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'Solos' And 'The Bite' Showcase How To Create New TV During A Pandemic

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. When the pandemic shut down most TV and movie production last year, no one knew when filming could resume safely. A few resourceful TV writers and producers decided not to wait and to approach the COVID restrictions like a challenge. What kind of TV shows could you film during a pandemic and how? Examples of that inventiveness show up this week on two different streaming services. Both shows are in the fantasy genre and come from respected TV writer-producers.

Robert and Michelle King, creators of "The Good Wife," have come up with "The Bite," a present-day comedy-drama that combines COVID lockdown with an outbreak of a zombie contagion. And David Weil, creator of "Hunters," presents "Solos," an anthology series set at various points in the future, with technology playing a prominent part.

"Solos," presented by Amazon, has a different star in each episode. And for the most part, that's it. One way to film during a pandemic without having the actors risk exposure to COVID is to have only one actor on screen. Weil and the other writers employ various tricks to make the shows more than straight-out monologues. And the best of them work very well. Helen Mirren plays an astronaut alone in space, talking to her onboard computer like it's HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Anthony Mackie plays two roles, a wealthy, dying young man who meets and briefs his look-alike cybernetic replacement. And in the premiere episode, Anne Hathaway plays several roles, but they're all the same one at different times. She plays a scientist working on time travel and finds a way to communicate in the future - or the past - with herself. Eventually, she establishes a video link, but the first time she makes contact, it's by audio only when her time-scanning machinery locks on to a familiar voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOLOS")

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Tell me your name.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Leah Salavara (ph). And you're...

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) I'm Leah. I'm Leah Salavara, too.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Oh, my God. But wait. How can I know that you're really...

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) You?

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Yeah. I mean, what's something that I only - that only we would know?

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) First kiss, no tongue.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Henry John (ph).

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Henry John.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) First kiss with tongue?

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Mallory Jackson (ph).

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Mallory Jackson.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Favorite singer? The real one, not the one that you tell people.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Kelly Clarkson.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Kelly Clarkson.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Just because she's popular doesn't mean she's not amazing.

HATHAWAY: (As Leah) Just because she's popular doesn't mean she's not amazing.

BIANCULLI: The installments of "Solos" I've mentioned are the best of the seven-episode bunch. Helen Mirren, as a 71-year-old space traveler looking back on her life, delivers a performance that shouldn't be missed and that I expect will haunt me for a long time. "Solos" is the closest thing the U.S. has come to the superb British sci-fi anthology series "Black Mirror" and absolutely is worth checking out.

So is "The Bite," if you can find it. "The Bite" is the latest TV series from Robert and Michelle King, creators of "The Good Wife" and "Evil" on CBS and "The Good Fight" on what now is Paramount Plus. The "Bite" is a six-episode miniseries that solves its COVID production dilemma in two ways. First, it casts two real-life husband and wife couples in four primary roles, so they can safely share the screen in respective two shots. And second, it sets the action in the present day, during a pandemic quarantine. So characters largely are housebound, working and communicating via their computers.

Audra McDonald, who eventually will share scenes with her real-life spouse, Will Swenson, plays Rachel, a doctor living in Manhattan who's making house calls without leaving her house via Zoom. It's the same way she connects with her mother, a world-famous doctor who appears on Rachel's computer screen with an entertaining amount of attitude, played by Leslie Uggams.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BITE")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (As Rachel) Hi, Mom. I'm here.

LESLIE UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) What is going on with your hair? Is this about Black Lives Matter?

MCDONALD: (As Rachel) Oh, my God. Will you please - stop talking.

UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) You're just guilty because you married a white man.

MCDONALD: (As Rachel) OK. All right. Stop. Listen. Zach asked me to call you.

UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) This is about that AP quote? I only said what was true.

MCDONALD: (As Rachel) But that's not why you're saying it.

UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) Really? Educate me, dear. Why am I saying it?

MCDONALD: (As Rachel) Because you are upset that Zach did not include you and his advisory committee.

UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) Not upset, just surprised he decided not to include a Nobel Prize winner in immunology.

MCDONALD: (As Rachel) Mom, Zach told you he was worried about the appearance of nepotism.

UGGAMS: (As Dr. Hester Boutella) The virus doesn't care about nepotism. It only cares about spreading and infecting.

BIANCULLI: "The Bite" is lots and lots of fun and has a lot going on. Steven Pasquale and Phillipa Soo, another real-life couple, play government health care experts. And Taylor Schilling from "Orange Is The New Black" plays Rachel's upstairs neighbor Lily, who's also working remotely from home during the pandemic. But it's trickier for her because she's a dominatrix.

Before long, "The Bite" throws all these characters together as they try to avoid the zombie plague and find a cure. The action ranges from playful, over-the-top silliness to moments of true tenderness. And Robert and Michelle King always have great fun playing with the latest technologies and our shared frustrations with them. So "The Bite" not only has plagues like COVID and a zombie virus, it also has such plagues as dropped wireless signals, frozen computer screens and accidentally pressed mute buttons. Audra McDonald, as the main character, carries it all off effortlessly and impressively.

If you saw the Kings' most recent summer series, the similarly bizarre CBS sci-fi show "Brain Dead," you have a good idea what's coming. "The Bite" is great fun. Its only fault is that it's premiering not on CBS, not even on Paramount Plus, but on Spectrum On Demand. I'm hoping CBS will repurpose "The Bite" later this summer as a broadcast premiere, as it did with "The Good Fight." After all, what else does it have to offer that's this fresh and this enjoyable?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, we talked with Donnie Walton, whose debut novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev," has been described as a dazzling triumph. It's about an unlikely music duo from the early 1970s. Opal is a Black feminist from Detroit who is Afro-punk before that term existed. And Nev is a withdrawn, goofy white British guitarist. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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