I’m not sure what to describe as the first episode of Social Distance, Netflix’s new coronavirus anthology show created by Jenji Kohan and Hilary Weisman Graham. When I open Netflix, the episode that begins playing for me as the first one of the series is called “Delete All Future Events,” and it’s just the kind of awkward, unpleasantly topical episode you’re probably already imagining when you hear the phrase “new coronavirus anthology show.” The main character, played by Mike Colter, is a barber struggling to maintain some kind of career, and also cling to his sobriety, while stuck at home alone in the early spring lockdowns.
When I watched Social Distance as the screeners provided for critics, “Delete All Future Events” wasn’t the first episode listed. It was “A Celebration of the Human Life Cycle,” an episode with an even more eye-roll-worthy theme for a COVID story: A family gathers to have a Zoom funeral (overseen by Oscar Nuñez) for their father/grandfather, who had been sick for a long time and died during the crisis. There’s a twist at the end of “A Celebration of the Human Life Cycle” that I won’t ruin for you, but trust me when I say it’s much less surprising and poignant than the episode makes it out to be.
The reason I mention the slipperiness about which episode should come first is that there was a bug in my screener episodes, and when I started watching, the first thing that autoplayed was neither of those two stories. The first Social Distance episode I watched was one called “You Gotta Ding-Dong Fling-Flong the Whole Narrative.” Setting aside the dubious wisdom of that title, I suspect my experience watching the series was totally reshaped because I watched this episode first. Starring Peter Scanavino, Ali Ahn, and Scanavino’s own son Leo Bai-Scanavino, the episode is about a couple trapped in their apartment because the wife has COVID. Scanavino plays a father who’s desperately trying to entertain their preschool-age child while also FaceTiming with his very sick wife, who is quarantined in their bedroom.
One of Social Distance’s key gimmicks is that it’s told almost completely through technological interfaces. The funeral episode takes place entirely over Zoom; the barber episode is told via Instagram, some video calls, and a Zoom AA meeting. In the episode I watched first, the story is told via the father Greg’s phone screen. Sometimes he’s calling his sister to talk about how his wife, Anne, is doing. Sometimes his phone displays images from a baby monitor in their son’s room. At one point, his phone screen is just Greg, frantically Googling COVID symptoms and trying to figure out at what point he needs to insist Anne go to the hospital.
It is a bleak, bleak episode, a story sprung straight out of my April 2020 nightmares and out of too many people’s lived realities this spring. Like most of Social Distance, there’s not all that much additional emotional or thematic processing laid on top of the plain story. The message of the episode, such as it is, is that Greg cannot skate out of this horrible moment in his life by trying to convince his son that all of this is like a fairy tale. Metaphors are always a kind of lying, and telling Trevor that the virus is actually a mythical beast doesn’t help him understand what’s happening, and it doesn’t help him cope with how bad it all feels. It’s just a lie, and not a useful one.
The problem with so much of the coronavirus storytelling we’ve seen on TV and streaming so far this year — shows like HBO Max’s sour Coastal Elites, Freeform’s actively insulting Love in the Time of Corona — is that it has tried to grasp for the kinds of lies that Greg tries to tell his young son. It’s not as blatant as changing the virus to a fairy-tale monster. (Maybe if they’d made choices that strange and interesting they’d have been better, actually.) But in their own ways, they’ve tried to soften the razor edges of this crisis by translating them into fiction. Coastal Elites performed this by simply ignoring what this year has been like for any Americans without access to health care, money, and cultural privilege. For Love in the Time of Corona, it was the lie of the happy ending, one that displaced all our anxiety about death and destruction onto a minor older character who was already in a nursing home (functionally dead already, in this fiction) and then letting everyone else experience quarantine as a time of personal growth.
Ideally, the best fiction about real-world trauma does perform some transformation. It takes an intense, overwhelming experience that can be hard to articulate when we find it in our lives, and it processes all the complex, contradictory nuance of those experiences through a fictional filter that illuminates rather than simply describes. The struggle to find some insight that goes beyond illustration is something I’ve long noticed with fiction about the trauma and joy of early motherhood. So much of its energy goes toward being a mirror to life, but when I looked to fiction about new mothers to try to think through my own motherhood, a simple mirror was not what I needed. I have actual mirrors in my home; I know what it looked like. For the best stories about early motherhood (my favorite is the film Tully), there is some additional layer of meaning that further complicates and unravels the experience.
Coronavirus fiction onscreen is not there yet. Stories that help us see our way out of this painful moment, rather than merely reflecting it, are probably years away, and, in the meantime, those that attempt it have shot for the stars and ended up plummeting back to earth in an arc that feels both depressing and totally inevitable.
In the meantime, something like this unrelentingly sad episode of Social Distance is actually a relief. If we must live through this part where all the fiction loops back to show us the terror of our own immediate past (and it seems like we must), I’d much, much rather have a faithful mirror than a limp lie about the upsides of a global pandemic.
Not every episode of Social Distance embraces that kind of clarity. The Zoom-funeral episode is not great. The barber episode is messy. An episode about a gay couple considering a throuple aims for goofiness and does not make it. There’s one installment starring Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker as a couple meant to be achieving their longed-for retirement that’s pretty charming, and one about teenagers falling in love through an MMORPG that comes with a big twist that’s both gut-churning and too self-congratulatory. The final episode (maybe? On Netflix, who can tell) is one of the other series highlights, a story about a young Black man and his older Black employer arguing about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In spite of Social Distance’s obvious highs and lows, I watched the whole series with the memory of that first episode — or, at least, the episode Netflix served me as “first” — lingering in my mind. It was just such a comfort to watch something about this year that felt truly sad. Social Distance doesn’t offer any answers about this moment, but in lieu of answers, I’ve realized that I will happily accept some honesty.