Film & Television

Television: Love in the Time of Corona

On March 7 (doesn’t that seem unfathomably long ago), one of the sketches on Saturday Night Live was a spoof soap opera, “The Sands of Modesto.” An announcer explained that due to COVID-19, “the staging of certain scenes has been altered for the actors’ safety.” The following five minutes included cast members Kate McKinnon, Chloe Fineman, Kenan Thompson, and Cecily Strong, along with guest host Daniel Craig, running through myriad daytime drama tropes: the return of a presumed dead daughter, a torrid love scene, a vicious cat fight — all with the aid of Lysol, Kleenex, disinfectant wipes, plastic wrap, even an absurdly long prosthetic arm. In their talented hands, the threat of a contagious disease and the lengths (pun may or may not be intended) to which people were going to protect themselves were hilarious.

In any other year, I would suggest you find it online. But I won’t. Even a couple of weeks later, that sketch wasn’t quite so funny, and certainly isn’t now.

By April, the coronavirus was no longer something to laugh at, with more than 17,000 deaths in one week at the pandemic’s peak. For many of us, life changed suddenly and dramatically. An unprecedented number began working from home. Others, “essential workers,” put on masks and gloves and braved public places. Classes became virtual. Graduations, weddings, and, sadly, funerals were canceled or postponed. We were advised to stay inside, self-quarantine, or maintain a six-foot “social distance.”

Most entertainment production was put on hold — although enterprising producers (like those at SNL) did try to create alternative programs through digital conference technology. They get an A for effort, and that’s about as nice as I’m going to be. But nearly six months into the so-called “new normal,” Hollywood is attempting to reboot itself, safely create content, and serve up programming that resonates in the here and now and who knows for how long.

Billed as a “pandemic satire,” HBO’s Coastal Elites features Bette Midler, Sarah Paulson, Issa Rae (The Photograph), and Kaitlyn Dever (Unbelievable). According to promotion for the 90-minute original film, Coastal Elites “spotlights five distinct and impassioned points-of-view across the United States . . . . When the shutdown forces these characters to cope in isolation, they react with frustration, hilarity, and introspection.” Coastal Elites premieres on the pay cable network on September 12.

Social Distance, coming to Netflix, is produced by Emmy Award winner Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black) with Tara Herrmann, Hilary Weisman Graham, and Blake McCormick. “Our job as storytellers is to reflect reality,” reads a statement from the producers. “And in this new, bizarre, bewildering reality we are all experiencing, we feel passionate about finding connection as we all remain at a distance. We’ve been inspired to create an anthology series that tells stories about the current moment we are living through — the unique, personal, deeply human stories that illustrate how we are living apart, together. We are challenging ourselves to do something new: To create and produce virtually so that our cast and crew can stay healthy and safe.”

Disney-owned Freeform has beaten both HBO and Netflix to the quaran-TV punch with its Love in the Time of Corona, which premiered this past weekend. The four-part mini-series tells the mostly interrelated stories of four households defining and redefining love as they stay home and stay safe. Writer and director Joanna Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter, “We didn’t want to do a Zoom show; we wanted to do something ambitious.”

In reality, Love in the Time of Corona feels a little like Love Actually meets This is Us meets COVID-19. This is not meant as a criticism, since I adore the first and have willingly shed many tears over the second. But, while production may have been a challenge and the characters are, in fact, sheltering in place because of the pandemic, there’s nothing very new here. The mini-series, like many titles before it, focuses on the importance of lasting and meaningful love, at any age, in many forms, and in diverse situations — even when you’re six feet apart.

In order to keep her crew safe, Johnson (who currently writes and produces Good Trouble and created the three-season series Hope & Faith about her 626 episodes as an actor on The Bold and the Beautiful) cast several actors who live together in real-life. Their homes were the sets; they did their own wardrobe, make-up, and hair; family friends and relatives served as production assistants; and the entire show was directed remotely. As Johnson remembers, “The greatest pressure for me is always the writing, so I had such a good time shooting. It felt very intimate, even though I was directing the actors on a walkie-talkie and seeing images remotely on a screen inside this van I was in. It was also really fun to be out of the house. Honestly. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m out. Even though I’m out sitting in a van, I’m out.’”

