Thinking about where the characters of “Staged” end and the performers themselves begin was hard enough in the show’s opening season, a set of six episodes that debuted on the BBC in the early months of last year’s lockdown. The show saw Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing slightly outsized versions of themselves, fumbling through their attempts to put on a virtual play.
The show drew on their past working relationship while finding the precise right level of industry references to play with. Sheen and Tennant would make the occasional nod to their turns on “Good Omens” with some sprinkling of “Frost/Nixon” and “Doctor Who”-related jabs. (The season-long running gag about billing order was as delightful in its simplicity as it was in its execution.) Amidst failed rehearsals and spats over wounded prides, the main focus remained the evolution of their friendship while being wedged on opposite sides of the country.
So the first season of the show — produced with surprising speed and efficacy — ended up being far more than a string of endless dated Zoom call gags. Wisely, the show has never pretended to ignore the realities of the outside world (in both interstitial b-roll and direct dialogue references). The more prominent throughline followed David and Michael’s artistic jealousy, being trapped in place far more creatively than physically. Even in a time when entire corners of the entertainment industry were on pause, “Staged” tapped into the anxiety of having to confront how you define your relative worth.
This new season of “Staged,” which premiered on the BBC in the UK earlier this year and is now available to stream on Hulu, takes that idea and expands it out on an even wider scale. Pulling back yet another meta industry layer, the season opens with a reveal that the events of the first season were really part of a production put on by yet another fictional David and Michael, who are now dealing with the prospect of being recast for an American remake. (It’s a testament to writer/director Simon Evans — also returning to play himself — that all of this plays out far more straightforwardly and logically than any written synopsis might have you believe.)
It’s surprising to see how much “Staged” Season 2 is a natural build on the first six episodes. The “American remake” structure is a little too high concept at times, but Evans manages to find ways to follow through on those ideas of confronting a past career and being forced to define success in new ways. The handful of actor cameos that dotted the opening season grows exponentially. The time given to David, Michael, and Simon’s respective families, as Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg, and Lucy Eaton gradually find a way to work together on a project of their own.
The show’s initial on-the-fly style didn’t feel restricted by production limitations. Simple changes in rooms and venues, even the idea of fading characters’ chat boxes in and out, tapped into a slightly different rhythm than the many attempts at Zoom theater that have popped up over the past year. (Editor Dan Gage rightly gets a Season 2 in-show shoutout.) “Staged” hasn’t felt hemmed-in by having to frame each character exactly in neat chat windows or reconceptualizing virtual shot-reverse shots. Just as Sheen and Tennant’s rapport feels utterly natural, there’s a purposeful looseness to the whole thing that draws its energy from its inherent constraints.
Even when everyone’s in separate rooms, it’s fun to see “Staged” Season 2 handle two of the trickiest hurdles in fiction: intentionally bad acting and intentionally bad writing. Seeing the lack of chemistry between the potential American remake replacements only makes the parts of “Staged” that come before it seem even stronger in retrospect. Evans’ writing (even he winks in Season 2 toward the idea that everyone assumes that the show’s two stars must have ad-libbed all their lines) and the comfort with which the various households ease into these back-and-forths make those lines between fiction and not all the more unnecessary to identify.
If there’s one hiccup in “Staged” Season 2, it’s that this show-within-a-show web stretches out a tad thin at points throughout the season. Seeing which guest star each new episode manages to trudge up is one of the show’s baked-in strengths, but there are a few episodes in this new season that feel like bringing back characters who worked better in the story as one-offs. Even still, the show finds the perfect crest for the cameo wave with a penultimate episode that makes a whole journey of misadventures utterly worth it.
Tennant and Sheen aren’t the sole attractions of “Staged,” but they are the main ones. Much as the former has shown his skill as a podcast host and the latter an always welcome guest, there’s a freedom in their back-and-forth that comes from a combination of keen editing and an innately interesting starting point. By turns absurd and sweet, with a heavy dose of the specific and a frequent dash of the universal, “Staged” may be the piece of entertainment that’s best channeled the frustrations of the past year. As much as we can hope this is the last set of episodes that have to be made under these conditions, there’s certainly enough DNA here to persist long after its two main characters can comfortably film in the same place once again.
“Staged” Season 2 is now available to stream on Hulu.