How NBC's isolation comedy Connecting was made during a pandemic
NBC is bringing you a new comedy made during a pandemic without masks, shields, or nasal swabs.
Inspired by their conversations with friends at the start of isolation, Martin Gero and Brendan Gall — creator/showrunner and executive producer, respectively, of NBC's Blindspot, which wrapped up its five-season run a few months ago — came up with the comedy Connecting. The series centers on a group of seven friends who weather 2020 together, keeping each other close and sane. ″It became really clear that it felt relevant,″ Gero says about the talks he was having with friends. ″Everyone is going through this, and it's not on TV right now. Whenever something in your life is not on TV that feels like it should be or feels like it has resonance with whatever is going on, that's an excellent opportunity for exciting storytelling.″
Starting a few weeks into the pandemic and concluding right before the election, Connecting will track how the tight-knit group copes. The stories will range from how parents handle being home with their kids to what to do about a crush you haven't said anything to. “There are so many things that are radical about this show — the production, the format, and the content,″ actress Shakina Nayfack shares. ″I'm so excited for the conversations that we have on the show around current events and the events that have unfolded over the last nine months.″
One thing more impressive than finding inspiration during a global pandemic is finding a way to make a show during one. When the show was ordered, there was less of an idea about what was happening with COVID than what is known now, so Gero and Gall's plan was made to work whether things got better or worse. While some sets have prepared for filming by testing everyone and wearing protective gear (masks and shields included), on Connecting, the cast became the crew. ″No one leaves their house,″ Gero explains. ″We put them through a pretty rigorous camera and sound training so that they could learn how to operate the equipment on their own.″ The only point of contact is when actors exchange iPhones — which they use to film their scenes — with production assistants.
Each day crew members talk to actors via video call before shooting scenes, walking through everything from the placement of the furniture in their homes to technology. ″Even the simplest app that we use has an enormous amount of settings,″ Gero shares. ″All of the software we're using is not meant to be used this way. No one has built software for COVID.″
Making Connecting is only possible through an incredible amount of patience, communication, and preparation. On a typical set, a director yells ″cut″ and then tells everyone what — if anything — needs to be changed, and then everyone gets back to work. On Connecting, each change needs to be handled individually. During a visit to the virtual set, actress Otmara Marrero was adjusting her phone settings and repositioning items in her home to match a previous shot. Preacher Lawson needed to move a picture frame to prepare for that same scene while being told if it was level over the video call. ″The amount of over-communication that has to happen when there's a problem is a challenge. We're on the bleeding edge of technology,″ Gero explains. He was asked early on if this could be done without a crew, which he knew would be impossible. Each department's expertise, experience, and ability to do their job well — so well that they can explain it to someone who doesn't have that experience — is imperative to make the show work. As someone who came up in theater, Nayfack was used to the ″all hands on deck″ approach and welcomed the collaborative opportunity. ″It was really jarring for me to go sit in a trailer while stuff was being done,″ she says. ″I love the teamwork of making television, and feeling like I'm more a part of the team.″
Crew members from each department — lighting, sound, etc. — sent equipment to the actors in preparation for the things that could go wrong. For example, Akash Singh, a member of the sound department, included items that would be in his sound cart, including scissors (turned out some of the actors didn't have a pair at home) and WD-40 for things like squeaky chairs. When an actor's mic was ripped out of its pack, something that happens, it wasn't a crisis because the sound kit had another. Marrero says the crew went as far as putting different colored tape on the camera tripod's knobs to make directing the actors easier.
On day one, prep for the first shot took six hours, but that time has steadily decreased. ″Now the cast is an incredibly well-oiled machine with the camera, sound, and other departments anticipating and knowing what's going to be required,″ Gall says. A machine that the actors say they're grateful to have a better understanding of. ″I have a whole new appreciation for the attention to detail that every single person working in production or crew has to take in their work,″ Nayfack explains. Marrero adds, ″Through this, you get a new understanding of how many people it takes for something to come together and for it to really work, how important each person is.″
New skills aside, the cast, of course, still had another job to do: act. Even that presented its own challenges considering actors typically get to share a physical space and bond on set. To accomplish that here, they also utilized technology to their advantage, starting a group text chat. ″It's still not enough,″ Marrero admits, ″because normally the group chat is just a bonus to being on set with somebody — like leaving set and having that separation anxiety and then touching base on the group chat. But here, that's all [we have].″
Fortunately, their efforts seem to be working. ″One of the things people are shocked at is how much chemistry our group has,″ Gero shares. While they shoot scenes from home, the Connecting team works to maintain an authentic relationship between the friends. The actors rehearse together on a video conference call, looking at one another to see what they are acting against. Then they shoot the scenes staring at their mobile phones but can still hear the other actors on the video call. According to Nayfack, it's all about empathy and having a shared experience. ″We took away the visual and were just acting with each other's voices, but performing for a lens on a phone. I think we hit such a juicy place in our camaraderie,″ she explains. ″We were able to carry over the connection and the understanding of the jokes and the scene material from rehearsal without visual cues.″
As for the show itself, Connecting won’t be all laughs as it tells a story in and about an unprecedented time. “We don't want the show to be a bummer, but we also need it to be real,″ Gero says. ″If it was just a hangout comedy about the pandemic, I don't think anyone would want to watch that.″ Connecting aims to balance serious conversations and topics with its humorous cast of characters to deliver truths about our current reality, which Gero admits is difficult to do. Nayfack thinks they're making it work: ″We have such a diverse cast, we're having the conversations on the show that people are struggling to have in their real lives, and we're doing it with heart and humor.″
″All you need to do is see a scene where all seven of our leads are on screen at the same time to see that the show is the furthest thing from feeling isolated,″ Gall says. ″It is the most joyous, wonderful, rhythmic cacophony of laughs, and it's so alive."
Connecting debuts Oct. 8 on NBC, and will be available to stream on Peacock.