Staged shouldn’t have worked. The Zoom-based lockdown comedy, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen as housebound actors, ignores the most important unwritten rule of television: that you should never make TV about TV. Though it may be critically lauded and attract some serious names, it will be perceived as too naval-gazing; alienating for the viewing public at large; full of jokes that only the industry will get. Witness 30 Rock – widely praised, but never big box office; Great News and W1A similar; the less said about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the better…
Come series two, however, and Staged is being watched by more people than ever – with everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Judi Dench popping up for a cameo. What started as an excuse for two of Britain’s most respected thespians to dodge childcare duties has evolved into, arguably, one of their best-known projects. So, after revolutionising post-COVID telly with its inventive box-based narrative, we ask: is the Staged format here to stay?
It could so easily have been a “well-practised, self-congratulatory back-and-forth… a 30-minute Celtic reach around”, as Michael Palin so eloquently puts it in the first of the new episodes. To be honest, that isn’t too far from the truth, but the show goes beyond actors being wanky about acting. Instead, it is timely, has character development and features sterling performances just removed enough from real life so that we can engage with them as fictional characters.
It also subverts a format that has grown increasingly popular since Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s A Cock and Bull Story spun off into The Trip – two middle-aged, successful public figures, waxing lyrical about the meaning of life, portraying elevated versions of themselves, usually against a nice backdrop. See Gone Fishing and every single celebrity podcast since 2015 as additional examples. The difference with this one is that it is actually written. Simon Evans, who created the show, co-stars as Simon, the director of a play they’re trying to throw together over Zoom in series one. He returns in series two, but there’s a twist. Staged turns out to be a zoom sitcom in which they were all acting in series one, which is slightly jarring and a little bit tricky to understand. But the performances and self-awareness save it… just.
Now Staged has proven successful, we could be witnessing the birth of a new genre. There is, of course, the possibility that this way of making scripted TV is just a nice sticking plaster during allofthis™, but our guess is we could see many more iterations of the idea popping up on our screens.
We may, for example, see an entire week of Hollyoaks filmed on Zoom; maybe even a bottle episode of Doctor Who. A new Shane Meadows webcam drama featuring actors filming exclusively in their own homes may be stripped over a week on BBC One; Inside No. 9 might brilliantly subvert it just like they have with every other conceivable genre; MasterChef may take place in each contestant’s kitchen, Greg Wallace ‘accidentally’ being put on mute by the director.
The online conferencing format may be around for a while then – it might even reflect our ‘new normal’, where no one leaves the sofa unless they have to. But we will always crave face-to-face interaction, even when the face-to-face interactions are on screen, and we’re on our respective arses. What Staged has so brilliantly hit upon is a time, a place, and a listlessness we all currently feel, and this sort of telly may well resonate for some time yet. Maybe give an unknown actor or two a chance next series though, eh?