Staged, the inaugural lockdown sitcom, has accomplished the unimaginable and wrung humour from domestic confinement. In the first lockdown, during which the nation was effectively housebound with diminishing hope of a punctual end, a new comedy premiered on BBC One on 10 June, 2020.
Created, written, and directed by Simon Evans (responsible also for theatre productions The Dazzle with Andrew Scott and Killer Joe with Orlando Bloom), the programme stars familiar favourites David Tennant (Doctor Who, Broadchurch, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (The Deal, The Twilight Saga, Good Omens).
The first endearingly quirky series documents the friendship between fictionalised versions of Tennant and Sheen as well as a caricatured Simon Evans and his farcical attempts to arrange virtual rehearsals of Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author. Series two, in a self-referential twist, follows the ‘real’ Tennant and Sheen as they try to insinuate themselves into the American remake of Staged.
Most reviews tend to compare the production in question to previous work of the creators, writers and actors involved. However, Staged, like the pandemic itself, is undoubtedly unprecedented. While fans of found footage horror may be aware of such computer screen films as Unfriended (2014) and Friend Request (2016), a sitcom emerging from this subgenre is unheard of. Now, the question is, does it work?
The general critical consensus says that it does. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes currently gives series one 93% from 13 critic ratings, and series two 83% from 6 critic ratings. As to why, I think the show possesses a rather unique appeal to viewers. The allure is likely founded on the novelty and relief of seeing a comedy currently reflective of many lives around the world, in addition to the obvious chemistry between the two leads.
The main strength of Staged is its success at creating both a believable plot and relatable characters. Evans likely drew inspiration from his own experience at the beginning of the lockdown, when social restrictions enforced cancelled rehearsals of his production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. The believability of the theatre cast and crew continuing practice in anticipation that the venues will reopen is apparent. The nationwide campaign The Show Must Go On has been publicized by a myriad of well-known actors across the UK, who are striving to save theatres from closure over major financial losses over the course of the pandemic. It also simply makes sense, as ‘Simon’ argues: “Then, when the theatres reopen, we’ve got something ready to go. Everyone else wastes six weeks.”
Outside of the virtual ruminations between ‘David’ and ‘Michael’ in series one and David and Michael in series two, quite a bit of language is couched in acting industry terminology. Nevertheless, while this may be unknown to the average viewer, context aids with comprehension and its usage is minimal enough to avoid alienation. Moreover, the reality of the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of ‘real’ actors, directors, agents and assistants is bolstered by the inclusion of terminology in the script.
What little costume and scenery there is certainly contributes to the familiar reality of lockdown. The former consists mostly of David’s ever-present grey hoodie and Michael’s selection of loungewear, while the latter comprises various interiors. Every once in a while the viewer is treated to a glimpse of David’s garden. These are clothes and environments recognisable, no doubt, to many of us. The setting and time period of Staged rather speak for themselves, its relevance to a particular moment very likely a driving factor of the programme’s popularity.
Of course, it is difficult to evaluate the acting in a programme that initially presents its characters as true to life and later depicts conflict concerning the ratio of improvisation to scripted dialogue in series one. It is easy to believe that Tennant and Sheen are friends in actuality; David and Michael in their regular Zoom conversations comfortably discuss everything from conspiratorial birds to Welsh fruit loaf, and their conversation during these casual sessions provide the episode title. In Staged, the character development is the plot. Friendships devolve, grow, bloom and end. The tone is often light-hearted, though sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s fiction. Awkward moments just became that much more awkward.
Not forgetting the supporting cast as they contribute just as much to the reality of the programme as the stars. Cameos include Nina Sosanya, Samuel L. Jackson and Dame Judi Dench in series one as well as Whoopi Goldberg and an assemblage of A-list auditionees for the roles of ‘David’ and ‘Michael’ for the American remake in series two. The mix of famous faces, some in character and some supposedly not, makes for exciting viewing. The presence of stars occasionally distracts but overall they prove that the television industry has a sense of humour about itself. In these times, it is a necessary tonic.
This absurd staged staging of a play, in which the leads repeatedly try to upstage one another, has delighted viewers with fourteen episodes to date. The only question that remains is: will there be a series three?
Staged, Season 1 available on Netflix and BBC iPlayer. Season 2 available on BBC iPlayer only.