It was inevitable that there would be a television show—if not dozens—that would dramatize life under quarantine. Maybe it was inevitable, too, that it would be called Love in the Time of Corona.
The play on the title of Gabriel García Marquéz’s 1985 book Love in the Time of Cholera had found its way into countless social media posts and stories about life in the months since the pandemic brought the world to a halt. Now Love in the Time of Corona is a two-night limited series airing this weekend on Freeform, a production as impressive and emotional as it is unbearably on the nose and oversimplified.
A romantic dramedy that intertwines four core love stories, the series was announced in early May. The timeline chronicles the first weeks of quarantines and mandatory stay-at-home orders through the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. It ends in the days before George Floyd’s death ignited a national reckoning on racism that led many Americans to spill out of their homes and into the streets in protest for the first time since the pandemic hit the States.
The emotions captured in Love in the Time of Corona from those early days of the shutdown are achingly recognizable, yet they also feel so long and so many traumas ago as to almost be twee.
There was the novelty, still, of being housebound, of having to entertain ourselves day in and day out, and of the grand production of masks, hand sanitizer, and grocery runs in makeshift hazmat suits. There was the itchy acclimation to this new life, suddenly spending every waking moment with your family, and the powder keg of emotions that created. There was the growing frustration and heartbreak about the loved ones you couldn’t see.
Characters grow disappointed as things they planned for in May and June are canceled and postponed. (If they only knew…) Love in the Time of Corona arrives at the end of August, with the country still a long way away from returning to normal, and anger, frustration, and extreme, violent division superseding the listlessness and worry depicted in the show.
It’s a series that snapshots a profound time that is both fairly recent and seemingly decades ago, considering everything we’ve gone through since. It’s easy to be touched by the emotion of it all—but even easier to be exasperated by its naiveté.
That describes the impossible tension for any creator trying to comment on These Crazy Times as they’re still unfolding and only getting crazier.
That everyone involved in Love in the Time of Corona turned around a series this professional-looking in the amount of time they did is remarkable; it was shot using state-of-the-art remote technology in the actors’ own homes, with production only launching less than two months ago.
But it’s hard to create anything about that time without being both too soon and too late. It’s inherently unpleasant to relive those circumstances, no matter how uplifting or touching the series can be. And it glares with a lack of nuance gleaned from the months of processing and the even more extreme experiences we’ve endured since.
James and Sade are portrayed by married actors Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson. The entertainment industry shutdown in Los Angeles means that James, a producer, is spending time with Sade and their infant daughter for the first time. They start out in a babymoon phase, of sorts, but they quickly are forced to consider what they respectively want from their futures, and how to land on the same page about it.
James’ mother Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell) is alone in her house, occupying her time by planning the 50th anniversary party she is determined to still have with her husband, Charles (Charlie Robinson), who has been unable to come home from his rehab facility because of COVID precautions.
Quarantining together in another home are Oscar, a nonbinary stylist played by Tommy Dorfman, and Elle, a singer-songwriter played by Rainey Qualley. The roommates spice up the monotony of the repetitive days by making TikTok videos and leering over the neighbor who likes to use his outdoor shower. They decide to join dating apps, depicting the perspective of all those young people whose love lives were put on hold by the pandemic—but things become complicated when virtual dating exposes feelings they may have for each other.
Then there’s Sophie, who comes home from college to quarantine with her parents, Paul and Sarah, who had secretly separated months before but now must keep up the appearance of being together so as to not make an already difficult time more trying for their overdramatic daughter. Gil Bellows, his wife Rya Kihlstedt, and their daughter Ava portray the family.
If you’ve become accustomed to blurrily-shot reality shows or Zoom cast reunion specials that have taken place in recent months, the degree to which Love in the Time of Corona looks and feels like a Freeform TV show from before the bad times will pleasantly surprise you. Yes, there are the tricks of video chats and FaceTimes, but they are sprinkled believably throughout, and are not the entire gimmick. It’s an astonishing comfort to see TV that looks like real TV again.
What detracts from the endeavor, however, is the fact that it reflects such an optimistic view of that time, when things have since gotten so much darker. Maybe this series will serve as a Rorschach test for audiences on how healthy and at peace they’re feeling with how the pandemic has progressed. But for me, it’s hard not to watch dialogue about why watching The Help on Netflix is problematic and how funny it is to wear boxers with a dress shirt for Zoom meetings and not rage, “IT’S CUTE THAT YOU THINK THIS IS STILL IMPORTANT!”
Maybe it’s OK that this is slight. Maybe not everything needs to feel so heavy right now. As the four-episode series goes on, you become invested in how the four relationships are developing, forgiving a bit of the wooden and wonky set up. Oscar’s storyline is beautifully progressive and applaud-worthy. And you bet I cried—a lot—at the ways in which the stories wrapped up. But it was not exactly catharsis I felt. The series doesn’t delve deep enough for that.
Instead of leaving the lasting imprint it may have intended as one of the first big attempts at filtering “the time of corona” into pop culture, the show is just another catalyst for a fleeting, yet heavily emotional episode. But what isn’t these days?
We’re learning every day which series plan to incorporate COVID into their storylines when they return, and new projects are being announced every day that aim to capture what’s going on right now. It will be messy, but fascinating to see which of these efforts succeed.
In recent months, I’ve found the most stirring and resonant content to be unintentionally timely, like the existentialism and ennui of Palm Springs, the depiction of society’s ineptitude and unwillingness to adapt to survive disaster in Avenue 5, and the themes of mortality and anxiety in Amy Seimetz’s excellent horror film She Dies Tomorrow.
The intentional timeliness of something like this can be cumbersome, especially when the tone seems to be “COVID, but make it sentimental.” Love Actually is name-checked a few times in Love in the Time of Corona, enough to make it seem like a blatant inspiration. I’m not sure there are many people who will view that as the best thing.