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With most catastrophic events, the collectivizing of shared experience begins from a point of difference. Conversations about the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster or 9/11 begin with where people were, how they found out, followed by the myriad possible responses.
What happened to our country, to the world, in March and the months to follow is notable for its relative sameness. Assuming a certain amount of privilege, for weeks or months, lockdown generally meant lives restricted within the same four walls, varied by the same overly cautious neighborhood walks, spiced up by the same Netflix binges. Quarantine became a universal experience and established a universal aesthetic of jittery FaceTime calls and choppy Zoom backgrounds.
Air date: Aug 08, 2020
That aesthetic has carried over, with no particular inspiration, into the first round of TV shows about the pandemic, made more out of TV networks’ need for original content than any narrative imperative, introspection, or frankly, audience demand. Like found-footage horror in which the horror is everyday life, offerings from Love in the Time of Corona to Coastal Elites have taken a similar Mad Libs approach to early pandemic nostalgia.
Annie (Otmara Marrero) has a crush on her bestie Ben (Preacher Lawson), but emotionally needy Ben can’t let go of his Instagram influencer offscreen girlfriend. Pradeep (Parvesh Cheena) is stressed out by the ubiquity of his offscreen husband and kids, so he has to hide in the closet. Garrett and Michelle (real-life spouses Keith Powell and Jill Knox, allowing them actually to be onscreen together) have married-people problems. Ellis (Shakina Nayfack) is experiencing the dangers of the gig economy in a pandemic. And Rufus (Ely Henry) is a doomsday prepper, relishing his moment in the figurative sun.
They all meet for regular online hangouts where they spend 10-15 minutes of each episode obsessing over relatively frivolous things like Annie’s crush, Pradeep’s inability to find Woody Harrelson’s vegan mac-n-cheese and the ill-fated vacation Garrett tries to organize. Then, like clockwork, they get a reminder of the world beyond themselves.
Connecting… does decently with the frivolous part of the equation, but I find something genuinely unpleasant about using abrupt, unearned emotional nods to George Floyd’s murder as a one-off TV comedy kicker.
Although the cast has been directed in the same broad strokes as have marred so many of these quarantine productions — “Look directly into the camera, get too close to the microphone and yell” — it’s a reasonably likable group, with a reasonably relatable/likable group of basic dilemmas. One can imagine them slotting in comfortably between Single Guy and Friends in a retro Must-See-TV NBC lineup.
You have to leave aside that the conversations, built around Zoom-esque split-screens of two to five people, feel more like conversations had by five people on a coffee shop couch than on a video service. Or maybe these are just the most polite friends in the world, happy to let each other get out their punchlines without interruptions and experiencing technical issues only as jokes.
You also have to leave aside that we’re being asked to invest primarily in a will-they-or-won’t-they coupling in which the potential romantic partners never share the screen for a second and therefore can only convey imagined chemistry.
If you leave aside those things, and leave aside how many of the punchlines are verbatim punchlines the entire world has already been reading on Twitter for six months, you can settle in painlessly with this group.
Cheena has a couple very funny moments, Powell and Knox have a believable (thank heavens, for the sake of their relationship) rapport and Marrero and Lawson are both the kind of photogenic screen presences audiences mechanically crave to see partner up, even without reason. The thing that surprised me after watching the three episodes of Connecting… sent to critics is that I might, in a different world, be perfectly happy to check back in with this group of actors and characters as the focus of a more traditional single-camera broadcast comedy in a year or two.
What I don’t have is a reason to want to keep following their quarantine lives, since the first three episodes jump from the beginning of quarantine to Day 30 and Day 78. Maybe if you live in a Florida or South Dakota, you’re already missing those halcyon days of toilet paper shortages and masking up to go get tear-gassed by police at protests.
To me, it all feels too close for any sort of “Man, remember that?” reflection and certainly the writers here don’t have any either. I definitely don’t think the show has cracked the problem of finding a way to vary any of this visually so it doesn’t just feel like a formal exercise. And that’s without complaining about those all-too-real dramatic beats that may move some viewers, but came across as tacky for me (especially if you can do the math and guess what horrible events are coming).
Connecting… feels like another, maybe slightly better than some, version of something networks decided they needed without any corresponding audience demand.
Cast: Otmara Marrero, Parvesh Cheena, Keith Powell, Jill Knox, Shakina Nayfack, Ely Henry, Preacher Lawson
Creators: Martin Gero and Brendan Gall
Airs Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on NBC starting Oct. 8, moving to 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on Oct. 29.
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