Isolation Stories review: ITV’s lockdown series is admirable but lacks depth

Jeff Pope's new drama is an interesting experiment but not much more than that, says David Craig

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2.0 out of 5 star rating

As the coronavirus pandemic shuts down the vast majority of television production (and indeed, life in general), broadcasters face the daunting task of keeping the public entertained while maintaining minimal human contact. Enter: Isolation Stories.

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ITV has wrangled some big names in British drama to lead this four-part series of short films from Jeff Pope, each one telling a self-contained narrative about individuals coping with recent events. Isolation Stories adheres to all the latest government guidelines regarding social distancing by having the stars themselves and their families do the filming from home. The results won’t win BAFTAs for cinematography, but they’re a convincing proof of concept that such production methods are possible.

Of course, it could be argued that a television drama about people stuck in lockdown is the last thing audiences want right now. After all, for most of us, this is everyday life at the moment. But while escapism is definitely valuable, stories that explore our most pressing anxieties can also be therapeutic. Alas, that depends very much on the execution.

Isolation Stories tackles thoughts and emotions that many of us might be feeling, but not in a particularly clever way. Written, shot and edited in the space of four weeks, the series feels too reactionary and, as a result, somewhat shallow. Both of the episodes available to critics ahead of time, titled Mel and Mike & Rochelle, introduce us to troubled characters spiralling into utter panic and despair, who each experience a Road to Damascus moment before their 15 minutes is up. Suffice to say, it feels a bit rushed.

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The brisk runtime only becomes more glaring when serious themes come into play. For example, the series opener features an upsetting reference to domestic abuse, which is arguably the most powerful moment in the entire episode. But after one fleeting mention, the issue is never raised or addressed again, which is particularly jarring considering its tragic relevance and how urgently it demands attention.

Isolation Stories doesn’t quite connect in its lighter moments either. There’s an obligatory scene about how video conference calls are tedious sometimes, while another takes aim at the irrational behaviour that led to mass panic buying, but neither are sharp enough to be classed as witty social commentary. Rather than offer a fresh take on the situation, it essentially just relays your frustration back to you undeveloped.

At least the performances are solid. Sheridan Smith succeeds in the role of Mel, a heavily pregnant woman abandoned by the father of her child, facing the prospect of giving birth alone. It’s primarily a solo performance, but for the most part, convincing and compelling. Angela Griffin is another highlight as psychiatrist Rochelle, who is tasked with counselling a challenging patient over video call. She has a couple of genuinely funny moments, including one killer camera glance that puts Tim from The Office to shame.

Ironically, the biggest weakness of Isolation Stories, that being its brief runtime, is also its saving grace. Although the contrived character arcs leave a lot to be desired, it’s over before you can get bored and the minimal time investment makes it hard to feel disgruntled. They’re essentially harmless lockdown fables, sharing agreeable morals such as ‘be sensitive to those around you’ and ‘don’t order inessential items from busy warehouses’.

It’s an admirable effort, but you could probably convey these messages just as effectively in a well-worded tweet.

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Isolation Stories airs at 9pm on ITV, with four episodes airing from Monday to Thursday – check out what else is on with our TV Guide