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How 'Staged' Captures the Pandemic Mood

Staged
(Image credit: BBC)

This post contains spoilers for Staged.

There is an anecdote in actor David Niven’s excellent 1975 Hollywood memoir Bring on the Empty Horses that lays bare why Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart never worked together, despite years of trying to make it happen. “Each time it mysteriously collapsed, the reason being that the moment they parted they quickly contacted their respective managers — neither of them would take second billing. They never worked together.” A recurring joke in Season 1 of Staged, sees actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant arguing about who should get top billing in the play they were set to perform pre-quarantine. Portraying versions of themselves in the 2020 lockdown comedy, the series returns with more quibbles about billing and an even bigger threat to their fragile egos. Beards have got bushier and the same comfort hoodie is still being worn by Tennant in this second outing. 

First shown on the BBC in the UK at the start of 2021, the follow-up to the hit series is now also available to watch on Hulu. Playing an exaggerated version of themselves, the Good Omens co-stars spent the first season rehearsing (or not as it turned out) for a postponed stage run of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author. Bickering with each other, ignoring director Simon’s (Simon Evans also playing a version of himself) pleas to read the first page, and the inability to go out during the first lockdown captures how everything ground to a halt through the lens of celebrity. Worrying about elderly neighbors, drinking maybe a tad more than normal, and adjusting to working from home are some of the more relatable aspects of this series that never shied away from poking fun at the two leads. However, perhaps the real stars of the show are real-life partners Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, who are equally sympathetic and exasperated at the scenes unfolding in their (real) homes. This is not a fly-on-the-wall reality show giving a sneak peek into the domestic lives of two actors, rather it is in a similar vein to The Trip or Curb Your Enthusiasm with Season 2 delivering another twist to the scenario.

Blurring the line between fact and fiction even further, the pair are promoting the show “Staged” in the first episode of Season 2. A show within a show narrative adds an extra layer of dysfunction to proceedings and everything we witnessed in the previous six episodes wasn’t real. If you thought Sheen and Tennant were at odds over who’s name would get top billing then the events that unfold across the next eight installments reveal egos even more precious. They are still stuck in London and Port Talbot, but the series has been greenlit in the US with every other figure from the first season reprising their role, except for the two leads. This crushing blow regarding their bankability hits hard for both actors who are quick to remind anyone who will listen that they were in the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. 

This set-up is a gift when it comes to the expanding cast of guest stars. Season 1 included hilarious turns from Samuel L. Jackson and Judi Dench as themselves — though this twist reveals they have also been cast in the same parts in the American version. Whoopi Goldberg and Ben Schwartz are David and Michael’s no-BS agent Mary and her enthusiastic assistant, respectively. Actors who have been lined up to play the roles of David and Michael include Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Hugh Bonneville, Josh Gad, Jim Parsons, Ken Jeong, and in a gender-swapped version, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Cate Blanchett. Going from sabotaging their replacements to turning these sessions into therapy, everyone is game and willing to poke fun at their personas. Rather than repeating the same beats — even if previous dialogue is revisited — the story ventures further down the insecurity path. Previous arguments about who receives first billing are negated when neither is considered famous enough to carry the series in the States. It is never mentioned, but it is impossible not to think of the Broadchurch remake on Fox that recast Olivia Colman but kept Tennant in his detective role. Colman has since gone on to win an Oscar and star as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown. Fame is a fickle beast and even in a pandemic existential and superficial worries occur.

Projects have continued even during the height of lockdown, which saw creatives turn to video calling service Zoom to make it work. CBS drama All Rise turned in the first episode to be shot in this manner, while Apple TV+’s comedy series Mythic Quest utilized the platform’s tech to make a special episode dealing with isolation. Reality TV shows like Below Deck and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK had to adapt in real-time capturing the initial confusion with the latter coming back to complete the season (the finale airs later this week). It has been less successful for one-off shows from Netflix and HBO, and one benefit of Staged is that it leaned into the often childish behavior of its stars. These "champagne problems" might jar or even read as smug when factoring in the gorgeous decor and comfort these actors are living in, but the show is aware of the privileged circumstance and these heightened versions are not meant to be revered.  Not to mention, the chemistry between the two families is rich, even when the characters of Michael and David are being insufferable windbags.  

Aesthetically, the mix of video conferencing with conversations shared between partners in their own home adds to the intimacy and ensures the audience doesn’t get Zoom fatigue from the television they are consuming. Season 2 has expanded to eight episodes from six, but the run time has been cut to 15 minutes — definitely a move in the right direction as it never feels like they are overstaying their welcome. Whereas the first season captured the initial panic and weariness of isolation there is more urgency in the second run to get back into the world, whether it is for work or social engagements. The inability to make solid plans is all-too-real as this holding pattern continues. Inertia and self-doubt intersect with bluster and rivalry between the pair. Debates about Shakespeare plays and previous performances continue and the wine flows freely. For those wondering whether alcohol is really consumed, Georgia Tennant told The Guardian this sauced anecdote: “There’s a long scene in series two where we’re having a drink. During each take, we had to finish the glass. By the end, we were all properly gone. I was rewatching it yesterday and I was so pissed.” Spot the drunk actor is an additional game to play while watching Staged.

While there is no confirmation that a third season is on the cards, there will be a Staged special (featuring Elizabethan ruff collars) as part of the BBC’s charity comedy fundraiser Comic Relief hosted later this week (March 19). Creator Simon Evans hasn’t ruled out another outing telling Radio Times, “Certainly if we were to do more Staged, it would probably have to up the ante again, because people will be expecting something now. So we’d have to surprise everybody.” Capturing two separate points of lockdown, it is unclear whether another season is required or perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope Zoom-aided TV will no longer be necessary for the not-too-distant future.