The Bite

4 out of 5

Created by: Robert and Michelle King

Robert and Michelle King TV shows aren’t necessarily clever. Their politics will surely be right in your face, none too veiled, and along those lines, there’s nothing suggestive about their setups, in which insects take over politicians brains, or the supernatural and religion are intermixed and then equally dismissed, or, as with miniseries The Bite, flu-like symptoms occurring after someone experiences the eponymous bodily nosh from another someone results in a zombie-like infection – quirky stuff, sure, but once these elements or concepts are introduced, they essentially follow a path you can guess at, over an episode or a season.

But that’s sort of the bait and switch: while a series might be marketed on these hooky premises, the actual tone that’s effected tends to be one of awareness – that these politics, and these quirky ideas, are self-evident. While I wouldn’t claim the Kings’ works to be impartial in how the former, left-leaning ideology informs the latter, they do use the bold presentation of their shows to then question that boldness. This is generally done with a kind of off-hand manner that I can understand not being appealing to some viewers – and then factor politics into that as well – but it works for me. The Kings go in strong, saying they’re right about something, and proceed in that righteousness, taking some potshots at the other side along the way, but also poke back at their own side, and then toss that silly plotty wrinkle on top of it to highlight the inherent absurdity that comes out of these discussions.

And so The Bite is just a COVID-set drama that wants to take anti-vaccers and anti-facemaskers to task for spreading the virus, which here has now mutated into “SUN-9” – the aforementioned zombie variant. But it’s so much more fun than that (again, accepting your okay with its general stance, and also not avoidant of COVID-themed media), and also – as part of the relatively open template the Kings employ – so much more serious, juxtaposing some of its horror B-movie elements with more frightening ones, backed up by some legitimate human drama, brought to life by a really brilliant cast.

Audra McDonald and Taylor Schilling are in tow as upstairs / downstairs neighbors in a New York apartment building, during the second wave of COVID quarantines, at the point when the isolation has become something of the norm. The former, playing Rachel, is a doctor doing remote consults; the latter, Lily, is a dominatrix, house sitting and hosting her sessions over Zoom as well. COVID’s bumming everyone out for sure, but there are also external issues thrown into the mix: Rachel and her husband – Steven Pasquale, playing Zach, a CDC doc, sequestered at his agency the past week – have had some relationship woes making the physical distance even worse; and Lily is struggling with exposing her job self to her family and friends, on the cusp of a book about her experiences being published. These womens’ lives are going on, and then there’s a news report about a bath salts-like attack at a party, and then one of Lily’s clients shows up with a bite on his arm and his personality starts to become more aggressive…

The parallels to COVID are handled with some humor – the denials as to what’s going on; the marketing surrounding the need to stay positive and whatnot – and when shit fully hits fans a couple of episodes in, The Bite leans way into camp. This can seem a little odd at first, but it’s a good exercise in stretching the tones the show is able to encompass; it interestingly prepares us for when they start treating “SUN-9” more gravely toward the end of the series, a move which might have felt more cliche had our expectations not been previously shaken up.

That said, part of the exploratory way the Kings write means there are a fair amount of loose threads along the way that are momentary distractions, but unclear as to their importance in the entire package. Some of these come across as the amusing asides they are (like the taskrabbit delivery person, who keeps making 5-minute deliveries during an apocalypse), while some are just set-dressing that take up more screentime than they probably should. But: the limited 6-episode runtime keeps this stuff to a minimum, and McDonald and Schilling, handling the majority of the screentime, sell any and every moment they’re in.

I’m not positive as to the production time of the show, but some quarantine elements do certainly apply to its look and feel: we are often communicating over computer throughout, and sets are pretty minimal – kept to 1 or 2 office rooms or rooms in an apartment. (Which maybe was a real apartment, belonging to the actors…?) And there might be some scenes of “interaction” which were actually blue-screened. But at the same time, our various directors do a good job of trying to step away from the Zoom format as much as possible, and I never personally felt limited by the shooting style. That is, I felt like the story played out as it would’ve / could’ve, and not solely because they had to make decisions based on only having set elements to work with.

So, yes, if you’ve watched BrainDead, or The Good Fight, or Evil, you’ll know the tonality the Kings are playing with. However, the limited runtime of The Bite, and its thus streamlined scope, helped to make it one of their sharpest and most consistently balanced efforts yet, requiring (for those so inclined to the creators’ styles) a binge-watch.