Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 14th, 2020
Social Distance (Hilary Weisman Graham = creator, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
A Netflix anthology series made up of 8 approximately 20-minute episodes, Social Distance, from creator Hilary Weisman Graham (a producer on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black), sets its different narratives against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, each one focusing on different people and/or families as they struggle with the new normal. Shot by its participants, who act, when in the same space, opposite spouses or relatives, Social Distance offers a variety of takes on the world of our current moment. Time will tell whether the stories age well, but for now, many of them address important issues of the day, from lockdown-induced isolation, the irritation of couples suddenly forced to spend every waking moment together, racial injustice and more. Though not all episodes are created equal, enough of them succeed on their individual terms to make the series as watchable as it is topical.
Most, but not all, of each part is photographed from what is by now a familiar visual perspective: the on-board camera of our computers or smart devices. Each story follows a similar three-act trajectory, with setup, conflict and payoff flowing in a well-structured arc. Sometimes the narrative moral feels forced, sometimes it works beautifully. The overall journey is from adequate to great, though even the lesser pieces have their moments. With actors like Becky Ann Baker (Holler), her husband Dylan Baker (The Misogynists), Danielle Brooks (Taystee from Orange Is the New Black), Mike Colter (Netflix’s Luke Cage), Oscar Nuñez (Oscar from NBC’s The Office) and more, there is no shortage of talent, and if the writing doesn’t always quite measure up, it still entertains, and then it’s time to move on to the next entry.
My favorites are the last two, episodes 7 and 8, entitled “everything is v depressing rn” and “Pomp and Circumstance.” In the former, Mia (Kylie Liya Page), a teenage girl, crushes on Jake (David Iacono), a boy in her virtual gaming group. She thinks he’s far too cool for her, yet her best friend encourages Mia to go for it, seeing in Jake’s behavior signs that he, too, is smitten. Just as things heat up (all remotely, of course), the episode takes a turn for the decidedly unexpected, as the Asian American Mia is suddenly confronted with all the racism surrounding coronavirus conspiracies. Given that I was initially annoyed at the adolescent-speak of the first half, centered on video games that mean nothing to me, I was surprised at how effective and affecting the final moments proved to be.
In the eighth episode, college student Corey (Asante Blackk, Netflix’s When They See Us) finds himself at decided odds with his boss, John (played by Black’s real-life father, Ayize Ma’at), an event videographer, when the latter insists that Corey stay for the graduation gig he has finally managed to book (the first in a long time), even though there is a #BlackLivesMatter protest happening nearby. Both African American, through a generation apart, the two men passionately argue their positions, the one stating that supporting Black businesses is the best way of uplifting the race, the other believing that the time is now to make one’s voice heard. There is no resolution to their disagreement – and how could there be, given the complexity of the issues? – but the clarity and sincerity of their respective points of view makes for a stunning conclusion to the series.
Overall, then, Social Distance ends up being quite powerful, delivering solid knockout blows to silence critics, like me, of its earlier sections. Our nation, and the world, are struggling through hard times, and the makers of this series have found a way to use our collective distress as compelling drama. We may all have to wear masks when we go out (and please, do wear one), and keep a proper distance from others, but this is something we can get close to and embrace. Allow its cinematic catharsis to soothe your trauma, if only for a moment.