Once upon a time, way back in the early days of the pandemic (which is to say eight months ago), many makers of television scrambled to create shows to both reflect the experience of isolation and distract viewers who were experiencing it. Casts of classic shows and films reassembled via Zoom, John Krasinski offered “Some Good News” and A-list music performers remotely created televised concerts. These valiant efforts were closely followed by scripted series with titles like “Love in the Time of Corona” and “Social Distance,” which attempted to capture this very strange, scary and creatively unique time. Though novel and welcome, most were fatally ephemeral, even self-consciously so — stopgaps designed, like much of television before streaming, to be enjoyed and then forgotten.
And then there’s “Staged,” a BBC series starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen that captures the wild-eyed numbness and panicked lethargy of the first round of stay-at-home orders so well it probably should be put in a time capsule.
Written by and also costarring British theatrical director Simon Evans, “Staged” follows a fictionalized version of Evans as he attempts to wrangle fictionalized versions of Tennant and Sheen into remote-rehearsing a production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” which they had all been scheduled to do before the pandemic hit.
The result is a gently pointed send-up of the theater — all the world may be a stage but those who actually work on one often display a very special mix of ego and insecurity — but it’s also an exploration of the self-doubt many experienced when suddenly cut off from the shared rituals and rigors of their professions.
It’s a small show, only six episodes (though it, like the lockdown, just got a second season) and, while it debuted on Hulu in September, it hasn’t gotten a ton of attention here. Fittingly, I discovered “Staged” through one of those internet wormholes many of us have been falling into with alarming regularity during our work-from-home days.
I had been rewatching “Doctor Who” and had just gotten to “The Doctor’s Daughter,” an episode in Season 4 that has one of the most remarkable behind-the-scenes pedigrees of any television episode ever. In it the Doctor (Tennant) is granted, through true Whovian clonishness, a “daughter,” who is played by Georgia Moffett. Moffett is the actual daughter of Peter Davison, who played the Doctor in the early 1980s. After filming, she began dating, and then married, Tennant.
That’s right, the daughter of one Doctor became the wife of another Doctor after starring in “The Doctor’s Daughter.”
Furthermore, they were married on New Year’s Eve 2011 and had a reception the next day in Shakespeare’s Globe theater, and I know this not because I was invited (though clearly I should have been) but because my family and I were in London that Christmas. When we tried to visit the Globe around that time, we were told it was closed for a private event. Being arrogant American tourists, we found this irritating, until we learned what the event was, and then it was fine because everyone in our family loves “Doctor Who” and it was just so damn romantic.
So as I watched “The Doctor’s Daughter,” I wondered, not that it’s any of my business, if the marriage had lasted. A Google search revealed that indeed it has, and now includes five children, thanks. Not only that but the couple was currently starring in a pandemic-related series called “Staged,” available on Hulu.
So obviously, there was nothing else to do but spend the next three hours of my life watching versions of three households — the Tennants, Sheen and girlfriend Anna Lundberg (also an actor), and Evans and his sister, Lucy— cope with life in lockdown. (Also appearances by Nina Sosanya, as a very tense agent, and guests so Very Special I’m not going to name them and spoil the surprise.)
In other words, it was altogether divine.
Tennant and Sheen are always terrific, separate or together, as proven by their marvelous chemistry in “Good Omens,” an Amazon show that’s mentioned several times in “Staged.” Georgia Tennant gives a pitch-perfect performance as a working mother who has decided that gentle humor, while not precluding pointed observation about things like the division of labor, is the best setting for survival. And Evans’ nervous wreck of a director nearly steals the show at times.
It is a scripted series but there is a lot of improvisation, and though the plot may be a bit thin, it is built like a genuine television show, with multiple storylines and scene-placing exteriors.
Much of it consists of Zoom conversations between the main characters, with both Tennant and Sheen slowly disappearing into their pandemic beards and exhibiting increasingly obsessive behavior. (Tennant spells words backward in his head and refuses to change his hoodie; Sheen believes the birds are conspiring against him and admits to drinking perhaps a bit more than is good for him.)
But there is also footage of a shut-down London, sweeping vistas of the British countryside and, more important, remotely or self-filmed scenes from many rooms in two of the three homes. All of which makes it feel like an actual television series, a blur between reality and sitcom.
While David mopes around, wallowing in his angst, Georgia is a model of multitasking, caring for the kids, finishing a novel and, at one point, helping a friend give birth. Evans, fretting over having his big break yanked out from under him, has moved into his sister’s home, with the understanding that she is in France with her boyfriend. When Lucy returns, the two revert to basic adult-sibling behavior; they are the only cohabitants in the show who do not have to try to be patient with each other.
There are just enough references to the actual pandemic to keep “Staged” from being pure fantasy, but it’s hilarious, endearing and all very resonant, especially for those of us lucky enough to work from home.
Well, maybe not the bits in which Sheen and Tennant try to one-up each other with past Shakespearean roles. Or the moments when they wax nostalgic for the star treatment they received on sets. But in general, the meltdowns, listlessness and inevitable friction between those isolating together are as universal as it’s going to get with celebrities involved. Sheen especially captures the wild-eyed lunacy of those early days; as Tennant observes, he would make a very good Lear.
Maybe that will happen in Season 2.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.