On Demand: ‘Strangers,’ ‘Love Life’ and the subtle rise of Zoë Chao.  

By Kayla Drazan

For a brief period in high school, I would end the school night by watching a web series on Facebook Watch before bed. There’s an image evoked by these private moments: laying sideways, my cheek pressed against the pillow; leaning into my horizontally-held iPhone, the short charging cable restricting my mobile radius; my glasses pinching against my nose, eyesight worsening by the minute.  

Memorable titles include a soft-hued Korean drama that, after some googling just now, I learned was called “Yellow” (2017) and the infamous “SKAM” (2015–17), a Norwegian high school series whose plot was recreated and culturally catered to represent multiple different languages and countries.

My favorite finding — and in the world of niche internet shows, it’s a diamond discovery — was a two-season comedy-drama called “Strangers” (2017–18), created by Mia Lidofsky. The show’s principal character is Isobel Song in her late 20s, played by Zoë Chao, who has since been seen in “Where’d You Go Bernadette” (2019), “Love Life” (2020–) and “Modern Love” (2019–). In the first season, Isobel’s recent breakup with her boyfriend — spurred in part by her cheating on him with a woman — propels her exploration of her bisexuality with the support of her bestie Cam (Meredith Hagner), while she Airbnb’s her home out to a revolving cast of eccentric guests. In the second season, Isobel and Cam move to NYC, where Isobel could properly struggle as a writer; this time, Isobel house-hops in each episode, falling hard into an affair with Mari (Kathleen Munroe), a charming sculptor/jeweler in an open marriage.  

Over 17 episodes, all of which clock in at under 30 minutes (great for limited attention spans), Chao brings a very compelling performance. Playing the likable and ever-growing Isobel, Chao’s subtle facial inflections convey the emotional ups and downs of her romantic and personal identity crises, and her chemistry with other characters and dialogue delivery feel believable and natural.

In fact, Lidofsky and Chao are real-life childhood best friends, making them an endearing, model director-actor pair, whose friendship inspired aspects of Cam and Isobel’s relationship. “Strangers” succeeded for me in managing multiple tones of comedy, empathy, romance and drama while focusing on a queer Asian American woman, a character with limited protagonist representation in 2017.  

For anyone who follows actors or singers before they hit it big, there’s a familiar sentiment of pride when you observe the trajectory of their success. So, I was especially pleased to encounter Chao in HBO Max’s “Love Life,” an anthology series that recounts the romantic endeavors of a new person each season. As Sara Yang, Chao plays the party-girl best friend to main character Darby (Anna Kendrick), bringing a nuanced performance to a complicated character. While many reviewers rightfully criticized “Love Life” as superficial or done before — which I accepted and ignored as a patron of Anna Kendrick and millennial rom-com dramedies — Chao’s character had more depth than screen time allowed her to explore. Through Chao’s subtle rise, she’s already depicted love, heartbreak and the beautiful possibility of human connection. 

@zchao: From your fans on Facebook Watch circa 2018, you are no stranger to me.  


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