As widespread vaccinations begin to signal the beginning of the end for the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, what happens to Zoom? The virtual meeting platform (and others like it) has sustained the continuity of business, education, journalism, entertainment, and more for over a year now, but as we finally get the go-ahead to unmask and gather in greater numbers once again, is the age of omnipresent digital communication also coming to a close?
Well…not really. These platforms existed long before the global health crisis and will continue to exist once the novel coronavirus is just a distant memory in our collective consciousness. What is coming to a close is the implication of why Zoom was not only convenient, but also necessary to society’s ability to function in a rather scary time when people were being advised to keep away from each other and stay indoors.
That’s where Antisocial Distance comes in. The recently-released web series from Los Angeles-based comedian Avital Ash provides a snapshot of how humanity was able to forge connections via the internet at the height of the pandemic. And while many people don’t want to reminded of the whirlwind of constant bad news that was 2020, Ash is confident that her show carries “a weird nostalgia for what’s ending.”
“As we’re celebrating our release from quarantine, [we can] remember what it was like,” she explains during a (what else?) Zoom interview with Forbes Entertainment. “I think it now feels a little bit like you can watch from a safe distance because we’re leaving it … Even when we’re talking about Trump and stuff. That feels like it was so long ago, but it wasn’t. It feels safer now. You can watch it without being like, ‘Oh God, what’s gonna happen?’ It’s not over and we have a lot of work to do, but it’s just such a relief that Trump’s not in office anymore. So, being able to look at some of those events with a little more perspective and distance is nice.”
Set across the Jewish holiday of Passover (also known as “Pesach” within more observant circles, it’s an annual celebration that spans eight days), Antisocial Distance explores themes of love, friendship, family, sexuality, and religion through the character of Josephine (a fictionalized version of Ash played by the comedian herself).
Across 46 different chapters, Josephine tries to adopt a dog, navigates family issues, dispels stereotypical myths about Judaism, and struggles with her attraction to other women. They’re slice of life scenarios that juggle laughs with pathos. “It’s as much dramatic as it is funny,” Ash explains.
In addition to offering a chance for Ash to stretch her creative muscles in a time when a lot of comedy/entertainment work had dried up, Distance also provided an avenue through which to explore her own bisexuality. Having grown up against the backdrop of Orthodox Judaism, which doesn’t always support LGBTQ+ individuals, the experience wasn’t just one of creativity. It was one of catharsis as well.
“I was having to confront a part of myself that was really easy to just ignore, especially in a relationship with a man with the upbringing that I came from,” she says. “It’s been interesting in how my personal life has informed the series, but then also the series has informed my personal life.”
As she mentions in the director’s statement on the series’ website: “My relationship to religion, spirituality, and sexuality are complicated.” What better way to present that than to funnel it through a holiday all about freedom and asking questions? Passover is all about recalling the Hebrews’ exodus from Ancient Egypt, and it’s customary to pose different questions to connote what sets the festival apart from the rest of the year.
“There’s this mixed message that I grew up [with] … about asking questions and you do weird things just so the kids ask questions,” Ash continues. “But at the same time, the rest of the year when you ask questions, it’s like, ‘Because God said so.’ So you’re like, ‘Am I supposed to question or am I supposed to blindly believe?’ That sort of internal war feels really exemplified in Pesach.”
Shot in March of this year — though its story is set during spring 2020 — Antisocial Distance features an ensemble cast that includes: Jessie Kahnweiler (Shangri-LA), Rose McIver (iZombie), Ellington Wells (writer on Adult Swim’s Lazor Wulf) Steven Weber (Chicago Med), Asha Michelle Wilson (writer on American Horror Story), Andrew Gurland (creator of Married), Joe Cobden (Cavendish), Rabbi David Kasher, and Ash’s real-world boyfriend, Amir Blumenfeld (formerly of CollegeHumor, he now runs the HeadGum podcasting network with his creative partner, Jake Hurwitz).
Despite the fact that people had more free time on their hands than usual, Ash admits she had a difficult time locking down her cast. Like many productions of the COVID era, the writer/director/producer/editor simply had to improvise.
“It was a hard time to ask anybody for anything because everyone feels like there life has been upended and people, I think, are flakier than usual,” she says. “Even though I could see a world where people would be more excited to be a part of a project because it gives them a purpose. But no, it was really hard to pin people down. So that’s when I was like, ‘Ok, I have to be the center of it and I can pull people in.’ It was very … utilitarian, but just what I could do with what I had.”
Ash gives a lion’s share of the credit to her co-producer, Livia Treviño, a Texas-based designer with a background in public relations and social media. Livia designed the website and YouTube thumbnails, while offering constructive feedback on the episodes. “She was watching all the cuts and would give input and help change some of the narrative like, ‘What if we flipped these episodes?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ She became a real sounding board and partner in it,” Ash adds.
Ever since coronavirus temporarily put the kibosh on live-action shoots, audiences have been inundated with pandemic-inspired content — from Freeform’s Love in the Time of Corona to Netflix’s Social Distance. Ash’s series declares its intention to move against the grain with a prefix that stands in stark defiance of the latter.
Whereas those projects “feel like they’re trying to sum up an era,” Antisocial Distance is more “about the human reaction to that big question … of the situation, rather than moralizing or trying to make a great statement about COVID,” Ash explains. “It’s just about humanity and how we react to these unknowns. Which I think is just a magnifying glass. It’s always unknown. You can drop dead at any moment and we have no control over this life, but we have the illusion of control and COVID sort of took that [away].”
She characterizes Distance as “more immersive” and easier to get lost in” because of its inherent disinterest in artificial grandstanding. “There was a review that said our series was the only one that didn’t feel shoe-horned to fit a pandemic reality,” Ash concludes. “And I think that’s true. This is the setting for the story — choosing a story specifically that’s about how you react to being stuck in place with yourself or with a partner or something that you’re not totally prepared for. Rather than being like, ‘Uhhh, how do we work this in?’, and it doesn’t really feel integrated.”
Speaking of Zoom, Ms. Ash will be a part of the virtual Self-Care Comedy Tuesday, June 15 at 7 p.m. EST. You can also catch her at Celebrity Drop in Night at Flappers Comedy Club Burbank on the evening of Wednesday, June 9.