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'Social Distance' Will Move Even Cynical Survivors Of Real-Life Lockdowns

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic has taken a toll on scripted TV and feature films. But today, Netflix releases an eight-episode anthology series called "Social Distance," recreating the all-too-recent real-life lockdowns we all just lived through. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has been watching.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's obvious from the situations and setups in these episodes that the scripts for "Social Distance" were written when pandemic lockdowns were a little more absolute across America. Still, the tensions and tribulations shown in this anthology's eight unconnected vignettes highlight the drama and humor of social isolation in a way I haven't seen any other scripted series yet achieve, like the episode centered on a Latinx family holding a funeral for their patriarch via Zoom. The ceremony begins when the man's rebellious younger son, played by "Scandal" alum Guillermo Diaz, logs on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOCIAL DISTANCE")

GUILLERMO DIAZ: (As Santi) Dang, who died?

DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: (As Reina) I knew this was a bad idea.

DIAZ: (As Santi) Hey, Uncle Tone (ph). Que pasa? You guys muted Uncle Tony?

RUBIN-VEGA: (As Reina) No.

OSCAR NUNEZ: (As Miguel) He can't figure out the sound.

OLLI HAASKIVI: (As Dean) His generation is having a more difficult time with all this.

DIAZ: (As Santi) That's an understatement.

DEGGANS: Before long, the siblings are fighting. And it takes a passionate speech from their Uncle Tony, played by the always excellent Miguel Sandoval, to get them focused on what really matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOCIAL DISTANCE")

MIGUEL SANDOVAL: (As Tony) Julio Villareal was the love of my life.

GIANNA ARAGON: (As Olivia) Grandpa was gay with his brother?

CAMILA PEREZ: (As Paola) No, dummy. Uncle Tony's not our real uncle. We just call him that.

SANDOVAL: (As Tony) Not being completely open with you guys caused Julio a lot of pain, but we should put that pain to rest today, too.

DEGGANS: Another story I loved centers on an academic named Marion, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake, whose mother is stuck in a nursing home. They have a tough relationship made even touchier because the mother is attached to a breathing tube and communicates by typing words into a computer, begging her daughter for an in-person visit over video chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOCIAL DISTANCE")

AUTOMATED VOICE: (As mother) You need to get over here and visit with me, or why did I shove your big head out my loins? At least drop off my CBD cream so I got something to take my mind off my only thankless child.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION TONE)

MARSHA STEPHANIE BLAKE: (As Marion) Here we go. Look, Mom, I can't help it if I'm tied up with all of this. It's not like I invented coronavirus so that I'd have an excuse to not come visit you, Mom.

DEGGANS: When the nursing home announces that all health care aides must quarantine with their clients, the aide caring for the professor's mother, played by "Orange Is The New Black" alum Danielle Brooks, realizes she has a problem with her daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOCIAL DISTANCE")

DANIELLE BROOKS: (As nurse aide) I don't have child care.

BLAKE: (As Marion) What do you mean? Who's watching her now?

BROOKS: (As nurse aide) I am, OK? She's at home alone, but I'm watching her through my phone. And it's because school is closed, and afterschool is closed.

BLAKE: (As Marion) You don't have, like, a neighbor or a friend or...

BROOKS: (As nurse aide) Do you think I would've left her alone if I did?

DEGGANS: The eventual solution, suggested by Marion's mom, nearly tears both families apart. "Social Distance" was cast and filmed entirely on lockdown. It just feels so last spring, especially given that even big network TV series are now easing back into production. Still, the episodes here work because they're not pretentious. They're simple human stories which could, with a bit of tweaking, be compelling even without the backdrop of a global pandemic.

After so many months of coping with coronavirus, the idea of spending time with a program called "Social Distance" might not seem all that appealing. But you'll be rewarded with a subtly entertaining series that's mostly about the power of human connection, which we could all still use more of.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY DAD VS. YOURS' "NO FARM NO FOOD NO FUTURE")

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have news this morning that Nick Saban has tested positive for coronavirus. If you don't know that name, that merely means you are not a fan of University of Alabama football. He is universally known in that state. Alabama is preparing for its biggest game of the season, but it's not the only team facing outbreaks. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: With all due respect to every other conference in the country, the Southeastern is it when it comes to college football. And for the SEC, it's been a bad week. It started with the Missouri-Vanderbilt game getting postponed because of a coronavirus outbreak at Vandy. Then Florida versus LSU was off after more than 20 Florida players and coaches tested positive. Late yesterday, the bombshell - Alabama's Nick Saban, winner of six national titles and considered by many the greatest college coach, was positive, too.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Saban is, unfortunately, the cherry on top of the cake that nobody wanted to see baked.

GOLDMAN: ESPN college football analyst Paul Finebaum says 68-year-old Saban was one of the last people you'd think would get in trouble with the virus. He's been diligent about wearing a mask. He recorded a PSA in the spring stressing COVID safety. But last week, Alabama traveled to Mississippi for a game.

FINEBAUM: They rode a bus. They stayed in hotels. There's only so much you can control.

GOLDMAN: Yesterday, in a Zoom press conference after his diagnosis, Saban said he was asymptomatic and felt fine. He even showed a little of that trademark Saban fire as he described running yesterday's football practice from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK SABAN: I had the manager have a phone. If I wanted a play repeated, I'd say, repeat that play - so-and-so messed up. So you know, I didn't leave the country. I'm just right down the street.

GOLDMAN: It's not clear if he'll be able to coach from afar for this Saturday's big game between his No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 3 Georgia. Meanwhile, Paul Finebaum says this tough week for the SEC should give pause to all the college football administrators who've insisted they're doing it right and playing this unique season safely.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.