⭐⭐⭐½ based on 2 reviews.

tl;dr: A wonderfully inventive concept pulled off thanks to some great humour, excellent observationally storytelling, and a fantastic cast. The sequel feels a little more self-indulgent, but the first season is an instant classic.

Season One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Not having a TV license means that we missed out on Staged when it first aired, but one of the benefits of our flight to Cumbria has been gaining access to iPlayer again. Luckily, the parents didn't mind rewatching the first season to catch us up for season two, and I can see why. Staged is a great, quirky, original concept and with short episodes paired with a novel storytelling structure, I think it'll be eminently rewatchable for years to come. Of course, those without first-hand experience of lockdown living will likely miss a lot of the subtlety to the telling, but right now it lands extremely well.

Indeed, the "Zoom call" structure for a TV show is a surprisingly simple format and the cast and crew behind Staged clearly had a lot of fun using the medium to maximum comedic effect. Of course, having Michael Sheen and David Tennant as your main cast helps quite a bit, but the writing is equally excellent throughout (no matter how much was/wasn't improvised 😁). The various other cast members are good fun, particularly their respective spouses, and help punctuate proceedings with excellent moments of comedy or clarity, as necessary.

From a plot perspective, the overarching driver of the need to continue rehearsals during lockdown is a clever enough gimmick, as it provides plenty of excuses for the scenes to unfold without really needing to develop at all. Subplots are where the show shines, however, such as Sheen's neighbourly rollercoaster and the constant bickering around title billing. On the latter, I thought the consistent switch-ups in the actual show titles were a particularly fun piece of production design 👏

At the end of the day, though, Staged is a triumph not because of any ostensible storylines or plot, nor even due to the actors or incredible cameos (Sam Jackson! Judy Dench!), but because it so succinctly manages to present a realistic yet humorous take on living through the pandemic. Everything feels a little heightened and surreal, but also strangely grounded. I can fully understand why it was such a big hit during the first lockdown, but even months later it still feels fresh, original, and utterly relatable. Excellent all round!

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

How do you make a sequel to a show about lockdown? Even with a second lockdown underway, and a third looming, the simple reality is that six months later the idea that "theatres might open and we need to be ready" seems almost comically naive. Ah, but a huge television success that is able to be filmed during lockdown suddenly getting picked up by American networks? It's about as meta as you can get, but I'll grant that it works (just about). I mean, don't think too deeply about the fact that season two is ostensibly a behind-the-scenes of season one, whilst itself remaining fictional and continuing to portray these actors in their slightly surreal, heightened variations, and how that actually works in terms of narrative continuity... No, just focus on the reams of cameos and continually excellent comedy instead.

Because that's what season two is all about: cameos and comedy. Tennant and Sheen are back, of course, along with respective spouses. Heck, even Simon and Lucy return, in much smaller parts (in some ways), with really only the agent involved switching out for – of all people! – Whoopi Goldberg (plus assistant Ben Schwartz). And that kind of sets the tone. The introduction of another major star into the cast with Whoopi gives us the clear American spin the show is simultaneously embracing and parodying, with a British actress pseudo-recast as a beloved American icon, whilst also setting the stage for, well, Staged to really level-up its cameos. Sure, season one gave as Dame Judy, but by season two the entire theatrical world has been out of work for months, so I imagine everyone was jumping at the chance to get a role in one of the few true lockdown success stories.

The result is extremely fun, but it does feel a little threadbare at times. Whilst the plot was never really the point of Staged, the second season loses a little of the introspective subtleties that made season one such a joy, padding out the run time instead with cameo after cameo. And, to their credit, the cameos are all great fun. I mean, what a list: Michael Plain, Ewan McGregor, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Jim Parsons, Christoph Waltz, Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Gad, Cate Blanchett, Phoebe Waller-Bridge 🤯 Each playing a slightly exaggerated or tongue-in-cheek version of themselves.

At least some of the deviant subplot shenanigans return for season two as well, though with variable success. I thought the female-focused plot around Georgia's charity fundraiser skit was a great piece of meta-humour at Simon's expense, plus it was fun to see the women of the show get some screen time (with nods to the Bechdel test included 😁) and the pay-off landed neatly. On the other hand, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the consistent thread around whether Sheen was actively attempting to sabotage Tennant's career or not, the close-out revelation about Martin Freeman felt like a bit of a "this gag didn't really go anywhere, I've written myself into a corner" moment. It wasn't awful, I still got a few chuckles out of it, but season one did these slow-burn threads better.

Still, as a victory lap and light-hearted meta-comedy about the show biz industry, Staged still has plenty of funny and original concepts up its sleeve. The format may no longer be as original and the content not as tightly fleshed out, but the central premise remains a joy to watch, the "characters" are excellent, and it's just so nice to have a timely, interesting, novel show around right now. In other words, it's definitely still worth a watch.

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