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In Praise of ‘Staged,’ a Video Conferencing Comedy

You hate video calls. I hate video calls. ‘Staged,’ whose second season hits Hulu this week, hates video calls too, which is exactly why you should watch it.

BBC/Ringer illustration

Much of my past year has been filled with boredom. As was the case with many others, COVID-19 heralded a radical shrinking of my world. On most days, my life has been contained to just my hallway, with my bed at one end and my living room couch at the other, and my kitchen and bathroom somewhere in between. Weeks, and at a few points actual months, passed without me so much as leaving my street. I’ve taken to joking that I feel like one of the orcas described in Free Willy, my dorsal fin having wilted from the malaise of confinement and curve-flattening. It’s a matter of immense privilege and luck, of course, to have remained healthy enough to be bored during long stretches of this horrible year. But between the searing moments of panic, grief, and rage, boredom has been a constant.

Now, with the vaccine-illuminated light at the end of the tunnel beginning to brighten, I’ve wondered: How are we going to explain this period in the future? We can try to convey the incomprehensible death totals, the colossal toll the pandemic took on mental health, and the terrible gaps in education and access that will bare themselves when we wander back out into the world. But what of the rest of it? How to describe the things that didn’t happen? Years and years from now, how will we communicate all of this boundless sitting and waiting?

Enter BBC One’s Staged, a show about Zoom that can be streamed stateside on Hulu. I understand why it’s a tough sell: It is not only filmed via web conferencing from its actors’ homes, but also has the nerve to make its plot about the misery of this exceedingly miserable time. We are still living it, slogging through decidedly unhappy virtual happy hours and hearing all the same jokes about pets and novelty backgrounds and microphones left on. (Or cameras; my heart goes out to the woman who, moments before a digital book event I did this fall went live with an audience, benignly noted to me and the other panelists that “we wouldn’t want any Jeffrey Toobins.” Agreed!) Twelve godforsaken months since the advent of social distancing, you may not just have Zoom fatigue—you may have Zoom fatigue fatigue. So why would a reasonable person use their free time to dwell on these circumstances further, instead of, I don’t know, buying progressively larger sweatpants, just for, haha, extra room?

This is what makes Staged worth watching. Allow me to explain.

Staged follows actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen, who play what has generously been deemed to be versions of themselves. The premise of Season 1, which debuted over the summer, was that the duo—who were last seen together in 2019’s delightful Good Omens—were set to perform in a play during the spring of 2020 before the pandemic shut it down. Rather than scuttle the entire thing, their would-be novice director, Simon Evans, convinces Tennant and Sheen to begin rehearsing the production via video conferencing from their respective homes, so that when things begin to open again they can hit the ground running.

Ensconced in their real-life houses with their real-life spouses (Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg), they never succeed in rehearsing, with episode after episode devoted instead to, well, all this. I don’t mean the drumbeat of awful news and spiking graphs and fomites and yelling ladies in grocery stores and, oh my god, this year. I mean the nothing of it. The way days have blended into weeks and weeks have blended into months. The abyss.

Tennant and Sheen, two people about whom the word “charismatic” seems insufficient to the point of rudeness, spend the duration of Staged bickering. They hate the play, they hate their director, they hate each other, they hate video conferencing, they hate the disembodied clanging and toddler yowls perpetually emanating from the other person’s screen. They hate it all, and they hate it all so very much. They stare into the distance in vague and undefined horror, long pauses stretching between them that would be awkward if there were anything to say. They swap snippets of a life in stasis: arcane marital tiffs, too many wine bottles, their partners dropping in to discuss whether they’d reached a level of not OK that might be a problem. Staged is, in short, an encapsulation of now, with parts of it darkly funny and others sad, mean, and matter of fact. Somehow, though it might sound like the bummer-est bummer possible, it is not a bummer at all. It is the shock of recognition, like finding out years later that someone snapped a photo of Bill Murray whispering “no one will ever believe you” as he stole some of your french fries.

Season 2, which hits Hulu on Tuesday, inverts the premise by getting even more meta: The first season was not an aborted rehearsal but a scripted work, we learn, which is now being remade for American audiences—with Tennant and Sheen’s roles recast with other actors. As you might imagine, this turn does not lessen the pair’s existential, homebound despair, particularly as lockdown and the dreadful plague year stretch on. Like with Season 1, the new chapter is filled with preposterous A-list cameos; the stand-in Tennants and Sheens that the real Tennant and Sheen are asked to help rehearse include Christoph Waltz, Ewan McGregor, Cate Blanchett, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Someday, you’ll have to explain to your grandkids, or at least the little girl you’ll hide toys for in the neighborhood tree, why you are the way you are—the bag washing, the obsession with restaurants having good airflow, the wholesale abandonment of a regular haircut schedule. My humble suggestion? Show them Staged, and get a few decades’ head start by starting your own watch now.