If it was 12 months ago, Spectrum The bite – a new zombie comedy from the creators of The good fightt – would have felt like a little triumph of ingenuity.
As of April 2020, quarantine productions started pouring into our screens, well-intentioned in their desire to provide crews with paid employment, but rarely finding constructive creative workarounds for COVID constraints. These were artistic ventures featuring actors interacting via Zoom and Skype screens, sometimes animated by in-person scenes shared by real-life spouses.
The bottom line
Fun, but stifled by COVID production constraints.
By the end of the summer, many productions had resumed, although the resulting shows had visual callbacks – the nightclub scene with half a dozen people, etc. – complicated COVID protocols. The COVID quarantine shoots were relics and a new normal was reigning.
Yet somehow, nearly 12 months to the day after the casting of Mystical quest joined for an emotionally triumphant Zoom, and nine months after Freeform Love in the time of Corona, the COVID production drama is back with The bite, a strange exercise in nostalgia for a filming method that no one is nostalgic for. Despite moderate creativity, The biteThe dated limits outweigh its pleasures.
Unlike most of these COVID quarantine productions, The bite is not a retrospective reflection of the beginnings of “Happy Birthday” handwashing and homemade masks. Even though it was filmed last fall, it takes place amid a resurgence of COVID and a new stay-at-home order, a new wave of government disinformation and a new wave of calls for political motivation for the return of the economy to its full functioning.
Rachel (Audra McDonald) is a medical concierge providing computer diagnostics from her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. She worries when several of her patients begin to show signs of a new strain of COVID, a strain transmitted by bite and capable of turning victims into brainless, flesh-eating monsters. For logical reasons, this new outbreak involves Rachel’s husband Zach (Steven Pasquale), assigned to a CDC task force in DC, working closely with Cyndi (Phillipa Soo). Zach and Cyndi had an affair, which makes Skyping tense with Rachel, although she is having an affair with photojournalist Brian (Will Swenson).
Meanwhile, Rachel’s upstairs neighbor Lily (Taylor Schilling), a dear dominatrix with her own home-quarantine clientele, has an encounter with the new strain, leading to an unlikely cooperative collaboration.
The bite is divided into three different shows.
The first two episodes, both written by series creators Robert and Michelle King, are the increasingly wacky and semi-grounded kind of satire the Kings have attempted with the ephemeral. Brain death, a 2016 CBS drama that was both eerily prescient and never quite unified. To me, the Kings are brilliant satirists when they weave the laughs into a dramatic setting, which helped make The good fight one of the funniest shows on TV. But they are less good when they weave the drama in a wacky frame. Here, the opening episodes capture the paranoid absurdity of pandemic lockdown – a context in which the outside uncertainty is so bizarre that you couldn’t even leave your home to flee a marauding zombie. When characters, usually high-level bureaucrats, make marketing decisions to rename COVID variants, for example, the laughs never materialize the way they should.
The next two episodes are a zombie prank, so delusional that my immediate point of comparison was with Netflix. Santa Clarita Diet, a zombie comedy that better mixed intelligence and silliness that most people gave it credit for. These intermediate episodes present a disembodied hand straight out of The Addams Family and a wild zombie cat straight out of Peter Jackson’s first gore-fest. They also underline how Schilling is an exceptional comedian. Either you’re going to indulge yourself with the Kings by doing a low budget creature feature, or you won’t. I did.
The final pair of episodes makes an almost inexplicable decision to take this whole zombie-COVID epidemic seriously and find McDonald’s staring through a shoddy props microscope for two hours, sucking in any joy from the proceedings. As best I could guess, the Kings had to figure out how this story ended, and the choices were either to expand the scope of the story beyond three rooms, or to choose the less interesting, but most content, recap. They went with the latter.
The path the show takes isn’t scary, it’s not funny, and it keeps reminding you over and over again that hardly any of the actors are in the same rooms. It is quite admirable the dramatic weight that McDonald’s is able to provide (part of) and the amount of comedic energy that Schilling is able to convey (amply) while doing most of their scenes in front of the screens of computer and phone.
Typically, the management, starting with longtime Kings collaborator Brooke Kennedy, accomplishes variation in tone and rhythm in restrictive ensembles – something very few of those early midlife shows even attempted. Here you have the star of Orange is the new black brawl with a cat puppet and go up and down the steps and in and out of doors, unlike most other quarantine shows, this attempt at intensity by having the actors stick their faces very close to their webcams.
As for the restrictive sets themselves, the conception of production is extremely mixed. Lily and Rachel’s respective Hell’s Kitchen apartments are decadent and leave room for some insane undead comedy when needed. On the other hand, the CDC lab where Zach and Cyndi work gives the impression of being Pasquale and Soo’s real closet. You can almost smell the mothballs.
Oh, and I mentioned that most actors share scenes exclusively with screens, but that’s not really true. In its increasingly frequent shifts, The bite at least serves the purpose of being a briefly entertaining game of “Guess What Broadway Stars Are Married!”; if an actor here has a real leaf in the frame, you can safely guess he’s a spouse or at least a pod friend. You have Pasquale and Soo, who can’t develop any real chemistry with the whole claustrophobic closet. You have McDonald and Swenson, who have chemistry and have the weakest excuses to sing together for a scene or two. And then you get Ryan Spahn and Michael Urie, who play the operators and on-screen talents for a popular virtual background review site, a site so very branded for the Kings that viewers will be checking out Chumhum. to see if it’s real.
That I’ve spent these last two thoughtless episodes trying to figure out the COVID pod connections between Schilling and Rob McClure (who joins her closely as Lily’s client) and between Ben Shenkman, as ASMR’s wealthy lover , and the actress playing her assistant talks about how much The bite should be noted on some kind of curve. Ultimately, I’m not prepared to travel 12 months back, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, just to properly appreciate a series of zombies available only to Spectrum subscribers.