Making a Pandemic-Set TV Show During Lockdown

On Monday morning, March 16, Hilary Weisman Graham woke up “fully paranoid.”

“I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The business that I work in, writing TV shows and movies, I’m like, ‘Sure, I could write from home, but who the hell is going to want to pay me to write something they can never shoot?’” the writer/director/producer says, over Zoom from her home office (a space which, yes, she’s now quite familiar with).

“So I started panicking, thinking like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to earn a living?’ And then out of that panic came the idea: ‘I know what we’ll do: we’ll shoot remotely.’”

Weisman Graham, known for her work on “Orange Is the New Black” and “Bones,” is the mind behind the Netflix series “Social Distance,” one of the first film projects to come out that reflects the new normal we live in these days. Soon after inspiration struck, Weisman Graham texted her thread with Jenji Kohan and the rest of the “Orange Is the New Black” writing crew and pitched them the idea, who encouraged her to go for it. Two weeks later, she was on another Zoom call, pitching Netflix.

The idea to make a show during lockdown was originally born out of Weisman Graham’s own paranoia about not having work, but it soon grew into a new kind of challenge she didn’t know she was looking for.

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“The idea was to really embrace all of these emotions that we are all having, all over the world. I mean, that’s one of the things that gives me some hope: we’re all different, but we’re all sort of going through the same thing to some degree,” she says. “We’re all experiencing something new and it’s confusing and it’s intense and it changes day-to-day and it’s frustrating. And some people have an easier time dealing with it and some people have a harder time dealing with it, but it’s a super, super emotional time. And then on top of that, add the stuff that’s happening politically, add to the moment of reckoning we’re having with race in this country and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. We have a choice of ‘does it connect us or does it divide us?’”

The show stars actors like Danielle Brooks, Mike Colter and Oscar Nuñez and is an anthology series on the theme of how people stay connected through isolation.

“It really just came from this emotional place of wanting to tell these different stories, and there are so many different kinds of stories that fall under the theme of ‘social distance’ and that’s what really unifies this anthology series,” Weisman Graham says. “How are we experiencing it? What are the definitions of that term in our lives and how is everyone coping with that? We wanted to bring humanity to these stories, and humor and tears.”

Piecing it all together was not without challenges. The first episode stars Colter as a recovering alcoholic barber whose shop has been closed by the state and who is struggling without his support network as the pandemic forces isolation.

“Mike Colter’s character Ike is this barber who is out of work and financially worried, but Mike Colter lives in a very nice house,” Weisman Graham says. Their approach? “You get what you get” and you make it work. Colter took them on a Zoom tour of his house and eventually settled on one of the bedrooms, which they fashioned to look like a studio apartment.

Weisman Graham and her team were on their own tight deadline to get the show out “before COVID-19 is over so it’s still relevant,” she says. “And at the beginning of the process, we would joke like, ‘Ha ha ha, season two,’ because we never thought this was going to go on forever. So here we are.” She knows that many people are desperate for escapism television right now, and amid filming she did worry about making something that was based in COVID-19 times.

“I do think we are, despite being super sick of it and wanting an escape from it, I think there’s also…people turn to TV to escape for sure. I’m one of them,” she says. “But not all the time. I think equally as much as people turn to TV to have a moment where they don’t have to think about their lives, they’re also tuning in to see themselves reflected in some way.”

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