An understandable if tricky to navigate instinct during these many months of quarantine is the instinct to create meaningful art out of These Times. Even as the entire world goes on pause, creativity marches stubbornly on, hoping to make sense out of senseless things. But with no end in sight, it’s just about impossible for any art about the pandemic made during the pandemic to shed much light on what’s happening besides the fact that everyone feels like they’re losing their minds. That’s held true for TV shows about life in isolation that lean heavily on social distancing and Zoom. Something like Freeform’s “Love in the Time of Corona” or HBO’s “Coastal Elites,” while well-intentioned, failed to capture much about this era beyond the fact that it’s surreal. On the face of it, “Connecting…”, NBC’s new show about socially distanced friends shot in quarantine, seemed like it might not be any different. Instead, it’s a surprisingly sharp comedy that uses familiar sitcom beats to tackle a completely unfamiliar situation.
From, co-creators Martin Gero and Brendan Gall of NBC’s recently concluded thriller drama “Blindspot” (yes, really), “Connecting…” focuses on a specific group of LA friends struggling to get through the pandemic in one piece. Some have bigger challenges than others. Pradeep (stealth MVP Parvesh Cheena) is stuck at home with his unruly kids; Ellis (Shakina Nayfack) quickly loses her job and has to figure out how to make ends meet. One erstwhile member of the circle, Jazmin (Cassie Beck), is a nurse working through her fear and exhaustion through the worst of the pandemic in New York City. But for the most part, “Connecting…” is about the natural ebbs and flows between friends that, despite everything, still manage to show up through a computer screen. Bougie married couple Michelle (Jill Knox) and Garret (Keith Powell), for one, can only barely hide their delight at getting to stay home and make ramen broth from scratch together. And as with any sitcom worth its salt, there’s even a “will they, won’t they” element, as hesitant writer Annie (Otmara Marrero) struggles to tell Ben (Preacher Lawson) that she loves him. (Ely Henry’s paranoid Rufus, meanwhile, probably always lived in a bunker, pandemic or no.)
Each of the three episodes available for review takes place during a different week of quarantine, and unfolds almost entirely over video chats. And yes, watching characters navigate the early days of social distance from the vantage point of October, after weeks upon weeks of working and socializing through video chats, can be exhausting. But what sets “Connecting…” apart from most other entertainment about quarantine is that it is first and foremost a hangout comedy that just happens to take place during quarantine rather than hinging entirely on the conceit. The dialogue is quick and snappy; the video chats break into different and smaller configurations to form pseudo B and C stories; the chemistry between the characters is impressively lived-in, given the fact that only Knox and Powell (married in real life) could film in the same place. In that respect, Marrero is especially impressive, selling Annie’s frustration and longing for Ben without ever getting to set foot in the same space as him.
Even if “Connecting…” was made to fit this time period, its attention to character development and relationship dynamics is solid enough that it’s not hard to imagine what it might look like as a more typical single-cam comedy that didn’t have to depend upon Zoom in order to exist.
“Connecting…” premieres Thursday, October 8 at 8 pm on NBC.