What's the Rush? Social Distance and the Scourge of Meta Storytelling

Consider it the uncanny valley of coronavirus.

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What's the Rush? <i>Social Distance</i> and the Scourge of Meta Storytelling

There’s an unspoken rule in most social situations that dictates when it’s appropriate to give an unabashed nod to something that’s just happened. For the most part, tacking on “…too soon?” to any joke implies that the speaker recognizes there’s something taboo about what they’ve just said—and more often than not, what’s inappropriate about what they’ve just said is their timing. (The groan that usually accompanies any response to that question is a good reminder that if you have to ask, it’s probably too soon.)

So what to make of Social Distance, Netflix’s eight-part anthology series, set to release on Oct. 15 as a veritable dramatization of the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic? In the States, we’re still in the thick of things: there have been nearly 8 million reported cases of COVID-19 since March, and a whopping 215,000 deaths so far. Our president was diagnosed with COVID last week following a careless superspreader event at the White House on Sept. 26, and new cases are cropping up every day as conflicting information gives way to haphazard (and half-ass) regulations. As of September, 7.9 percent of U.S. citizens are unemployed; that’s an eye-popping 12.6 million people. And with winter and the flu season quickly approaching, chances are that things are going to get a lot darker before there’s any form of reprieve, let alone a vaccine.

In short, the reality of the situation is pretty grim across the board unless you’re in the top 1 percent financially, or otherwise sheltered from the effects of, well, the complete societal meltdown the majority of us are experiencing.

Watching Social Distance, then, is a pretty jarring experience. Attempting to dramatize what’s already naturally dramatic can feel burdensome and heavy. There’s also the fact that the actors (and writers and directors) behind the series were actually under the same stay-at-home orders when they filmed it in the spring that viewers are still under now, more than six months later. And, importantly, there’s the unavoidable whiplash effect of pseudo-deja vu that happens when you witness something that’s a little too on-the-nose. Can’t get your uncle to figure out the unmute button? Been there. Joking about smoking too much weed while in lockdown? Done that. And, like, plants are great amiright? We’re still in the very situations that are being depicted onscreen, so when we’re watching the series, are we really just watching ourselves?

Netflix’s synopsis for Social Distance paints it as a “much-needed catharsis during a tumultuous time” that attempts to capture “a snapshot of this singular moment in history.” There is a hope that the series will elevate the importance of the human experience even amid these strange times, and that there is complex humanity we can find in our different situations even though we’re mostly only able to connect via faulty technological means. And to be sure, there is some truly stellar storytelling that happens in the series: Episode 5, which depicts a tale of two households, is particularly heartbreaking. In it, a woman (Ali Ahn) is sick with COVID and self-quarantined in a different part of the home, a complicated situation that her exhausted husband (Peter Scanavino) has to explain to their young son (Scanavino’s real-life son). There are animations, deeply felt emotions, and that persistent question: how do you explain this bizarre situation to kids without scaring them?

Or take the season’s final episode, which stars When They See Us’ Asante Blackk with his real-life father Ayize Ma’at. In the story, Blackk’s character is feeling the push-and-pull of working for his boss (Ma’at) to set up a remote graduation ceremony for pay or ditching out to protest George Floyd’s death in the streets with his girlfriend (Lovie Simone). What starts out as an inner conflict explodes into an intergenerational blowup, with both Blackk’s character and his boss trying to negotiate their individual fears and anger amid tense times. Every story is distinct and thought-provoking, each line expertly delivered. Major props are due to the actors, writers, and directors of the series, who imagined a creative way of telling these stories through the lens of all the different screens we sit in front of all day long.

But at the end of the day, even if Social Distance provides catharsis to its viewers, it’s also offering up something else: a sort of meta storytelling that brings up a whole host of troubling questions. Where does the line between lived reality and cohesive narrative blur, and does trying to make sense of the madness while we’re still in it actually do more harm than good? Hearing the characters on the show say things like “We don’t know if he’s been as careful as we have” (Max Jenkins) or watching them attempt to take care of their kids while also working full-time in a nursing home (Danielle Brooks) hits close to home in ways both profound and cringeworthy, because those scenarios are real. But in reality they’re definitely not as glamorous or hilarious or justifiable, given the dire circumstances that have led us to our present situation. Consider it the uncanny valley of coronavirus storytelling.

The rush to present real-life events in a dramatized fashion is nothing new—just ask any fan of true crime. Or Lifetime, for that matter. But the immediacy of a series like Social Distance suggests that there might be a trend toward collapsing reality with entertainment in a way that could actually further confuse the two. Last month, for instance, Showtime presented a two-night special, The Comey Rule, featuring a star-studded cast depicting the events James Comey laid out in his book, A Higher Loyalty. To be clear, those events took place less than five years ago, and we as a nation are still feeling the reverberations of the investigation and the election and the presidency now. We’re still in it. Watching an actor play Trump onscreen doesn’t necessarily feel cathartic so much as it feels nauseating. Isn’t it a little too soon to turn our reality into a scripted narrative?

As human beings, we need time to process things, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we have to fight back against the currents of immediacy in order to hold that space for ourselves. It’s not possible to be both the patient and the surgeon at once (unless you’re Jack on LOST, but that’s a different tangent for a different essay). We have to be removed from a situation to see it clearly, and at present, we are too close to the pandemic or the situation in the White House to be able to satirize either. It’s the same reason why Saturday Night Live falls flat some days—it feels less like we’re in on the joke than that we are the joke, and the punchline is just the ugly reality we live in.

But maybe this is also just the way our brains work now. We have to post about something immediately after we’ve experienced it—or sometimes, even while we’re still experiencing it. Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and even Zoom allow for this: we’re constantly watching ourselves, and we expect to have our lives played back at us in the form of comments, reshares, and likes. We adjust our behaviors accordingly. We’re possibly closer now to the primitive core of who we are than we’ve ever been before, stripped of societal expectation and excess. Social Distance as a series is thought-provoking, well-cast, and fantastically produced, but given that it feels more real than not, it is tipping dangerously into the realm of romanticizing an era that we’re still living through. It’s not over yet. We’ve still got many months—maybe years—to go. So how soon is too soon?


Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC. 

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