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Commentary: “Social Distance” hits close to home

Netflix’s new original series “Social Distance” opens the same way as online classes do: on a Zoom call with 30 people, most of whom would rather be somewhere else. 

The camera hones in on the pilot episode’s main character Ike, portrayed by Mike Colter. Ike is a recovering alcoholic and barbershop owner who cannot catch a break.

“I already buried an uncle from this,” Ike says about the COVID-19 pandemic. “What am I supposed to do? Spread this sh*t around over a paycheck?” 

Some of his fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members are too busy scrolling through their smartphones or giving their pets belly-rubs to pay attention. 

Distracted conversations like these, conducted and filmed over Zoom, FaceTime or even “Overwatch,” constitute the bulk of “Social Distance.” The show’s marketing campaign calls it “a new anthology series made entirely in quarantine.” Each 20-minute episode follows a miniaturized storyline set from April to May. 

Consider it a shrewd studio rip off of “Love Actually.” Except, instead of relying on Christmas themes, everyone wallows in the semi-constant existential dread that is 2020. Netflix styles the arguably best and penultimate episode’s title in dejected lowercase, calling it “everything is v depressing rn.” 

I agree. My anxiety kicked in just recognizing the rows of boxed faces and the mute button in Ike’s Zoom call. His story in the pilot — a recently-dumped man who becomes codependent with his house plant — is not even in the running for the saddest episode. 

That title belongs to the episode “You Gotta Ding-Dong Fling-Flong the Whole Narrative.” Dad Greg (Peter Scanavino) tries to explain to his elementary school-aged child why he cannot hug his infected and wheezing mom, Anne-Marie (Ali Ahn). 

“It’s time that we went to the hospital,” Greg says. “You should be with medical people, where there’s a whole bunch of beeping machines that are gonna warn us if something is wrong. (His voice breaks) What if something is really wrong?” 

“Social Distance” spares its viewers from scenes in a hospital full of ventilators. But the reason why is not an emotional reprieve. 

“I don’t want to die alone in a hospital,” Anne-Marie sobs.

This scene — not to mention the entire premise of the show — might feel like a cheap emotional ploy, if it was not so cathartic to hear someone finally voice fears like Anne-Marie’s out loud. Splicing together live-action and stick-figure animation from the son’s perspective, the episode wins us over with its heart-rending whimsy. 

The anthology format makes for a mixed bag of tearjerkers and total duds. In a predictable sleeper, boyfriends Marco (Brian Jordan Alvarez) and Shane (Max Jenkins) seek to spice up their sex life with a threesome in “Zero Feet Away.” Decidedly unfunny jokes appear throughout the episode, mocking those with obsessive-compulsive disorder during a pandemic that makes even neurotypical folks anxious about cleanliness. “Social Distance” wants to say something clever about how much everyone hated their significant other during quarantine but never sets up a satisfying punchline. 

Similar attempts at humor — twerking Zoom call party-crashers, the child of a nursing home worker alone and about to blow up a microwave — never quite land with more than a sad chuckle. 

The episode “everything is v depressing rn” is the exception. In a satirical send-up of the Generation Z kids too desensitized to care anymore, lovestruck teen Mia (Kylie Liya Page) preoccupies herself with learning TikTok dances to impress her crush, Jake (David Iacono). 

Without spoiling the twist, I can say that, when COVID-19 heartbreak arrives for Mia, Page delivers a wordless performance that left me genuinely stunned. In that moment, whatever its cynical reasons for existing or its vapid attempts at quarantine humor, “Social Distance” is great television.

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