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Starting in April 2020, quarantine productions began lurching onto our screens, well-intentioned in their desire to provide crews with gainful employment, but rarely finding constructive creative workarounds for the COVID constraints. These were artistic ventures featuring actors interacting through Zoom and Skype screens, occasionally enlivened by actual in-person scenes shared by real-life spouses.
By late summer, many productions had resumed, though the resulting shows bore some visual reminders — the nightclub scene with a half-dozen people, etc. — of complicated COVID protocols. COVID quarantine shoots were relics and a new normal reigned.
Yet somehow, nearly 12 months to the day after the cast of Mythic Quest joined for an emotionally triumphant Zoom, and nine months after Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona, the COVID production drama is back with The Bite, a strange exercise in nostalgia for a mode of shooting nobody is nostalgic for. Despite moderate creativity, The Bite‘s dated limitations outweigh its pleasures.
Unlike most of those COVID quarantine productions, The Bite isn’t a backward-looking reflection of the early days of “Happy Birthday” hand-washing and homemade masks. Even though it was filmed last fall, it’s set during a COVID resurgence and a new stay-at-home order, a new wave of government disinformation and a new wave of politically motivated calls to return the economy to full operation.
Rachel (Audra McDonald) is a concierge doctor providing diagnoses via computer from her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. She becomes concerned when several of her patients begin to exhibit signs of a new COVID strain, one transmitted via bite and capable of turning victims into mindless, flesh-eating monsters. For logical reasons, this new outbreak concerns Rachel’s husband Zach (Steven Pasquale), posted with a CDC Taskforce in DC, working closely with Cyndi (Phillipa Soo). Zach and Cyndi had an affair, which makes for tense Skyping with Rachel, though she’s having an affair with photojournalist Brian (Will Swenson).
Meanwhile, Rachel’s upstairs neighbor Lily (Taylor Schilling), a high-priced dominatrix with her own in-home quarantine clientele, has an encounter with the new strain, leading to an unlikely co-op collaboration.
The Bite is divided into three different shows.
The first two episodes, both written by series creators Robert and Michelle King, are the sort of increasingly wacky, semi-grounded satire the Kings attempted with the short-lived BrainDead, a 2016 CBS drama that was both weirdly prescient and never quite tonally unified. For me, the Kings are brilliant satirists when they weave the laughs into a dramatic framework, which has helped make The Good Fight one of the most reliably funny shows on TV. But they’re less good when they weave drama into a wacky framework. Here, the opening episodes capture the paranoid absurdity of pandemic lockdown — a context in which the uncertainty outside is so freaky you might not leave your house even to flee a marauding zombie. When characters, usually top-level bureaucrats, make cracks about marketing decisions to rename the COVID variants, for example, the chuckles never materialize the way they should.
The next two episodes are straight-up zombie farce, so deliriously over-the-top that my immediate point of comparison was Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, a zombie comedy that blended cleverness and silliness better than most people gave it credit for doing. These middle episodes feature a disembodied hand straight out of The Addams Family and a feral zombie cat straight out of an early Peter Jackson gore-fest. They also underline what an exceptional deadpan comedian Schilling is. You’re either going to get a kick out of the Kings doing a low-budget creature feature, or you won’t. I did.
The last pair of episodes make an almost inexplicable decision to treat this whole zombie-COVID epidemic seriously and find McDonald peering into a perplexingly shoddy prop microscope for two hours, sucking any joy from the proceedings. As best I can guess, the Kings had to figure out how this story ended, and the choices were either expanding the scope of the narrative beyond basically three rooms or going with the least interesting, but most contained, wrap-up. They went with the latter.
The path the show takes isn’t scary, it isn’t funny and it just keeps reminding you over and over again that almost none of the actors are in the same rooms. It’s entirely admirable how much dramatic weight McDonald is able to provide (some) and how much comic energy Schilling is able to convey (ample) while doing most of their scenes opposite computer and phone screens.
Generally, the direction, starting with longtime Kings collaborator Brooke Kennedy, accomplishes some variation of tone and pace within the restrictive sets — something very few of those early quarantine shows even attempted. Here, you have the star of Orange Is the New Black brawling with a cat puppet and running up and down steps and in and out of doors, in contrast to most other quarantine shows that attempted intensity by having the actors stick their faces really close to their webcams.
As for the restrictive sets themselves, the production design is wildly mixed. Both Lily and Rachel’s respective Hell’s Kitchen apartments are decadent and allow room for madcap undead comedy when required. In contrast, the CDC laboratory where Zach and Cyndi are working gives the impression of being Pasquale and Soo’s real-life walk-in closet. You can almost smell the mothballs.
Oh, and I mentioned that most of the actors are sharing scenes exclusively with screens, but that’s not really true. In its increasingly frequent lags, The Bite at least serves the purpose of being a briefly entertaining game of “Guess What Broadway Stars Are Married!”; if any actor here has an actual in-frame foil, you can safely guess that they’re a spouse or at least pod-friend. You have Pasquale and Soo, who can’t develop any real chemistry what with all the claustrophobic closet acting. You have McDonald and Swenson, who do have chemistry and are given the flimsiest of excuses to sing together for a scene or two. And then you get Ryan Spahn and Michael Urie, who play the operators and onscreen talent for a popular virtual background rating site, one so very on-brand for the Kings that viewers will be checking Chumhum to see if it’s real.
That I spent those ill-considered last two episodes trying to figure out the COVID pod connections between Schilling and Rob McClure (who joins her in close quarters as one of Lily’s clients) and between Ben Shenkman, as a wealthy lover of ASMR, and the actress playing his assistant speaks to how much The Bite needs to be graded on some sort of curve. Ultimately, I’m not prepared to travel 12 months back in time, into the middle of a deadly pandemic, just to properly appreciate a zombie series available only to Spectrum subscribers.
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