OK, so you missed Broadway for the past year and you felt bad about all the theater people who were put out of work by the pandemic. But ask yourself: Did you do anything about it? Because Michelle and Robert King sure did.
The Kings, who have provided employment for numerous New York and Chicago stage actors over the years in their television series “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” pulled out all the stops for “The Bite,” a Covid-19 zombie-apocalypse satire premiering Friday as a Spectrum original. The cast includes at least six Tony winners, with 14 awards among them, and another nine nominees. Altogether, around 35 performers with Broadway experience made it into the credits.
That total is particularly impressive for a couple of reasons. “The Bite” is only six episodes. And since it is in the small, and possibly temporary, genre of the self-conscious, safely filmed pandemic narrative, the main action is limited to a few rooms (and a lot of video screens) and largely played by a handful of real-life couples.
The presence of all those stage actors feels appropriate, though, because “The Bite” feels like summer-stock TV, or like a play that’s literally being put on in someone’s living room. Modestly clever, consistently lively, funny in some spots and tedious in others, it’s a shaggy-virus story that holds your attention, if it does, because of its surplus of talent.
Leading the cast, with her six Tonys, is Audra McDonald as Rachel, a doctor reduced by the pandemic to doing online consultations from her Hell’s Kitchen brownstone. Her husband, Zach (Steven Pasquale), is in Washington working for the C.D.C., and each of them is unfaithful: Rachel with a combat photographer played by McDonald’s husband, Will Swenson, and Zach with a White House aide played by Pasquale’s wife, Phillipa Soo.
Co-starring with McDonald is Taylor Schilling as Lily, a frustrated writer who carries out her day job as a dominatrix in the apartment above Rachel’s. As news starts to filter in of zombielike attacks that may stem from a new Covid variant, Lily and Rachel become unlikely partners in virus detection, with Lily contact tracing the flesh eaters and Rachel doing the science in her kitchen with video help from Zach.
(Other theatrical couples in the cast include Boyd Gaines and Kathleen McNenny as Lily’s parents and Ryan Spahn and Michael Urie as the hosts of a web series that rates people’s Zoom backgrounds.)
The zombie-variant conceit allows the Kings to recapitulate the whole history of Covid-19 as dark comedy, with a government cover-up, widespread denial (often immediately followed by graphic flesh munching) and warnings that the elderly are most at risk because they can’t outrun the undead. Along with their love of theater actors, the Kings are indulging their affection for the use of horror as social satire, something they’ve done with more substance and effect in “BrainDead,” a short-lived CBS show from 2016, and their current series “Evil,” which originated on CBS but moves to Paramount+ next season.
The humor in “The Bite” hits its targets, but they’re pretty easy to hit. “Herd immunity means everyone becomes a zombie,” Zach tells a dithering bureaucrat. “Have you ever seen a zombie movie?” The closing credits combine shots of alarmed characters from the show with images of politicians from both sides of the aisle, like Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo — zombies all.
“The Bite” also taps into the Kings’ fondness for the comedy of city life, which generates some of the show’s best gags. Rachel pursues a severed hand around her apartment the way generations of New Yorkers have chased scurrying rodents. The police department and hospitals don’t answer the phone but the TaskRabbit guy (drolly played by Jefferson White of “Yellowstone”) delivers packages through crowds of zombies. And Lily and Rachel work together full-time without entering each other’s apartments, which is a Covid thing but is also very much a New York thing.
McDonald, tamping down her inner diva, gives a winning performance as the mousy and insecure but resolute Rachel. On the down side, the only singing she gets to do is courtesy of a plot gimmick — Rachel discovers that she can communicate with her infected lover only if they speak-sing to each other — that’s more maddening than it is amusing.
“The Bite” opens with black-and-white photographs of the pandemic-emptied streets of New York, and there’s something akin to nostalgia in its tone, a sense that the story of Covid-19 may quickly slip away if we let it. “Even as it’s happening,” a character says, “it’s like it never happened.”