Staged (Tuesday, 9.45pm, BBC One) is back, which is good, because it is arguably the only noteworthy thing any single celebrity did during the first lockdown. If you missed the first series: David Tennant and Michael Sheen squabbled over Zoom as exaggerated, frustrated, hyper-thespian versions of themselves, in an actors-playing-actors miniseries with the exact same energy of a late-night Comic Relief sketch; 15-minute episodes where you got to see familiar actors with their off-duty haircuts saying words that seemed real. It was good, and it was smart, and it played perfectly with the boundaries of the format it was in. Series two comes to a close this week, and … well, I mean, it’s exactly the same as series one just with more guest stars, isn’t it? Let’s not play about.
Staged didn’t immediately grab me, personally, because I’ve never sat down and read a copy of National Theatre Magazine at a big kitchen table, but it does feel quite nice to watch a show that plays so confidently with the idea that you don’t have to see every single piece of action as it happens to understand the story thrusting forward. Episodes open with meandering conversations that hint at the fallout from a previous scene; you see the relationship between the two leads push and pull, grow and diminish; a bedrock of fondness spoiled by occasional tantrums of male ego, Tennant having an existential crisis and Sheen scratching his huge Welsh beard. Various guest stars – from Michael Palin to Whoopi Goldberg to Simon Pegg – come and go, clearly absolutely delighting in doing so.
We like seeing actors not being actors – with their terrible, un-styled outfits and their grown-out hair and their perfect skin and houses – and we love to see them break face, see the cracks between reality and illusion (this is why we never tire of watching an actor on a chatshow talking in their native accent). What Staged offers is another illusion: an illusion of reality. It has the same playfulness as a bloopers reel and the same knowing wink of people who cite Aristotle while drinking red wine in pubs, and somewhere in between that – in between all these layered versions of Sheen and Tennant – is something close to the truth, which, of course, we never see. Staged almost has the same appeal as Curb Your Enthusiasm, in that regard: renowned actors playing vile caricatures of themselves and having an awful lot of fun doing so, but … are they having more fun than we are watching them do it? Your mileage may vary. Sometimes, truly, it is just two men shouting at each other for a bit.
But as a cultural artefact, Staged is going to be fascinating for many years to come: no other artform has come close to documenting those strange, gloopy, endless minutes you spend on a Zoom call with someone you can’t currently see, exhausted of all conversation, both just sitting there, sighing. In 10 years, 20 years – when we’re all out of lockdown, hopefully, but I’m not holding my breath – Staged will be shown in museums as proof of how mad it all got at the start of the 2020s. Whether you can bear to watch that now, while actually living it, is up to you.