Staged: Series Two Review
One of the TV highlights of 2020 was Zoom-based comedy Staged. With Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing exaggerated versions of themselves, it perfectly captured the sense of wistful despair and isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic lock down in the UK, while still being insightful, funny and relatable. The trick with series two, was whether Staged could recreate that magic. In the time since series one aired, that oddity of lock down has turned to greater frustration and despair for many. While it might have been funny to see David complaining about work or Michael getting frustrated with birds outside his window, now might suddenly become depressingly real for everyone.
Staged series two manages to still capture the mood of the nation - indeed the world - as we follow Michael and David six months on. But it also cleverly doesn't try and do a direct continuation of series one. Instead it acknowledges that Staged was a show and Michael Sheen and David Tennant were acting as exaggerated versions of themselves in a semi-scripted, sometimes-improvised TV series. In series two, we don't follow Michael and David as they navigate lock down life; we follow them in their attempts to make more Staged while playing out series two - and get in on a US remake of the show - all the while still following their exaggerated lives in lock down. It's very meta, to be sure, and very clever. It's also very, very funny.
Staged series two goes big, and we're not just talking about the extension of two more episodes to the series run. Fuelled by one of series one's highlights - the Judi Dench cameo - this run features a whole host of famous faces. Opening with Romesh Ranganathan hosting a lockdown show, with guest star Michael Palin - both acting as versions of themselves - Michael and David play themselves talking about Staged and pondering the possibility of series two even as they begin another run of episodes. It's very funny, particularly Palin dropping the 'play nice' façade and attacking their lockdown improvisation comedy in the ad break. This time round, everyone is in the joke and it's a joy to see this Monty Python playing against type while also being an believable exaggeration of the actor we all know and love.
The production of a US remake is what fuels the narrative of series two. With Simon Evans now in Hollywood, he transforms from bubbling writer to confident director - or at least he attempts to be. It's a very different performance than the one we saw in season one, but it's a delight to see that his new confident façade is just that. His protestations over what part of Staged series one was scripted, against Michael and David's assertions that they brought a lot of improvisation to the performance, is an absolute delight; particularly when that debate is raging even as the new series plays out on our screens.
Michael Palin and Romesh Ranganathan aren't the only big names attracted for series two. The parade of Hollywood names reading for the roles of Michael and David is superb, every actor and actress giving the same balance of exaggeration and believability that the real Michael and David have brought to the show. Bitter rivalries, therapy sessions and megalomania make for some of the funniest TV moments of the last twelve months. To say any more would spoil some of the series' best moments, though I can tell you that the best moment is the explosion between David and another actress in the penultimate episode, The Loo Recluse.
In all this, Whoopi Goldberg is a force of nature as the US agent trying to bring the remake of Staged to life, while Ben Shwartz is her gleeful assistant that dreams of spending the day with David. As with Nina Sosanya in series one, the mask is broken somewhat by having Whoopi and Ben playing other characters, as opposed to the exaggerated versions of themselves. But given the meta nature of season two, real or otherwise, they command the screen with some truly hilarious sequences.
But for all the delicious cameos, at it's heart, Staged is all about Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and once again they are a joy to watch. The real friendship bleeds through the screen and they bounce off each other very well; script or improvisation, the banter between the two actors is utterly absorbing. Whether it is bonding over the ridiculous and inane, to moments where frustration and anger sees them torn apart, series two seems them on one huge, emotional rollercoaster. The reflections of the pandemic - Michael trying to fly out to New York for his best friend's wedding and David's film shoot dwindling from South Africa to Northampton to Cardiff, the moments that capture the sheer exhaustion of lockdown don't feel out of place when balanced against the sheer comic lunacy of the celebrity read throughs and rivalries.
While they get less to do this time round, the women of Staged remain perhaps the show's best secret weapon. Georgia Tennant steals every scene she is in, while also getting something of her own secret remake of Staged with an all-female cast. Anna Lundberg and Lucy Eaton bring the same energy, sharing a deep bond with Georgia, while dealing with their long-suffering partner and brother respectively. Rather touchingly, the final episode dispenses with all that celebrity glam to focus on the core members of Staged - Michael, David, Simon, Georgia, Anna and Lucy - offering a bittersweet look at their various relationships that have been part of the show since the very beginning.
Staged series two is a delight from beginning to end, offering a very meta perspective on its hugely successful first season that both feels like a natural continuation and a revolutionary twist on the premise. Scripted or improvised - or both - Staged remains a bright spot in the otherwise stressful outlook of our lockdown lives. For all the doom and gloom and the world, we can be thankful that it resulted in this slice of magic.