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Netflix’s Social Distance Struggles to Sum Up the Ordeal of 2020

Netflix's Social Distance Struggles to Sum Up the Ordeal of 2020

The final episode, “Pomp and Circumstance” ventures to further extremes. While setting up audio and video equipment for a virtual graduation, a teenager named Corey (Asante Blackk of “When They See Us”) engages in a heated disagreement with his boss and AV owner John (Ayize Ma’at, Blackk’s real-life father). The militant teen and the cautious adult collide clash over the strategies used during the Black Lives Matter protests. The strategies for enacting change employed by Black people have evolved from generation to generation. For instance, Booker T. Washington preached racial mobility through economics: Financial freedom equaled real freedom. Later, Martin Luther King Jr. called for empowerment through voting. And soon after, the Black Panthers espoused armed resistance in the struggle for Black Liberation. The same generational conflicts drive a wedge between Corey and John, and in the process, the latter lodges insults he can’t take back. Though Blackk and his father offer powerful performances, further supported by an impactful Lovie Simone (“Selah and the Spades”), the weight of the raw dialogue is too much for them to carry. 

The only episode which seems to strike the right timbre is “Humane Animal Trap,” starring real-life husband-and-wife Dylan and Becky Ann Baker as retirees Neil and Caroline, respectively. Caroline has thrown Neil’s retirement plans, such as lounging in their woodland cottage, to wind, by returning to work as a volunteer nurse during the pandemic. Seeing his wife take flight to the hospital, the cautious Neil is troubled by her not only putting her life at risk, but their future together, too. Dylan Baker is one of the few performers in “Social Distance” who knows what elderly aloofness—when they can’t see the screen—looks like on a Facetime call. The natural dynamic between the real-life married couple, especially when their characters fight, also provides easy fuel. Most importantly, there’s a subtlety to how Caroline imparts her restless independence, whether it’s her eyes drifting off during a game of Scrabble, or her amused facial expression in the presence of Dylan’s panic. It’s an all-around fantastic performance by Becky Ann Baker. 

“Social Distance” is filled with clear-eyed acting from an impressive ensemble, which also includes Mike Colter, Peter Scanavino, and Ali Ahn. But the narratives themselves feel rushed, and not just because of their breezy 20-minute runtimes. It’s small details like remaining committed to the series’ visual style, and even hammering down the timelines—in one episode a character says they’ve been in lockdown for months when it’s only early-April, which unravels the anthology’s bid for realism. With some more spit and shine, the material might reach the caliber of the actors delivering it. Though Graham’s “Social Distance” tries to speak to the now by summing up the ordeal of this year, its pathos is buried in mistakes that could’ve been fixed with time.

Whole season screened for review.     

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