The Covid shows are here! The ABC has already delivered At Home Alone Together and Retrograde. Now, ready or not, the pandemic web series are coming, and Loving Captivity is the latest: a sweet (though sometimes overly earnest) snapshot of distanced dating during Melbourne’s first lockdown.
The online series follows Ally (Christie Whelan Browne), a 30-something mother who has trouble putting herself out there; and Joe (Lewis Mulholland), a guy whose personality is knowingly mottled together with five anecdotes and 500 Tinder opening lines. Ally and Joe went on three dates and had sex once, and then he called it all off.
The short series – just six episodes, at six minutes each – is about their reconnection at a time of mass dislocation.
As the title might let on, this is an optimistic series. Its first episode is dated “Thursday, 26 March 2020” on screen, but you won’t hear the characters talk about the Centrelink queues that were forming around the block from 4am each morning, or the dread-inducing press conferences we watched each night.
“Our show is about the positives,” says Mulholland, who created the series with writer/director Libby Butler. “Covid-19 has sucked for a lot of reasons, I don’t want to take away from that. But lockdown has had its benefits too: more time with people we love, buying less crap and less swiping to the next date while sitting in a bar with your current date.”
Butler calls it “our love letter to the pandemic” – and, for her, the show is especially personal. “I was dumped on Wednesday, March 18,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. By Saturday, March 22, Lewis and I had started writing.”
The benefit of this immediacy is that many details ring true: elaborately staged Zoom dates, an awkward spritz of sanitiser on a gift sent in an Uber, the fact that two people who went on a few dates months ago are chatting like this at all (remember the Houseparty phase?).
The drawback is that, with such a limited time in development, the dialogue often feels too writerly. In the first few episodes, Ally and Joe are burdened to deliver recaps of their backstories and character defects while monologuing about romcoms and dating culture – all in the performative cadence of a Zoom date.
The episodes become much more fun later when they’re rooted in new action: an unplanned late-night phone call, a fight about being “mum-zoned”, a surprisingly sexy incident with a smoke alarm. It’s far more interesting to see people stitch together a relationship in unlikely circumstances than conduct a theatrical postmortem about a dead one.
The one constant delight of the series is the direction and cinematography. So many film-makers still struggle with depicting digital communication – texting has a particularly cursed history on screen – so a series that takes place in quarantine is not the easiest task. But Butler, in her directorial debut, does a great job. Ally and Joe are brought together by a dynamic split-screen, and the perspectives are varied so you’re not constantly trapped in a laptop peephole. The characters are allowed to move and breathe (and awkwardly perch their bodies to get the best angle for each other).
Loving Captivity is part of a promising new wave of work from young creators who understand how to tell stories about our lives online. In that way, it reminds me of Content – the vertical online series, all set on a phone, that proved so realistic it went viral and fooled the world.
This kind of creativity with form and style may be increasingly important as Covid restrictions continue. Not only are our lives becoming more online, TV and film productions are facing unprecedented limitations that make IRL collaboration difficult.
Loving Captivity was shot in the creators’ homes with minimal crew and the help of a City of Melbourne Covid-19 arts grant. At the time, many of those involved were facing difficult personal circumstances. Butler was home-schooling her six-year-old daughter, who also features her in the show. And, of course, the actors were rarely actually together in the same room.
That’s a tricky foundation for a fun, flirty romcom – and that’s without even mentioning the broader problem of a deadly pandemic raging in the background. But, in the end, Loving Captivity does pull it off. It’s a sweet reflection of the inane things we do to distract ourselves in the face of chaos, and the odd ways we’re pulled together when we’re apart.
• Loving Captivity is streaming now on Facebook