Netflix’s Social Distance is not the first piece of media to come out of the pandemic, but it represents an understanding between the audience and creators that we have passed a point of no return: The ~current moment~ is not a funny little blip we will look back on in disbelief, but a massive global trauma.
The 10-episode anthology series, executive produced by showrunner Hilary Weisman Graham along with Tara Herrmann, Blake McCormick, and Jenji Kohan, not only recognizes the bizarre reality of living through a pandemic, but looks at it through screens and lenses and long-distance connections — the way we now live our lives.
Each episode follows a different person or family as they cope with their unique challenges of the spring lockdown: a family funeral, prolonged isolation, simmering physical intimacy, and more. Between Haunting, Monsterland, and the Ryan Murphy universe, anthologies are having a moment, and in the case of Social Distance, the format helps solve the specific and increasingly unignorable production hindrances of COVID-19 preventing ensemble casts from gathering together unsafely.
But Social Distance stretches its format further than the average anthology. Not only does each episode jump to new characters, but they also experiment with the visual language of our new world. Where Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona opted for traditional camerawork, angles, and equipment, Social Distance (like a handful of other projects, including August’s Host) takes place entirely on digital devices, through Zoom, Instagram, Facetime, Discord, and more — the platforms we spend all day on anyway and which have connected us to the outside world like life rafts since winter.
A quiet energy hums throughout Social Distance, in its varied storylines and sturdy performances. While restaurants, museums, and essential businesses cautiously reopen in the United States, the arts industry remains in peril. Even the top tiers of Hollywood, with money and power aplenty, are seeing production delays and shutdowns after months of playing by the rules. There is palpable gratitude in every performance on Social Distance, the relief of actors, writers, and those behind the scenes doing what they do best and being able to do it professionally (as opposed to, say, singing a John Lennon song).
Every actor brings their A game, from Netflix darlings like Danielle Brooks to small-screen stalwarts Dylan and Becky Ann Baker. Child actors Rocco Luna and Leo Bai-Scanavino are exceptional, the former charming you with her energy and the latter repeatedly and effectively breaking your heart with every scene. Newcomer Kylie Liya Page should star in every teen movie, and it’s no secret by now that so should Asante Blackk.
The series also strikes the jarring tone of this reality, the ease with which we regularly slip from minor joys and setbacks to existential dread. An otherwise bubbly episode about teens and crushes that plays out in Overwatch and VR contains this deeply telling exchange:
Boy: [My mom is] worried i’m gonna be depressed lol
Boy: I guess bc there’s no school
Boy: and we’re trapped
Boy: and people are dying lol
Girl: Yeah everything’s v depressing rn.
It does come to a head more than once. A later episode features Ali Ahn as a young mother isolated in the bedroom to protect her family from the virus. While she fights the virus, her husband (Peter Scanavino) spirals, researching how to write his own will and how losing one or both parents will affect their child. Episode seven ends with the death of George Floyd, with the finale picking up as a young activist and his boss confront the generational divide in how they protect Black lives.
Social Distance was promoted with the kind of saccharine messages of humanity and togetherness that many of us have come to cringe at while the world steadily burns. But the show never actually forces those messages upon us. There is no sweeping montage of strangers Zooming, and often no similarities at all between these characters’ circumstances. Their connection is unspoken, just as it is in reality. It’s in the chuckle of acknowledgement we share at home when a character can’t unmute himself or someone smiles to themselves over a notification or message. Technology, for better or worse, is holding us together, making the distance bearable.
Social Distance is now streaming on Netflix.