The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is nowhere near over. States are experiencing surges in cases; unemployment is still rampant; and the death toll has eclipsed 172,000. Many of us continue to be affected by changes to how we work, how we parent, and how we live. Freeform’s “Love in the Time of Corona” (Gabriel García Márquez would not be pleased) is interested in changes to how we love, but the miniseries doesn’t offer any singular insights into how this experience is transforming us. Too hesitant to engage fully with the most devastating effects of the pandemic, “Love in the Time of Corona” works desperately to polish a pleasant veneer upon this deeply troubled time, and the result is a blandly superficial reflection of what we are still living through. The interconnected narratives and characters lack depth, and the four episodes do little to comfort or entertain.
Set in California and spanning the first few months of the pandemic, through May, “Love in the Time of Corona”—which was, according to Freeform, “filmed using remote technologies and shot in the cast’s actual homes”—follows four groups of self-isolating people, adapting to various degrees to this new normal. (Freeform will air the first two episodes, “The Course of Love” and “#RelationshipGoals,” on August 22, and the third and fourth, “Seriously Now” and “Love and Protest,” on August 23.) Three of the groups are interconnected, and those familial and friendly relationships become clear as the episodes progress. The fourth group of characters, meanwhile, is younger than the rest, isn’t connected to the others, and feels most like Freeform catering specifically to its younger Millennial and Generation Z demographic.
“The Course of Love” introduces most of the series’ characters. Married couple James (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Sade (Nicolette Robinson) are self-isolating together with their toddler daughter. A movie producer (“Spike” is name dropped) who was barely home before, James is realizing that he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thought. His mother, Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell), is living alone while her husband is recovering from pneumonia in a short-term care facility. With their 50th wedding anniversary coming up, Nanda worries that she won’t be able to prepare the home for their planned party. Against James’ wishes, she reaches out to his brother, from whom the family is estranged, to invite him back into her life to help. One of Nanda’s former elementary school students, Sophie (Ava Ballows), returns from Sarah Lawrence College to finish out the semester at home. What she doesn’t know is that her parents, life insurance salesman Paul (Gil Bellows) and freelance artist Sarah (Rya Kihlstedt), separated months ago and are only pretending to still live together to avoid breaking the news to Sophie.
Those three groupings follow some similar narrative beats about romance and parenthood. James & Sade and Paul & Sarah are struggling to find the balance in their partnerships as parents. Nanda worries about whether she treated her sons fairly, a conversation she can’t have with her husband as his health takes a downward turn. James and Sade consider having another child, a possibility that makes James anxious when news breaks of the racially motivated murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Those inward-looking questions don’t get much time to breathe, though—they’re swiftly resolved so that the series can maintain a positive outlook. In fact, “Love in the Time of Corona” doesn’t wholeheartedly engage with coronavirus outside of using it as a way to fill in conversational gaps (with what often feels like throwaway dialogue about the Centers for Disease Control, mask use, and TikTok dance challenges) while these people are cooped up together. That treatment ultimately feels like a sidestepping of the damage coronavirus has wreaked on countless families and relationships. Nothing about “Love in the Time of Corona” would change if you replaced the pandemic with any other widespread disaster event, and that reflects a lack of specificity in its writing that makes the show overall seem more rote than enlightening.
That cursory handling of the pandemic is at its most glaring with the fourth group of characters: roommates and best friends Oscar (Tommy Dorfman) and Elle (Rainey Qualley). A fashion stylist and aspiring singer-songwriter, respectively, the two decide to give online dating a go while stuck at home and choose dating partners for each other. But while Elle strikes out with a guy solely interested in discussing the DC Cinematic Universe before asking for topless pictures, Oscar actually hits it off with the man Elle chose for them. Little does Oscar know that Elle has been pining for them for years, and although she tries to distract herself with their hot neighbor, she can’t shake the attraction.
So much of the Oscar/Elle storyline demonstrates the limits of this show’s conceit: The only way in which the roommates are affected by the pandemic is that they can’t go out on dates. The writing doesn’t make room for any other impact, or deeper conversations about what the best friends might be fearing, missing, or grappling with. Instead, they make references to “Game of Thrones,” watch “Love Actually,” and take baths together, and that’s about it. That age gap between Oscar and Elle and the rest of the series’ characters wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t inadvertently highlight the show’s reluctance to engage with issues outside of love. Neither of the young characters worries about how they’ll pay the rent or mortgage on their impressively sized apartment, nor do they check in with other loved ones about how they’re doing during the pandemic.
Instead, there are strange commonalities between all four character groups that hint at simplistic development. Three of the four groups have a musician in the mix as a way to indicate a creative-but-stifled spirit. Both fathers have to look through old wedding pictures to realize they’re taking advantage of their wives. Similar scenarios are recycled throughout, but not in a way that suggests a certain universality of experience—just lazy writing. Amid all this, the only storyline that truly shines is the one involving Nanda, her husband, and her two sons. Caldwell’s performance as Nanda is warm and soothing, and her affection for her family is genuine and relatable. When James asks her of being Black in America, “How were you and Daddy not angry all the time?”, her response is the show’s most honest moment: “Who says we weren’t? We had to claim our joy, son. That was our protest.” Nanda’s story benefits most from the series’ interconnectivity, but it’s the exception.
The ultimate message “Love in the Time of Corona” seems to be sending is gratitude: “I think being forced to slow down and stay home isn’t such a bad thing,” one character says to another. And while that sentiment feels reassuring, it’s also surprisingly privileged for a show that actually includes a scene where one character interrogates another’s privilege! “Love in the Time of Corona” is trying to be a balm but it’s an incomplete cure for our current moment.
Four episodes screened for review.