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‘Connecting’: Wonderful pandemic comedy plays group chat for grins — and sometimes tears

Seven likable friends, quarantined apart, share funny commentary on our times in NBC’s fresh take on the sitcom.

The seven friends who stay in touch on group chat are Annie (Otmara Marrero, clockwise from top left), Rufus (Ely Henry), Ben (Preacher Lawson), Ellis (Shakina Nayfack), Garrett (Keith Powell), Michelle (Jill Knox) and Pradeep (Parvesh Cheena).
NBC

If you’ve caught the promos for NBC’s pandemic-set, group-chat comedy “Connecting,” I can see how you could be thinking something like: I have to be on Zoom for work meetings and the kids’ schoolwork and catch-up sessions with friends and family as it is, do I really want to watch a video chat TV show?

Yes. Premiering this Thursday, this really is Must-See TV of the moment. Thanks to showrunners Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, and an instantly likable cast that will win you over as rapidly as you took to the “Friends,” this is a fresh, funny, fast-paced and emotionally impactful show with relevant and relatable humor, some wise commentary on our times—and a love story in the making. I’ve seen the first three episodes and I’m completely hooked and eager to see the entire eight-show run.

The pilot is set in March 2020, in the early days of the stay-at-home quarantine, and subsequent episodes take us through spring and summer and early autumn, with the finale to be set against the backdrop of the November election. And while the characters and their situations are fictional, they will react and adapt to real-world developments — often in humorous fashion, occasionally with genuine and heartbreakingly real emotion.

Let’s meet the group-chat friends, who live in the Los Angeles area and have been like family through the years:

  • Pradeep (Parvesh Cheena) is a married gay parent who loves his kids but is desperate to find just a moment or two alone (he’s big on playing hide ’n’ seek), and lives for the sound of the doorbell ringing indicating a delivery service is dropping off some much-needed comfort food.
  • Michelle and Garrett (Jill Knox and Keith Powell) are a happily married, upper-middle-class couple who wouldn’t admit this publicly but are actually enjoying the quarantine — spending quality time together, picking up new skills and hobbies, renewing their romance.
  • Rufus (Ely Henry) is a borderline tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist who has turned his attic into a bunker and has taken isolation and disaster prepping to the next level. “As you’ll recall,” says Rufus, “about a month ago I said we should all be wearing a mask when we left the house, and what did you do? You laughed at me!”
  • Ellis (Shakina Nayfack) is a transgender sports junkie who usually has a stiff drink in hand and who in the early going is devastated the NBA season has been postponed and she can’t watch her beloved L.A. Clippers. (Spoiler alert for Ellis: The season will resume, and you’ll wish it hadn’t.) “I think my brain is always thinking about sports in the background in a way that’s actually very therapeutic for me,” says Ellis, and I hear you, Ellis.
  • Ben (Preacher Lawson) is newly single and angling to get an invite to live, rent-free, with someone in the group.
  • Annie (Otmara Marrero) is a writer and a free spirit who is in love with Ben but hasn’t worked up the nerve to tell him. Marrero is the standout in this excellent cast; she gives the kind of performance that should lead to lead roles in feature films.

With “The Weight” by the Band playing in the background, Annie and Ben kick off the first group chat, with Annie using the bar set from “Cheers” as her virtual background, giving us a little hint of a possible Sam and Diane romance between the two. They’re soon they’re joined by the rest of the group, with the cast (and the writers) doing an amazing job of establishing who these people are and what they’re going through. As they share their funny stories and their tales of anxiety and their latest adventures in quarantine, we can relate and we can sympathize, because we’ve all been there and we’re all still there.

The first two episodes of “Connecting” are terrific, but the third is the stuff of Emmys. It’s set on May 5, 2020, nearly two months into the pandemic, and the gang has been on self-imposed, hardcore lockdown for the last two weeks so they can all get together at Big Bear for a much-needed getaway. “In 24 hours, our safe bubble commences!” exalts Garrett. “Yes, human contact!” chimes in Ellis. They’ve all been so good about eliminating any and all contact with outsiders — or have they? Turns out one of them might have gotten a haircut, and someone else has a visitor in the background, and another member of the group just maybe had a cleaning person come to the house. Sigh.

Later in the same episode, a certain tragic event transpires, and the video goes viral, and the sitcom laughs subside as everyone reacts with shock and horror and sorrow. It’s a devastating gut punch.

“Connecting” is shot in the homes of the respective cast members. (Knox and Powell, who play a married couple, are married in real life.) Their performances are all the more impressive when you consider the circumstances. The ensemble is so good, and the folks they’re playing are so endearing, my only complaint is there isn’t a way for me to join them for their next group chat and tell them I wish them nothing but the best in these unprecedented times.