It only took a few weeks of social distancing to make the world that existed before COVID-19 feel absurdly out of reach. After building new routines of donning face masks and frantically wiping down precious groceries, a reality with dive bars, concerts and dinner parties becomes more and more abstract, not to mention painful to recall. Watching “Love in the Time of Corona” feels just as disorienting as that, but for the early days of quarantine in which sourdough bread reigned supreme and there was some vague hope that All of This might be over sooner rather than later. Filmed and set in the first months of the pandemic, Freeform’s new miniseries focuses on four households grinning and bearing it through the beginning of our new normal. Without enough time and retrospect to give its stories more depth — we are, after all, nowhere near beyond the scope of this disaster — “Love in the Time of Corona” isn’t exactly good television. But as time capsule of how some were thinking and operating in the nascent days of an ongoing crisis, it is, at the very least, fascinating.
Over four episodes, “Love in the Time of Corona” follows the lives of a group of well-off Los Angeles residents adjusting to their new quarantined lives, mostly thanks to the participation of actors who were already quarantining together. Married couple (and executive producers) Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson play married couple James and Sade, who have rarely had much time together under the same roof thanks to James’ demanding work schedule — until now. Married couple Gil Bellows and Rya Kihlstedt play ex-married couple Paul and Sarah, who are trying to keep their recent separation a secret from their teenaged daughter Sophie, played by Bellows and Kihlstedt’s daughter Ava Bellows. Across town, James’ mother Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell) valiantly tries to keep planning her 50th anniversary party, though her husband is ailing in a rehab facility and the lockdown shows no signs of letting up. Completely unrelated, it seems, are roommates Oscar (Tommy Dorfman) and Elle (Rainey Qualley), who are riding out the shutdown, and more than a little sexual tension, together in their enormous duplex.
Directed by Joanna Johnson, the series is straightforward but nonetheless creative as it uses the tools available in its homes of choice, with the added bonus of winning bit players dropping by via video chat. The conceit of using preexisting couples is a mixed bag; Robinson and Odom Jr. do some solid work portraying a different version of their marriage, while Bellows and Kihlstedt struggle to embody their characters’ on-and-off again dynamic. Real life friends Dorfman and Qualley clearly have a level of comfort with each other that translates onscreen, which is important, since the thrust of their characters (beyond their mutually self-professed self-absorption) is that they’re codependent. Most impressive is Caldwell, who spends many of her scenes talking to a computer screen and nonetheless imbues them all with a lived-in warmth.
Telling interweaving stories of people muscling their way through life is a TV tale as old as time, but with only four episodes, “Love in the Time of Corona” doesn’t quite have the space to do any of its plots justice. And in the attempt to develop a broader swath of stories, it has the unfortunate side effect of jumping between threads too disparate to connect. In one scene, it’ll have Oscar and Elle salivating over their hot neighbor (Emilio Garcia-Sanchez) taking an outdoor shower; in another, it’ll show James getting home from a jog and checking the news to see the graphic video of white men killing Ahmaud Arbery while he was also out for a run. Oscar, Elle and James might be all be experiencing quarantine, but they’re experiencing it extremely differently — which, ostensibly, is half the point of “Love in the Time of Corona,” and yet in practice, it’s more jarring than revealing.
Again: this entire series was conceived, written and produced within the last several months, with everything seemingly changing on a dime by the hour. It’s downright impressive that it came together at all. But there’s a reason why shows about a certain time period tend to come years afterward: it’s simply more useful to draw from history and create realistic stories therein with full contextual knowledge of what happened. As we’re still firmly in the “what’s happening” stage of this particular moment in history, a show like “Love in the Time of Corona” just can’t shed the kind of light on what we’re going through until we’re actually through it.
“Love in the Time of Corona” aired Aug. 22 and 23 on Freeform. The first two episodes are now available to stream on Hulu.