My memories of 2020 refuse to coagulate, but a man sobbing over a houseplant on Instagram certainly feels like it could be one that does. It’s a moment too relatable to not solidify in the mind. Netflix’s new anthology series, Social Distance, is full of Covid-era moments like this. There’s a frantic dad trying to keep his child away from a sick spouse, and a small business owner scrambling to make virtual haircuts a thing. A working mother has to watch over her child via webcam. Partners are driven into bitter, sniping quarantine madness by their constant proximity. Families unravel over Zoom while one uncle can’t even figure out how to unmute himself. They are all people questioning crucial choices they made in a world that looked so different from the one that exists today. I know these people. I’ve been some of these people. That’s no small achievement for a show that tried to digest a global trauma so quickly that it should have come right back up.
Maybe Social Distance feels so honest because it was made at a social distance. The entire production—from conception to casting to shooting—has happened during quarantine, remotely. That’s not an entirely alien concept at this point. Zendaya is set to star opposite John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie, a film made by a cast and crew all quarantining together. Some TV shows (especially animated ones) have continued to produce episodes during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but often they’re cobbled together by combining scenes filmed remotely with footage that was already shot. The only people working within the constraints of quarantine in the same way Social Distance did are those making horror movies, which have always been drivers of innovation and can survive a bit of pixelated campiness. Social Distance, as a mostly serious drama, cannot. Yet it takes something viewers have seen a lot of this year—webcam views of people’s homes, smartphone shots—and turns them into something that feels incredibly real and intimate.
Perhaps that’s because the cast of Social Distance looks so damn familiar. It’s got Luke Cage star Mike Colter and Max Jenkins from Dead to Me. Also Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black, which is the Netflix show that’s had the clearest impact on Social Distance. Its showrunner, Hilary Weisman Graham, was a writer on Orange’s last season, and Jenji Kohan, who serves as one of Social Distance’s executive producers, was the show’s creator. Like OITNB, the tone of Social Distance wanders from humorous to poignant and back again. It also uses widely varied stories about a diverse group of characters to illustrate the human cost of a systemic problem that leaves them tiny and feeble. Say what you want about OITNB, but the specificity it afforded its characters was both rare and powerful, and it’s relieving to see that sensibility reborn on Social Distance.
Like OITNB before it, Social Distance also excels at giving those personalities space to expand, in ways both cute and cringe-y. Their wants and needs grate against each other, or overflow in a too-public setting, like when Colter’s unemployed barber loses it on Instagram after relapsing into an alcoholic funk. Another episode is a Zoom funeral for a man whose adult children can’t stop grousing at each other about whether virtual funerals are an abomination or not, which devolves into a rapid rehashing of old fights and rivalries like a Thanksgiving dinner table gone horribly wrong. While they bicker about who cared more, their father’s lover, a man they call uncle, sits literally muted. Throughout Social Distance, most people aren’t perceiving the people they’re interacting with, or themselves, with any kind of emotional accuracy.
Social Distance’s experiments with technology enhance this atmosphere of clumsy malaise rather than distract from it. Most of the characters don’t actively struggle with technology; rather, the disconnect comes from the way even savvy people interact with their devices, and how that looks on screen. They stare into lenses instead of eyes and sigh into microphones rather than ears. The result is that everyone is looking and speaking past each other, and hanging up a little too quickly. The only people who are exempt from these near misses are digital native teens, who seem far more comfortable in a video or virtual reality chat than anywhere else, and even their worlds are vulnerable to tech-mediated failure to communicate. A shy girl’s crush seems like a nice enough guy while they’re streaming, but then she finds the racism he was hiding on his finsta. Distance has made people abstract and unknowable, even when you have a security camera’s view into their lives.
If Social Distance demonstrates anything, it's that retreating into our own worlds has left us emotionally, empathetically impoverished. Fittingly, the show begins in April 2020 and ends in May, as the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began. People clash not just because they see the world differently, but because they experience the world differently. That problem is at the root of many real-world prejudices, and much of the tension between characters in Social Distance. If social distancing has marooned people inside their homes and inside themselves, then Netflix’s latest is about what happens when those private islands collide. Sometimes everything falls to rubble, but, more often than not, they rebuild for the better.