An imperfect but inventive new form of ad-hoc TV drama, Sheridan Smith shines as Mel in a short-form lockdown show.
This review of Isolation Stories episode 1, “Mel”, contains spoilers.
No single app better embodies our current predicament than Zoom, which is presumably why the first episode of ITV’s new series of inventive mini-dramas opens on one of its now-familiar multi-window meetings. This is how we contact our loved ones, how we continue to work and communicate; it is, ironically, the app that was probably used to brainstorm and in large part put together Isolation Stories, the first telly production made entirely within the constraints of our current lockdown. Created by Jeff Pope and airing nightly, each of these bite-sized tales cracks a tiny window into quarantined life, letting just enough air in for the claps to carry through.
Anyway, that Zoom meeting. It’s like something out of The Office. Daniel Lawrence Taylor plays a gratingly upbeat staffer who delivers an acoustic guitar performance and then offers, bizarrely, to be the birthing partner of the heavily pregnant Mel, who he barely knows. Mel is played by the equally heavily-pregnant and reliably great Sheridan Smith, and her real-life partner filmed the episode, which, despite the comic opener, is in large part about the lockdown forcing her into a spiral of anxiety and despair.
The visual gag of Mel attending the Zoom meeting in a smart work blazer and pajama bottoms makes for good stills but bad first impressions. As we gradually learn more about her through phone conversations and laptop screens and recorded then deleted video messages, we come to realize that she’s pregnant to a married man who pushed her for an abortion and then stayed with his wife and current child. She’s locked down somewhere unfamiliar to her, where she knows no-one, and while her father and his insufferable second wife are proud of her for “doing well for herself”, they don’t seem particularly interested in slotting her into their bustling home, which already houses 11 of her relatives.
This is obviously quite morbid, but it’s also fascinating in how it tells its story through technology and ingenuity. At a lean fifteen minutes, it’s as fat-free as any TV drama you’ve ever seen, and that’s mostly an advantage, even if the conclusion, which hones in on the power of kindness, especially from strangers, and then very artlessly broaches the subject of domestic violence, could have done with some more room to breathe.
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