At the start of 2020, a television show featuring friends and family locked down in their respective homes as a deadly pandemic ravaged the globe would have been labeled as a dystopian drama and been treated as escapist entertainment for those looking to immerse themselves in a world completely unlike their own. But more than halfway through the year, that has become the new normal.
With that drastic lifestyle change, the scripted television industry has had to pivot as well.
What was once, perhaps, assumed to just be a temporary run of special remotely produced episodes of current (“All Rise,” “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet”) and long-gone but still beloved series (“Parks and Recreation,” “Happy Endings”) responding in near-real time to how relationships shift during self-isolation and social distancing has turned into a larger wave of new programming. Broadcasters, cable networks and streamers alike are not only fighting to deliver originals amid an ongoing production shutdown, but also offer content that reflects the unprecedented moment in which the world finds itself — to help the audience process and perhaps gain a new perspective.
“Scripted television has become an alternate universe or earlier time in history. It no longer feels connected with the reality that we’re all living in,” says exec producer Martin Gero. “So absolutely we understand that some people may be like, ‘Why would I want more Zoom in my life?’ but I really think this is an opportunity.”
Gero, who just wrapped up the run of his NBC high-octane drama “Blindspot,” is already hard at work on his next new series, co-created with Brendan Gall, for the broadcast network. Currently titled “Connecting,” it is a half-hour comedy centering on a group of friends staying in touch through video chats during the pandemic. “Connecting,” which is set to premiere this fall, won’t be the first of these series, but it is also far from the last.
Launching as a two-night limited series this month on Freeform is “Love in the Time of Corona,” from “The Fosters” and “Good Trouble” boss Joanna Johnson, while HBO has “Coastal Elites” from playwright, author and screenwriter Paul Rudnick coming in September and Netflix will drop the anthology “Social Distance” from Jenji Kohan and Hilary Weisman Graham later in the fall.
“At first we pitched it as a ‘Love Actually’ idea, not to make light in any way of the seriousness of this virus and the devastating effects it’s having on so many people, but to show the side of it where people are trying to connect because they do feel lonely,” Johnson says. “I was more interested in living relationships that were already set up, like parents whose child comes home from college because they can’t finish their year in quarantine, or a family who has a loved one in a nursing home or roommates who start to realize they have some dysfunction in their relationship and the marriage where you’re two driven people who are not usually home together all of the time. It’s more of a romantic dramedy. The idea of this show is to explore humanity and relationships and love and connection.”
The key for all of these shows will be tapping into the feelings of the moment without overwhelming the already stressed and anxious audience. As Gero puts it, they are looking to create “comfort food.” This means being able to mix in some humor, as well as offer a bit of reflection in an extremely fast-moving and uncertain time.
“I didn’t want the material to feel instantly dated, so I tried to be very careful about references,” says Rudnick. “Things are so crazy that when you think about three months ago it feels like a lifetime and people are almost nostalgic for February. I wanted to reflect that sense of being overwhelmed by every possible event so it would feel emotionally valid at any point. I think it could be working as a time capsule of Americans’ lives.”
“Coastal Elites” begins before coronavirus, “when we were in an area of pure politics 100% of the time,” notes Rudnick, and then moves forward as the pandemic peaks and the Black Lives Matter protests begin. “It actually follows history as it’s breaking. It was a great way of organizing the material.”
“Connecting’s” story will begin in mid-March “and then slowly catch up to present-day,” Gero says. “Even that little bit of space and perspective has been very helpful in trying to build out what a season of the show looks like.”
“Love in the Time of Corona” takes place in the early weeks of the pandemic, up to and including the beginnings of the protests, as well, and “Social Distance” is set in April and May.
“One of the greatest challenges of this is capturing a moment as we are living in it,” Graham says. “Most shows or movies that examine a historic event get some distance. So that felt daunting, but what made it seem doable was that everybody on the planet is going through this right now.”
That real-life shared connection certainly adds relevancy to these shows, but for Rudnick there is also an “urgency” of the moment that cut through the challenge of responding to events in real time and made it a privilege.
“Everyone is eager to have an outlet,” he says. “There is this wildly emotional national conversation that has been going on forever but certainly, thanks to social media, we’re all in this together. And I wanted to channel that and depict at least a quarter of it. It felt necessary, in a way. As a writer I feel I would have missed an opportunity [if I didn’t write about this].”
Keeping her story focused on the “need to reinvent systems,” such as working from home, and the way we “communicate on a daily basis” when family and friends are spread around the world, kept “Social Distance” grounded, Graham says.
“Time moves in such a strange way during quarantine and each episode is time-stamped,” she says. “We tie each episode into something that was going on in real life, on social media or a news story that some character is coming across.”
Johnson believes that after a few months of people processing this new way of living on their own, they are ready to “see how other people think.”
Graham agrees, calling the process “cathartic.”
The process of making these shows was also somewhat reinvented from the productions that were up and running at the beginning of the year.
“Connecting” will look like an “NBC version of Zoom,” says Gero. He created dialogue-heavy scripts and scenes that would play well with talking heads in boxes. Similarly, “Coastal Elites” mostly had actors shooting their monologues in their own homes. “Love in the Time of Corona” shot in its actors’ homes with a two-camera setup that allowed for wide shots and some more physicality. “Social Distance” is “told through the internet of connected things,” says Graham, which means some episodes will feature Zoom and FaceTime calls, but also the points of view of a nanny cam, security cams, video doorbells and even social-media moments.
Using these methods of expanded storytelling allowed each show to employ dozens of actors and crew members alike, from directors, editors and cinematographers to costume and production designers, as well as some new positions, including safety coordinators and Zoom DJs.
“We’re doing this as a creative endeavor primarily, but it’s also important to us to employ as many people as humanly possible and get people back to work,” Gero says.
With these shows not only creating shared experiences between their characters and their audience, but also keeping the business going and professionals employed, the industry may just be embarking on an age of “peak remotely produced TV.”