Is There An Audience for Social Distancing Shows After COVID-19?

It’s going to take something really special to make people want to relive these events.
Parks And Recreation Special
By  · Published on May 1st, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is a global catastrophe that’s affected day-to-day life all around the world. In an effort to prevent the virus from spreading even further and costing more lives, most people are currently sitting at home, isolated from family, friends, and colleagues. Everyone is scared and bored, and the world of entertainment is responding accordingly.

Variety reports that Netflix has ordered Social Distance, an anthology series from the makers of Orange Is the New Black that will revolve around the topic of — you guessed it — social distancing. The show’s goal is to explore “unique, personal, deeply human stories that illustrate how we are living apart, together” and reveal how everyone’s situation is unique, despite the commonalities.

Social Distance is being made immediately, with everyone involved working from their homes. Granted, this is the only way to make this show at the moment, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can pull it off successfully. However, no release date has been confirmed yet either, and it’s possible that the show could arrive toward the end of the pandemic or afterward.

Social Distance seems like the latest addition to a burgeoning trend, as it isn’t the only upcoming show that will focus on life at home. Earlier this month, we reported on a project from The Office’s Paul Lieberstein and Ben Silverman that will follow a group of employees who must work from home and interact through Zoom meetings.

That show might have a broader appeal as working from home was commonplace before it became an enforced way of life. Furthermore, it’s possible that the show will provide a multi-faceted look at this manner of employment given that its creators are masters of workplace-themed comedies.

Still, there’s no denying that the coronavirus sparked the idea, and it doesn’t seem like a show that’s destined for longevity. Right now, it just feels like a piece of reactionary entertainment because the creators think the “new normal” is what people want to see on the screen.

Similarly, Parks and Recreation has already claimed a piece of the social distancing action with its own special reunion episode about the subject. This one aired during the pandemic’s peak, and it appears to be a one and done affair. That’s probably the best approach for this sort of thing as the appetite for this topic probably isn’t as strong as creators think it is.

In fact, some Parks and Recreation fans have refused to watch this special because of the current circumstances. While all of the proceeds from the episode are being donated to Feeding America (and that’s wonderful and donations are encouraged regardless of watching the show), some viewers just don’t want to see these beloved characters reunite in a way that doesn’t feel creatively authentic.

Elsewhere, some shows are still trying to produce new episodes during the pandemic. Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live have already attempted the experiment, and the restrictions in place due to COVID-19 were evident. All Rise and American Idol are also planning to air new episodes, which will be produced virtually. It just isn’t the same.

In the world of sports entertainment, WWE and All Elite Wrestling have continued to put on weekly shows from empty arenas. Both companies are trying their best, but the shows are impossible to watch without thinking about how much better things used to be.

Disney recently entertained families with a quarantine special of the Disney Family Singalong. It was successful, and there’s going to be another special on Mother’s Day. But the second one won’t have the same charm since it already feels like overkill.

The pandemic has also caused a rise in reunion specials featuring the alum of beloved shows and movies. These include Frasier, Desperate Housewives, This Is Us, The Nanny, Melrose Place, The Goonies, High School Musical, and more.

Reunions used to be sporadic and feel special. At the moment, however, they’re hard to enjoy because they’re so frequent and synonymous with social distancing. Their intentions are noble, but they’re still an upsetting reminder of how everything sucks right now.

Furthermore, advertising has pivoted to addressing what’s going on right now. Everything is centered around social distancing and how hard “these times” are. No matter how well-meaning these commercials might be, they’re already starting to feel quite overwhelming. After a long day of stressing about the future, escapist entertainment (and even escapist ads) is the most alluring.

I get why creators are turning towards producing content that pertains to the global crisis in some way. They’re also stuck at home, unable to work in a conventional sense, and forced to find new ways of creating entertainment that might resonate with stuck-at-home viewers. If you’re going to make shows about social distancing, now is probably the best time to do it.

Then again, is social distancing actually interesting from an entertainment perspective? Not really. At least apocalyptic shows and movies about life during pandemics are so sensationalized that they end up becoming escapist fantasy fare in their own bizarre way. But shows about people sitting at home and talking on Zoom? That’s dull on paper.

Realistic entertainment can be very engrossing, but the topic of social distancing is going to require some sizzle and over-the-top elements to be interesting. Otherwise, it’s just going to serve as a reminder of a time in people’s lives that they’d rather forget about as soon as possible.

The effects of this pandemic will be felt for a long time. Still, if the lockdown period ends in the next couple of months and some semblance of normalcy is restored, shows about social distancing will feel like a dated gimmick before they’ve even debuted.

Other shows, meanwhile, will transport viewers into new worlds that are full of excitement, wonder, and situations they’ll never experience in the real world. Shows that make people laugh or feel optimistic, and others that make them miserable for more interesting reasons than being stuck in the house.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that social distancing shows will use the theme to tell some interesting stories. I’m willing to give them a chance based on the creators involved and my willingness to enter everything with an open mind. At the same time, these shows come across as forced, and it’s hard to get excited about them for that reason.

You can’t fault creators for mining the pandemic for inspiration. COVID-19 is too significant to be ignored, after all. In the coming months and years, there will be a wave and movies and shows that will explore themes and ideas which are relevant to what’s going on now and the eventual aftermath. The best ones, however, won’t rely on the pandemic as their main selling point.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.