'Love in the Time of Corona': How the Freeform Rom-Com Tackles Romance During Quarantine (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
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Like many ideas, Freeform's Love in the Time of Coronawas borne out of a conversation. It was the end of April -- more than a month into quarantine -- and executive producer Joanna Johnson was preparing for the third season of Good Trouble in the virtual writers' room when she and her manager, Robyn Meisinger, had a frank discussion about dating during quarantine. Through that conversation, Meisinger shared that she had begun seeing someone she met virtually. The wheels started turning in Johnson's head.
"Not just people looking for love because they're lonely, but people that are quarantining at home with their families or quarantining in a marriage and aren't used to being together 24/7," Johnson told ET of the idea's origination. "I read a few articles and I started to think of ideas and interesting dynamics that could be [explored]." A quick email pitch to Freeform later, Johnson had a show -- a four-part limited series following four seemingly disparate stories of Los Angelenos living in a COVID-19 world, executed in a little over three months from pitch to premiere.
Johnson envisioned a Love Actually-inspired take focusing on four stories and bringing them all together in the end through the connective thread relationships can create. "I didn't want to do a show about the virus. I also don't think [people are] ready to watch a show about the virus," she said. "What I was interested in is how this time at home, how this slowdown and this isolation is affecting relationships that are already established or relationships that want to see [blossom]."
Even before casting took place, Johnson had outlines of eight very distinct stories, a few of which were abandoned because of who was able and comfortable with cameras in their homes. (A storyline featuring two sisters, for instance, was scrapped.) Scripts were written in just two weeks after the parts were cast. A virtual table read took place in mid-June. The challenges were there: Zeroing in on storylines that were relevant, topical and realistic (the timeline within the show ends in early May and includes mentions of Ahmaud Arbery's death); casting actors who were already quarantining together; and filming it safely using social distancing protocols all added layers of difficulty to the fast-tracked production.
There's married couple James (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Sade (Nicolette Robinson), who are back under the same roof after the pandemic halts James' work as a producer. Best friends and roommates Oscar (Tommy Dorfman) and Elle's (Rainey Qualley) friendship grows complicated as they both seek lovers. Paul (Gil Bellows) and Sarah (Rya Kihlstedt) put on a facade when their daughter, Sophie (Ava Bellows), returns home from college. And Nanda (L. Scott Caldwell), whose husband is unable to return home from rehab but is determined to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
Johnson and Freeform reached out to Odom Jr. and Robinson early in the process, and the real-life couple was intrigued by the ambition behind the series. "We loved what they wanted to accomplish and the story of love and connection that they wanted to tell," Robinson, who is an executive producer alongside Odom Jr., told ET. "We were like, 'We're on board if you're interested in tweaking a bit and collaborating,' and they were so game for it and we just hit the ground running." As Johnson detailed, Odom Jr. and Robinson's original storyline was completely different and turned into something more reflective of their life and marriage now. (It ended up being adapted into a smaller arc with Sade's best friend, who meets a guy online and decides to quarantine with him.)
"When I met with them they said, 'We love the story, but we would like to do something that's closer to what our own experience has been in quarantine -- that being Leslie on the road and being home for a longer period of time consistently than he has been sinceHamilton blew up,'" Johnson recalled. "And Nicolette feeling like she's ready to get her career started and the discussions they were having about 'Should we have another baby? Should we do something with this time? If we're going to be in this for months to a year, not being able to work, is it a good time to have another baby? What is our relationship now where he's home?.'"
"It's not their exact story, but it's closer and it's something they would rather do and get their teeth into, especially if we're going to come shoot it in their home," she added.
Odom Jr. said working with his wife on Love in the Time of Corona under stressful, unprecedented circumstances allowed them to reaffirm their commitment to one another and their family.
"We knew that it was going to be tough. We set a couple ground rules right at the top of quarantine about how we need to be 'cause we knew there's going to come disagreements and fights are going to come up. How are we going to work our way through those, you know?" the Hamiltonstar said, adding that his relationship with Robinson added a layer of authenticity to James and Sade's story. "The beautiful thing about this show, about how it came to us and the time that it came to us, it was really after a real blossoming, a real re-up of our friendship that we got to then take all that stuff and then work together. We met working together, so getting to do that in this time was a real gift."
"[Freeform is the] network that runs to the front of the line to tell stories about contemporary American life. It's not a surprise that they're the ones that were first out of the gate, the biggest production happening in L.A. in the time of quarantine, because that's what they want to do," he said. "They want to get there first -- stories about gender identity, sexual politics and race in America -- that's who they are."
Working from home afforded its own set of challenges, Odom Jr. conceded, crediting his experience doing press virtually for the Hamilton movie and Central Park, which he was also recording at home, as helpful stepping stones to the rigors of this production.
"We had a tiny bit of experience of working from home and how challenging that was going to be, which was all the more reason why we wanted to make sure that if we're going to tell this story, it has to be meaningful to us because it's going to require more of us than usual," Odom Jr. said. "A whole lot more," Robinson said with a laugh.
"We're going to be doing our own hair and makeup. We're going to be moving lights and cameras around the house. It's going to be a feat to get done," Odom Jr. continued. "We have a toddler, so making those things happen, we knew it was going to be challenging." Added Robinson: "I'm sure most people are in this state where you're organizing certain rooms and one part of your house is a disaster so it really forced us to get it together in our home."
If there's one takeaway from making Love in the Time of Corona, Johnson and Robinson each had their own conclusions.
"What we've shown and what we've proven is that we can have a much smaller footprint in production, that we don't need 20 trucks and 50 trailers. We can actually shoot things more in an independent film way, which I really enjoyed and that there is the technology, especially during COVID, that you can use and that we can do this safely to produce these shows," Johnson said. "It's not ideal; nobody wants to always do it this way, but it was a great run-up to starting back on Good Trouble. We learned that we can do it... People are going to figure out a way to find love and to make connections, even if you tell them they can't leave the house."
"Even before Freeform came to us with this show, we were talking about how unique this time is. It just feels like this strange moment in time and so many people could relate to that, so we loved the idea of being able to time-capsule this moment in a way," Robinson said. "We were very excited to tell this story in this moment."