The first family we meet are James and Sade, played by husband and wife Leslie Odom Jr. (Broadway’s Hamilton) and Nicolette Robinson (The Affair). They have a toddler and are debating whether or not to conceive a second baby. While the COVID lockdown does give the attractive couple plenty of opportunities to make love (in every room except the nursery), James wonders whether it’s right to bring another child into the world. The series is set a month or so before the murder of George Floyd, but racial tensions are already high. James watches the video of jogger Ahmaud Arbery being chased down and killed as he returns home from his own run. A little bit heavy-handed, but the message is certainly clear. “There but for the grace of God . . . ”

We quickly learn that another family quarantining together is not exactly as it appears. Sarah (Rya Kihlstedt) and Paul (Gil Bellows) are only together to prevent their daughter Sophie (Kihlstedt and Bellows’s daughter Ava Bellows) from finding out that they are, in fact, separated. Sophie has been sent home from college and is dealing with her own drama — specifically, that her boyfriend dumped her via text during a pandemic. Her parents’ temporary truce brings up lots of memories, good and bad, but is not at all to the liking of Paul’s new girlfriend, Pilates instructor Gigi (Morgan Smith).

Meanwhile, James’s mother and Sophie’s favorite elementary school teacher, Nonda (L. Scott Caldwell) is trying to plan a 50th anniversary party. Her husband, Charlie (Charlie Robinson) is in rehab recovering from pneumonia, and the two can only communicate via video conference. Charlie, we realize, is also suffering from dementia, and while Nonda puts on a brave and loving face, we can tell she worries about when — and if — they will be together again. Knowing how COVID has attacked the older population and especially those in nursing homes, we can’t help but worry with her. Nonda and Charlie’s semi-estranged son Dedrick (Catero Colbert) comes home, having lost his job. Oddly enough, Dedrick is the only character who seems to have been affected financially here, in sharp contrast to the nation’s real unemployment numbers.

Finally, we have two young characters (who would surely be struggling to pay rent if this weren’t fiction): singer/songwriter Elle (Rainey Qualley) and fashion stylist Oscar (Tommy Dorfman). Roommates and best friends, Elle and Oscar commiserate over how difficult it is to find a mate when the whole world is stuck inside. They bond over shared (bathing suited) baths and glimpses of their hunky neighbor Adam (Emilio Garcia-Sanchez) enjoying his outdoor shower. After choosing online dates for each other, tensions rise when Elle realizes that she might be interested in Oscar as more than her “gay husband.” But, alas, Oscar, who admits to being bicurious, isn’t all that curious about her. Is it love or is it just another symptom of COVID?

Overall, Love in the Time of Corona (a cute nod to Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s magnificent novel) is familiar and fun. It’s an interesting blend of escapism and semi-realism. However, the grimmer aspects of what the U.S. is living through are barely touched upon and their absence feels vaguely disrespectful. In a recent interview with NPR, both Robinson and Odom Jr. admitted that they had mixed feelings about taking on the project.

“If I was hesitant about anything,” Robinson explained, “it was really just signing on to do it at all when we had first heard about it because the offer came in for us right in the thick of the Black Lives Matter movement and we were really going through it in our household. Just even the idea of stepping out of the real world to make something that was mostly focused on the positive side of this time, we were nervous about it.”

Her husband agreed. “Our plate was kind of full, like everyone else’s was. We’re parents, and we’re children of people that are in the vulnerable population, and we’re Black people in America, you know, there’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with in this house and unpacking every day, so if we are going to make art right now, what is our responsibility to this moment?”

The two shine in Johnson’s mini-series, so as audience members, we are fortunate that they did decide to join (and eventually co-produce) the project. Love in the Time of Corona is not the definitive chronicle of what so many have suffered in 2020. But it’s an intimate and enjoyable collection of four specific stories set against unprecedented circumstances.

Someday, when we look back at 2020, there will be many more stories of love — and so many of grief — still to be told.

Love in the Time of Corona is available on and Hulu.


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