When the pandemic hit, the main problem for television productions was how you could possibly make shows in these times. The next and related problem was how you could possibly make shows about these times.
Producers first tackled these related problems, technical and narrative, in special episodes like the “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” reunions, as well as in one-off episodes of ongoing series, including the CBS legal drama “All Rise,” and in specials like HBO’s awkward “Coastal Elites.”
The most notable thing about most of them is that they were done at all, but none of them had to sustain the approach for a full season. (An August Freeform four-episode series, “Love in the Time of Corona,” fell somewhere between the one-off special and the extended-series approach.)
This month, two series test whether you can make compelling television in and about a deadly global crisis while it’s still going on, and — as viewers have been burrowing into the before-times normalcy of shows like “The Office” — whether anyone wants to see that right now.
Both “Connecting…,” on NBC, and “Social Distance,” arriving Thursday on Netflix, are comedies. Maybe it makes sense: Just as “M*A*S*H” made dark comedy of the Korean War during the Vietnam War, the producers of these series must sense that asking people to escape a dire reality with more of that reality would be a tough sell without promising them at least theoretical laughs.
Some are more theoretical than others. The well-meaning but bland “Connecting …” doesn’t feel like an organic, fleshed-out story so much as a pandemic season of an existing, generic friends-hanging-out sitcom whose previous seasons you haven’t seen.
The comedy, from the “Blindspot” creator Martin Gero and his frequent collaborator Brendan Gall, centers on a group of friends in Los Angeles, now reduced to video chatting in between waiting for deliveries and doomscrolling the news.
Many of the major friend-comedy food groups are represented, with a pandemic spin on each situation and neurosis. The high-strung Pradeep (Parvesh Cheena) is being driven stir-crazy by his young kids. Garret and Michelle (Keith Powell and Jill Knox) guiltily find that their marriage is thriving as the world falls apart. And possibly-more-than-friends Annie (Otmara Marrero) and Ben (Preacher Lawson) find their will-they-won’t-they flirtation stymied by the they-can’t reality of quarantine.
The sitcom unfolds chronologically from the start of shelter-in-place orders. One of its pleasures is the attention to the details of those early days; we’ve spent enough time coping that pandemic nostalgia is actually a real, if unsettling, thing. Remember thermometer shortages? Remember making your own hand sanitizer? Remember sourdough?
“Connecting …” intersperses its quar-hangout humor with heavier realities. Ellis (Shakina Nayfack) is transgender, has lost her job in the recession and worries about paying for hormone treatments. Jazmin (Cassie Beck), a doctor in New York, drops in to deliver the reality from the Covid front lines.
It’s earnest, reasonably ambitious and lightly funny. But “Connecting …” lacks connection, its characters and dynamics too standard-issue to attach to. Too many of the quick-banter jokes feel as if they need a laugh track, and if you’re talking about 2020 in 2020, the kind of laughs that feel most believable come with a catch in the throat.
That’s the mode of the more-effective “Social Distance,” an eight-episode anthology comedy created by Hilary Weisman Graham of “Orange Is the New Black” (whose creator, Jenji Kohan, serves as a producer). As on “Orange,” the comedy of “Social Distance” is sharp, provocative and cathartic, and more often than not, it’s rooted in pain.
Though the episodes are short, some less than 20 minutes, watching them feels like entering the lives of full characters who have stories and conflicts that predate the pandemic and would be interesting even without it.
The episodes are like tight one-act stage plays, ranging from sex farce (a slight installment about a stir-crazy couple looking for a Covid-safe threesome) to just this side of melodrama.
In the episode “Delete All Future Events,” Ike (Mike Colter) an alcoholic, has a few months of sobriety under his belt when the lockdown hits and his girlfriend leaves him. The isolation hits twice as hard for someone in recovery. “Just focus on you,” his Alcoholics Anonymous friend Gene (Steven Weber) urges him over FaceTime. “If I focus on me any more, I’m going to get myself pregnant,” Ike answers.
Like other quarantine productions, “Social Distancing” has to accommodate the limitations of stitching together a lot of solo scenes. I found myself springing uneasily to attention when two actors shared physical space, a learned reflex from months of epidemiological stranger danger.
Sometimes “Social Distance” relies on family ties to get actors safely in the same scene, like the real-life married couple Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, playing retirees discovering that their life goals have drifted apart. (“Connecting …” does likewise with the wife and husband Knox and Powell, who shot scenes in their home.)
But “Social Distance” uses the limitations as a creative spur, grasping at all the platforms people use to connect virtually — not just Zoom but also online video games, TikToks, Grindr — and stitching them together into a new storytelling form. (“Connecting …” is less far-reaching in its use of formats, but it does manage to make an ersatz hangout of a virtual-reality poker room.)
The narrative form says something about life in quarantine, but it also captures digital life in 2020 generally. The season is organized chronologically, and as it moves forward the stories become less exclusively about the pandemic, just as life itself did with time.
The final episode, about Black video technicians setting up to shoot a virtual graduation for a largely white prep school, focuses on the racial-justice protests after the killing of George Floyd (which also comes up in “Connecting…,” more jarringly).
One of the stronger episodes, “everything is v depressing rn,” a sweet heart-wrencher about a teen gamer who is trying to give voice to a crush on a teammate, doesn’t inherently need to be a quarantine story at all — partly because it deals with a culture and a generation used to living in virtual space.
I was reminded, watching this episode, of one of the only pandemic specials I’ve seen that legitimately shined as an episode of TV: May’s quarantine episode of the Apple TV+ workplace-tech comedy “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.” (An animated episode of Pop’s “One Day at a Time” also stood out, but it was written before the pandemic and worked in a reference to the virus only tangentially.)
Touching and genuinely funny, the “Mythic Quest” episode used technology not as a stunt but as one of the ways its characters naturally communicate, taunting one another over group chats and dropping notes of concern into lines of code. The virtual interactions felt less like an emergency response than part of the show’s existing language.
“Connecting …” premiered to weak ratings, though that may be less a reflection of its quality than of the homebound’s interest in watching the homebound. It has become a cliché to say that TV has been an “escape” in the pandemic, but certainly one of its pleasures is that you can at least watch other people escape.
Whether or not any of these shows becomes a hit or a lasting classic, they’re pieces of history. If, God willing, the global emergency doesn’t drag on for years, they could be among our only pop-culture records of how people lived in the pandemic, captured by the tools people used in the pandemic.
They could even have a creative legacy. At their best, these shows have been more than curiosities and gimmicks. Like warmer-hearted versions of “Black Mirror,” pandemic productions are finding new tools to explore ways of living that had become more virtual and mediated long before any virus.
After all, the coronavirus didn’t create teleconferencing and online spaces. We haven’t done all of our real living in the real world for some time now.
The pandemic, and its makeshift entertainments, will pass. But figuring out how to capture our virtual lives could prove useful for storytellers long after we’re again able to share the same rooms, and the same soundstages.