Social Distance showrunner on creating non-escapism TV: 'It will help people feel better'
"Or at least it can help people process some of what we're going through and be entertained," Hilary Weisman Graham tells EW of Netflix's quarantine-themed anthology series.
If you're in the mood to take your mind off the state of things during quarantine, Social Distance is not the TV show for you. And that's because showrunner Hilary Weisman Graham never intended to make escapism TV — she simply wanted to figure out a way to safely make TV at a time when all hope seemed lost for Hollywood.
Netflix's new eight-part anthology series comes from the team behind Orange Is the New Black and is set in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Told through a virtual lens, each episode tells a different story of how people adjusted to the "new normal" during quarantine, forced to rely on technology like FaceTime, Zoom, Nest, and social media to stay connected. And Weisman Graham thought up the idea for this series literally as the country (and Hollywood industry) shut down in mid-March.
"I had the idea very early days; s--- kind of hit the fan here in the U.S. on March 13, and on March 16 I woke up panicking that our business of making TV shows and movies in Hollywood was going to collapse," she tells EW. "Because when was the next time somebody was going to let 200 people into a soundstage together? It was really just out of my fear and panic I started brainstorming ways to get around that: People would have to shoot remotely, people would need to be in their own homes, etc. And that’s when the idea started taking shape."
Weisman Graham previously wrote for and produced on Orange Is the New Black, so she hit up a text thread she's in with other writers from that Netflix series asking for their thoughts on her "crazy idea" for a quarantine-themed-and-produced show. They all promptly got on a Zoom call to talk it out and things just snowballed from there.
"We went on Zoom on March 17, I pitched what I had, and they all thought it sounded cool," Weisman Graham says. "We started kicking the tires and two weeks later we were pitching Netflix over Zoom, and they said yes right away. [On] April 20, our writers' room officially opened and on June 15 we were shooting. A little over a month later we wrapped production and we wrapped post in August. It’s been a fast-moving train. A large portion of my quarantine has been super busy and I’ve been so grateful, especially to help create jobs for others as well."
With her first goal being to create jobs for her peers at a time when the entire industry was at a standstill, she undeniably succeeded. But when it came to creating a show about quarantine that people would want to watch while still living in quarantine, that's a different story. "Many people turn to TV to escape, right?" Weisman Graham says. "But I think an equal or maybe greater number of people turn to TV because we want to feel our lives and our experiences reflected back at us. We want to feel seen, and I think this show really makes a lot of different kinds of people feel seen. There's really something for everyone. I feel like I can relate to all of the episodes in some way."
The showrunner understands that a large chunk of entertainment being consumed right now is pure escapism, but she never set out to make something along those lines. "For something that is so overwhelming and has so much uncertainty, which is this moment that we're living in right now, I actually think people crave reading about it and seeing that experience," she says. "You get together on a Zoom with friends you haven't talked to in two months or even a week, and what do you talk about? You talk about COVID, we can't get away from it! So why not humanize it, make it funny, make it cathartic? Everybody I know is going kind of crazy. This is not an easy thing. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so why not lean into those feelings and process them a little bit?"
While Weisman Graham knows Social Distance may not be for everyone, especially someone looking to turn off their brains, she does believe this series can help most people who tune in. "Our goal was to try to capture a moment in history in a time capsule of this very unique experience," she says. "We rely on stories as human beings as a way to feel our feelings. That's why we watch movies and watch TV shows. I think that it will help people feel better or at least it can help people process some of what we're going through and be entertained. That was important too."
She also explains that she "never set out to make like a historic piece about this time or about the pandemic," adding that "we only wanted to ever capture the feeling, and those feelings changed the longer we were in quarantine." With so much changing about the world and politics and "tensions brewing in lots of different ways, it just felt like such an intense, emotional time for everybody. Whether you had a loved one who was sick with COVID, or you were struggling with working from home with a 5-year-old next to you, it just felt like we needed to write about it and tell these stories," she says. "This is a singular experience. Throughout so many generations, we’ve never been through something like this, as a whole globe. So we wanted to dig into that and tell those stories and feel those feelings."
As for why she wanted to make it into an anthology with eight completely standalone episodes, Weisman Graham says it mostly had to do with story. "There were so many experiences, depending on your socioeconomic circumstance or even the color of your skin as we get into the Black Lives Matter movement, that just felt important to tell," she says. "But then also because we shot this remotely in actors' homes, we could only really tell stories based on that. If we were telling a story about two people together, they had to be living together or spending quarantine together. So that was another consideration that led to making it an anthology, but first and foremost it was from the story point of view that we decided that."
Having her first showrunner experience on a series that's remotely shot and edited completely in quarantine was difficult enough, but adding the extra step of the anthology aspect was something Weisman Graham did not anticipate. "There was a learning curve for me as a writer and a storyteller to realize, oh crap, in an anthology, you need to create lived-in, fully nuanced, fully fleshed-out characters in every episode! Every time I need to start again?" she says with a laugh. "That was more work, but certainly worth it."
And watching some of the plot points in Social Distance episodes come to life in the background of Zoom calls with the actors gave Weisman Graham a unique thrill. "At one point, Mike Colter wandered into another room to get a prop and his 4-year-old daughter wandered in and we were all having this conversation with her," she reveals. "Oscar Nuñez’s wife was acting as a crew member to help him out with the technology. I joke that Tara Hermann’s 5-year-old daughter should also have an EP credit on the show because she was in the writers' room with us a lot, doing craft projects in the background."
So even when art imitated life in quarantine, it turns out that life can still imitate art as well.
Social Distance premieres Thursday, Oct. 15 on Netflix.