Social Distance is an admirable effort at providing an artistic response to our current Covid-19 crisis, but perhaps now isn’t the best time to relive the last few months.
I’m obviously someone who considers entertainment media important enough that my entire professional life is devoted to consuming, thinking, and writing about it. But sometimes you have to question why it’s important. Is what we watch on television a distraction from the real world, a way to plug into a different reality when ours gets too trying? Or is it supposed to inform our understanding of how we live? The reality is probably a mixture of the two, and probably sprinklings of many more things besides, but these are the kinds of questions that pop up when you watch something like Social Distance, a new Netflix anthology collecting relatable little tales of humanity within the lo-fi trappings of the recent Coronavirus lockdown. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything else we’ve ever lived through, and will undoubtedly, at a minimum, shape the next few years of all our lives. On the other hand, it has been a pretty miserable experience for most.
It’s important for media to be topical. It’s equally important that the stories we tell are representative, in some way, of real-life human experience, and the recent months of April and May – during which Social Distance is set – were full of a crippling uncertainty that affected all of us pretty much equally. This was also recent enough that it’s very fresh in the memory, and in some parts of the world, the circumstances of those months never altered too much. In that sense, do we really need to live through them again so soon after having lived through them the first time?
Mileage will vary. It helps to know that we were all in the same boat when it came to figuring out what Zoom was, that our elected officials had absolutely no idea what they were doing and that some members of your family and social circle are much more suited to a long-distance relationship than you perhaps realized.
It also helps that the show’s creative pedigree – which includes Hilary Weisman Graham and Jenji Kohan, primarily of Orange is the New Black fame – allows it to wring some genuine interest from its characters and their predicaments. Weirdly enough, though, thanks to the rigorous effort taken in ensuring authenticity, the artifice is much more noticeable than it is in a more traditionally dramatic show – sometimes to the detriment of the overall experience, which thanks to the relatability of the premise sometimes confuses rather obvious conclusions – being away from loved ones is hard; being denied simple freedoms is a massive inconvenience – for profound insights.
Again, though, mileage is going to vary, since Social Distance really is an earnest and spirited attempt to capture international consciousness in an easily understandable and powerfully relatable way. Some people will appreciate that, and the lessons that can be learned from it, even if there perhaps aren’t as many as the show’s writers think. And in a time when the arts themselves feel threatened, both by an unknowable, inscrutable virus and the governments ostensibly in charge of keeping us safe from it, it’s valuable to see art prevail. Here is humanity’s first mainstream creative response to the biggest cultural moment any of us have lived through. May we continue to do so.
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