Creator Hilary Weisman Graham says the series started as “a crazy idea” she had in early March, when COVID-19 lockdowns first altered our sense of what it means to be distant. “It was Monday, March 16th, that I woke up in a full-scale panic,” she says. “This is basically right after the first weekend, where we were all processing the closure of the New York City school system, and like Tom Hanks had it, and all of that, when it was like, ‘Oh, shit, shit’s getting real.’ And I was in a panic thinking about all of it.”
All of it, for Graham, as with anyone else, included her own livelihood as a TV writer and screenwriter. “What studio or network is going to let us into a soundstage with two hundred other people, and really ancient ventilation systems, and make a movie or TV show? Why would they want to pay for it? I mean, writers are neurotic, prone to paranoid spiraling,” she jokes. “And then out of that, came this idea. It’s like, ‘Well, this is the only way we can do it. We’ll have to shoot remotely.'”
After kicking the concept around with award-winning OITNB producers Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann for about a week, Graham was eager to get the show on the road. “I remember just being like, ‘I bet other people are going to think of something like this — we have to go to Netflix.’ I texted Jenji and she’s like, ‘I already emailed them.’ We ended up pitching it to Netflix on March 31. April 20 we started in the writers room. And June 12, we started shooting.”
Social Distance conveys that immediacy both in its storylines, which generally steer clear of overt politics, and in the array of apps and devices that characters use to stay connected. In the show’s fourth episode, for example, a gay couple (played by Alvarez and Max Jenkins), at odds over lockdown housekeeping, turns to a Grindr threesome to spice up the monotony. The episode’s writer, Anthony Natoli, says he didn’t have to look farther than his phone for inspiration. “Day one of the two-week lockdown, I was still getting messages on every app to meet and hook up. And that did not stop throughout all of the lockdown,” he recalls.
“I just thought it was really interesting the way that the gay community that I was seeing, at least through the apps, was dealing with this thing, because it wasn’t expected. And my status on the apps was ‘Not Meeting,’ like ‘Chat Only,’ or whatever. But a lot of people were not on that same page. It’s just, I guess, the reality.”
Intent on portraying many dimensions of an unprecedented reality, the show isn’t intended as an historical record of the pandemic. “It’s about a moment in time,” says Graham. “And about our feelings and about the complexity of it all and the everyday emotional rollercoaster that’s sometimes like a minute-by-minute emotional rollercoaster.
“Listen, I think that a lot of people turn to TV to escape, and I often do, too. I’m very much looking forward to the newest episode of The Great British Baking Show tonight. Wonderful. But it’s not always why I turn to TV. I think another reason is that people want to see stories that feel relevant to them. They want to see their lives reflected. And this is what our lives look like right now. We have such a diverse slate of stories, and within that, there’s hope in every story, or at least a little bit. And laughter, and a lot of sadness.
“Coming from Orange is the New Black, we were really threading the needle between tragedy and comedy all the time,” she continues. “You know, it’s women in prison. That is not happy. And we made it fun and funny, because that’s what life is and that’s what people do. And that’s part of what hope is: bringing joy and humor to something. But at the same time, we’re not like, ‘The pandemic’s so hilarious.’ You know, it’s just we’re hoping that people find catharsis and are entertained.”
Social Distance streams on Netflix starting October 15. Visit www.netflix.com.
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