Social Distance is quick-turn pandemic content done right
There's an old South Park joke about how long it takes for something tragic to become something funny: a highly-specific 22.3 years. By that metric, Netflix's new comedy about the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Social Distance, is approximately 21.7 years "too soon."
Written, cast, shot, and edited entirely in isolation, a mere seven months have elapsed since Hilary Weisman Graham came up with the idea for the show, she told the New York Daily News. Social Distance reunites Weisman Graham with her Orange Is the New Black teammate Jenji Kohan, and spans chronologically from April 2 to May 30, with each of its eight episodes representing a self-contained vignette about the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.
Now I know what you're thinking: Who would possibly want to relive that? After all, we just went through it — are still going through it, really. But Social Distance is truly a delight. Rather than wallowing in our present miseries, it manages to turn its immediacy into its greatest comedic asset.
Tasteless jokes aren't the only thing that suffer from being "too soon." There's an entire genre of opportunistic television shows and movies out there that race to be the first to capitalize on a significant "moment," whether it's 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing or the 2016 presidential election. Without the benefit of perspective and hindsight, though, such projects tend to be superficial or obtuse in their conclusions, unable to see the bigger picture due to the lingering intimacy with the event. With something like the COVID-19 crisis, for example, it's impossible to say what all this "means," because we're still in the thick of it — a problem some quarantine shows have already run into. A few critics have likewise already dismissed Social Distance on these grounds: the show is worthwhile only as some sort of "masochistic completism," Variety wrote, observing (fairly) that no one wants to be reminded of how horrible April and May were, while The Hollywood Reporter claimed "we're still too close to the subject matter to say anything meaningful about it."
That's not untrue — but it misunderstands Social Distance's goals. With its hyper-specific references and niche jokes, the episodes don't exactly aim to have staying power. The show makes no pretense about this; Social Distance intends to capture "a snapshot of this singular moment in history," the Netflix logline explains upfront. It delivers on the promise: episodes run about 20 minutes each, just long enough to briefly explore a different quarantine-related scenario via a "computer screen" format, using Zoom, Ring, Nest, Discord, FaceTime, Overwatch, Instagram, and other assorted technologies as clever windows into the characters' lives. Mike Colter, for example, plays an alcoholic who's attending AA meetings on Zoom; Oscar Nuñez leads an episode in which a family gathers for a virtual funeral; Max Jenkins and Brian Jordan Alvarez play a couple who want to spice up their sex life by having a pandemic-safe threesome. Peppered throughout are jokes that resonate now but will likely only elicit head-scratches and futile Google searches years on: Why is someone pretending to be an ant on Facebook? A teenage girl is off to sell her turnips?
As a result, Social Distance ends up functioning a little like a Snapchat video: something intended to make you laugh in the moment, only to quietly vanish afterwards. Its "message," if there is one, is of a more instant sort: about the way technology has become the epoxy for the cracks in our social structures, keeping our lives glued, however imperfectly, together (I've been describing it as a sort of "anti-Black Mirror"). It is not devoid of its own little moments of profundity; the texted line of dialogue, "there's no school and we're trapped and people are dying lol," might be one of the best encapsulations of 2020 I've seen yet, a familiar cocktail of dark humor, irony, and despair. The show has a canny grasp on how we, the citizens of 2020 America, think and speak: tiny phrases like "when COVID's over" or harmonica YouTube tutorials or tweets calling for donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund being the sort of digital detritus of our lives today. But because the show rarely oversteps the limitations of its own format (the final episode, which deals with the Black Lives Matter movement, being perhaps the most dubiously ambitious of the bunch), Social Distance is able to speak our language without feeling like it's lecturing us about the moment we're all still sorting through.
I've waded dangerously close now to calling Social Distance disposable, something to be watched today and forgotten tomorrow. And there is a bit of that, yes. The show exists only in the digital ether of Netflix, where it will appear on people's homepages for a few months before being buried beneath the next viral special, which seems at odds with Weisman Graham's characterization of it as "a time capsule for when this crazy period of time is someday over." Beyond an academic or anthropological interest it might elicit in the decades to come, the immediacy of Social Distance doesn't really have much of a lifespan. In fact, the more time that passes, the more it will force us to "relive" quarantine, rather than offering comic relief from our life now.
This isn't a bad thing. Social Distance is a clever and entertaining little mirror on the world we've lived in for almost eight months. In many ways, it seems far more appropriate to watch than any of the other TV shows or movies coming out now, which feel disorienting and out of touch with the dramatic shift our lives have taken since March. I mostly find myself these days cringing at crowded bar scenes, wincing when characters touch their faces, and missing what it felt like to not be afraid of strangers. At least Social Distance "gets it." It gets us. And even if it's just for a moment, there's comfort in that.