MANILA — "Hello, Stranger" surprised fans on Wednesday as the lead characters of the pandemic-set boys' love (BL) series met face to face — a departure from the virtual storytelling it has embraced since its premiere.
In the July 15 episode of the Black Sheep production, Xavier (Tony Labrusca) and Mico (JC Alcantara) agreed to meet to work on a school project. Mico, the top student of his class, had been assigned to partner with Xavier, a varsity basketball player struggling with his grades.
Their meetings have been entirely through video calls and messages due to the pandemic — that is, until Mico offered to visit Xavier's house to help him create a backdrop for their project.
"Hello, Stranger's" final scene did show Xavier and Mico finally seeing each other in person — a surprise for loyal fans who had grown used to the series' split-screen presentation since its June 24 debut.
The change came so unexpected this early on that within minutes of the episode's streaming, its official hashtag ranked atop Philippine trends on Twitter, with a flood of comments expressing excitement with the direction of the series.
Directed by Petersen Vargas and written by Patrick Valencia, "Hello, Stranger" started production during the coronavirus community quarantine.
The cast — also including Vivoree Esclito, Patrick Quiroz, Miguel Almendras, and Gillian Vicencio — previously said they self-filmed at home, separately, with live instructions from the production team.
The exception were Labrusca and Alcantara, who each had a small crew helping mount scenes at their respective homes, in addition to footage of their characters on video call.
Under the initial lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, filming was completely barred. That measure eased starting June 1, when Metro Manila was placed under general community quarantine.
Fellow Kapamilya programs like "FPJ's Ang Probinsyano" — Black Sheep is part of the larger ABS-CBN Films — resumed production under the more relaxed lockdown, but with strict adherence to safety protocols such as rapid testing and "lock-in" shootings. The same would apply to "Hello, Stranger."
This new normal is also now felt in stories told on camera, going by the latest episode of "Hello, Stranger." In their chat, Mico asked Xavier first whether he would be comfortable meeting physically. They agreed to be careful, and both wore a face mask when they did meet at a public space — Mico's favorite milk tea shop.
"Ngayon, hindi mo na maiiwasan," writer Valencia said of depicting the effects of the pandemic, during the series' pre-debut conference. "Ang laking effect na nitong nangyari sa atin. Feeling ko, nandiyan at nandiyan siya."
"Pero, moving forward din, sana hindi natin makalimutan to still tell the story that need to be heard, no matter if there's a pandemic or not," he told ABS-CBN News.
The BL genre and its newfound popularity among Filipinos, according to Valencia, is a step towards normalizing queer love stories in mainstream media.
"Katulad nito, we just want to tell a story about love, about friendship — na kahit merong pandemic, mag-si-survive pa rin itong mga relationships ng mga taong 'to. It's the resilience of people and the power of love talaga."