Film & TV

Netflix’s Pandemic Anthology ‘Social Distance’ Makes a Case for Watching Paint Dry

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Netflix decided to punish viewers further by subjecting them to a “pandemic anthology” that sets the barometer for awfulness to a new low.

“Social Distance,” from creator Jenji Kohan (“Orange is the New Black”), dropped Oct. 15. The show follows the lives of people during the pandemic, with writing and filming done remotely by the cast and crew due to safety precautions.

The results are atrocious. A humorless, energy-devoid show, “Social Distance” is a pain to sit through. With just eight, 20-minute episodes, the show isn’t a major time commitment. Yet, the quality is so pitiful that there’s no reason to commit time to it at all.

It feels like the crew thought this is a show the world needs to see. If so, they were sorely mistaken. “Social Distance” is not relieving, nor cathartic. One episode deals with a sick wife and mother whose husband frantically worries she’ll die from the virus and leave their son without a mother. The asinine thought to take such heavy current events and place them in this scripted television show creates a sense of emotional manipulation.

There’s no ignoring the pandemic in the real world. People’s lives have radically changed and the last thing anyone would want to see in fictional television is a depiction of the horrid tragedy thousands of families have gone through amid this pandemic. Kohan’s goal with “Social Distance” was to “illustrate how we are living apart, together,” yet all the show does is create a dreary, depressed landscape.

The overbearing dramatics of the show are tone-deaf given current events. There is no perspective gained here; the show is lifeless. It’s as if a 9/11 movie debuted in theaters in 2002. Too soon, too stupid.

Still, the concept of filming a show virtually is an appealing one. ABC’s “Modern Family” pioneered this concept in 2015 with its critically acclaimed episode “Connection Lost.” Unfortunately, “Social Distance” doesn’t innovate but retreads on the early months of the pandemic in tired fashion.

The concept may have worked had the show played to comedic strengths as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to lift viewers up. Instead, the heavy tone makes “Social Distance” an anchor that’s determined to drag its viewers down. 

The best episodes of the show are the ones that follow the concept the least. An episode dealing with a gay couple spicing up their pandemic sex life by attempting a threesome is the most entertaining, even though it mostly falls flat still.

Despite the horrid concept and insipid atmosphere, the acting is very strong. The cast of “Social Distance” deliver their very best in a show that’s the very worst, elevating the show from hot garbage to mild trash. Hopefully the cast can use this mistake as a launching pad for bigger and better things.

Regardless of the acting strength, the writing and editing are a slog. The dialogue sounds like an AI-bot chewed up social media talk and spit out its own interpretation. For human writers, they sure seemed to struggle to have characters speak convincingly. 

In one episode, a college student says, “Honestly, I feel triggered that we have to read this poem right now.” This line makes evident the writer’s room has never spoken to any member of Gen Z — and also makes a case for turning the show off then and there.

The social commentary tackled by the show is very fresh. “Social Distance” addresses hot topics such as George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the ramifications of the “Chinese Virus” nominer dubbed by President Trump and other hot button issues. The takes are safe, fine and agreeable, but nothing the show says provides a new perspective.

Instead, the commentary feels like a Netflix victory lap to fit into the “woke” timeline by reiterating the most common talking points. As with the pandemic itself, these issues are too fresh to simply lump in for brownie points. 

Worse, the show can’t seem to pick a lane. While the Grindr episode was perhaps the most intriguing, it doesn’t fit in a show that also spends an entire episode on racial commentary. “Social Distance” can’t decide what it wants to be so it’s everything all at once. This creates tonal whiplash and not in a poignant way. Rather, the show feels haphazardly made, unconnected and missing a thematic core.

A pandemic TV show was always going to be a tough sell and  “Social Distance” only drives home why. There’s no bright side, no optimistic outlook to find here. Netflix should cut their losses now and spin this as a miniseries. They tried and they failed, miserably. Time to move on.

“Social Distance” is available to stream on Netflix but staring at a blank screen is preferable.

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