STAGED, OR WHY LOCKDOWN COMEDY JUST DOESN'T WORK
There is a popular internet theory that a faulty train timetable in 1914 is responsible for the existence of hentai today. A late train enabled the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which would lead to series of unfortunate events that would eventually culminate in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This, in turn, would cause a cultural shift in Japanese society that resulted in the excessive production and consumption of thousands of poorly-proportioned women drawn in upsetting situations that we so know and love today. It's this sort of historical accidentalism that has me personally blaming a small bat in East China for my current situation: slumped backwards on my sofa in the same pair of sweatpants I've been wearing for three days, dimly watching my own double chins reflected on my iPad through the haze of David Tennant and Michael Sheen's ropy attempt at improv -- and their even worse attempt at trying to make art out of quarantine.
Staged is by no means a particularly bad series. It has likeable characters, a relatively convincing story and some genuinely funny moments. The writing is passable if a little forced, but the chemistry of the cast and the charm of watching big names like Nina Sosanya or Judi Dench faff around on Zoom more than makes up for it. The BCC disappears up its own arse a couple of times with obscure self-referential... humour, I suppose is one word, as do Tennant and Sheen with their constant quips about their time together on Good Omens or their various acting accomplishments. But all in all it's a well-made show with a powerhouse of a cast and nice production: the frustration comes from the message rather than the medium.
Lockdown comedy was inevitable. There will always be people ready and willing to find humour in the mundane, even when that mundane has been brought about by a pandemic. I'm as grateful for it as anyone else: after receiving a dozen or so emails kindly reminding you that, yes, we are living in unprecedented times, some precedented type of comedy is very much welcomed. But the trouble with lockdown humour is it stops being funny. Not because the jokes are bad or the characters are unbelievable or because the story gets stale and the gags get old, but because the longer any series set during the pandemic goes on for, the more it has to face the very real and unpleasant reality of its premise: that lockdown is happening for a very serious reason, that it's miserable for everyone (even the rich and famous) and that there are only so many light-hearted jokes we can make about day-drinking before having to face the rather depressing and boring truth of the matter.
The longer that we as an audience are placed in a position of finding humour in lockdown, the more time we have to face the depressing reality of it. This works well for a drawn-out joke about David Tennant wearing the same hoodie for a week straight, but gets increasingly uncomfortable as the reasons as to why he's doing it in the first place looms over the viewers heads. The intrinsic structure of mini series matches neither the tone nor the premise, simply because the thematic potential of an overarching story stops it from becoming funny. Comedians like Foil Arms and Hog or E4's Remote Comedy From The Paddock have cornered the market on short, relatable lockdown skits because that's where the real gold of lockdown humour lies: relatability.
The observational humour in Staged is perfectly adequate. There's really no other word for it. Being embarrassed to put the bins out because of all the extra bottles. Awkward online meetings. Excessive boredom. Weird dreams. Trips to the grocery store. Day-drinking. The relatability of these apparently universal (more on that later) aspects of lockdown life just about does the job. Has it been played to death, from Matt cartoons to Facebook skits? Sure. But does the "celebs, they're just like us!" charm carry the humour because despite this? Yes, because at the end of the day it is funny seeing Michael Sheen necking merlot at 11AM.
But the funniest bits of the show don't come from the relatable quips about quarantine haircuts or impulsive hobbies: they come from the relationships. David Tennant's compulsive attempts at Machiavellianism, Michael Sheen's delightfully childish pettiness towards his costar, Simon Evans' utter inability to handle the actors puerile squabbles and Nina Sosanya's exasperation with the whole lot results in some delightful and hilarious interactions and some excellent commentary on the acting industry and everything that comes with it. But did they require the framing of lockdown in order to work? Not really. There's a few three-way telephone jokes that lend themselves very well to the use of video chat but that's about it. The premise of the show - difficult actors and an incompetent director struggling to get anything done - could have worked in any setting. The use of video chat becomes dull after a bit and the use of cameras outside of virtual calls is inconsistent in its logic. Could Staged have been made after quarantine? Yes. The writing is good enough and the actors riff with each-other with such charm and humour that I really think it could have been a perfectly passable series without the foreground of lockdown. Would it ever have been made after quarantine? Probably not. Staged is not only the story of rich, bored men doing rich, boring things - it's the result of it.
This leads me to the most glaringly obvious fault in the show: the complete and utter disconnect between the characters experience of lockdown and, well, pretty much everyone else's. The show is pandering to a very specific market, namely that of its makers and stars: wealthy, healthy people with nice houses. For this demographic, lockdown was relatively easy: the biggest problems the characters face are drinking too much and not succeeding immediately at their new quarantine hobby. There is no serious concern about COVID as an actual virus; for the majority of the series it's simply a bothersome inconvenience getting in the way of the true and beautiful art of theatre. Usually, I wouldn't mind this: comedy works best when grounded in reality and I genuinely love the metamedia of duckies getting worked about about things like rhetorical devices and theatrical tone. But when so much of the humour lies within the relatability of the experience, the circle-jerk of rich, artsy people complaining about rich, artsy problems isn't simply dull, it's downright uncomfortable. Released in September, when many people are still struggling - both in terms of health and finance - the show confronts the viewer with a candy-coated version of a pandemic that, in reality, has left thousands unemployed, homeless and dead.
So does the message justify the means? Not really. There is a delicate balance to lockdown comedy and Staged does a marvellous job of proving just how difficult it is to achieve and how awkward the art becomes when it isn't. But that's exactly the trouble with the oxymoronic 'lockdown humour': the very structure of the multi-episode series simply doesn't allow for anything more to be said than what Staged already achieves within its first episode: lockdown is boring and has pushed us to adopt some pretty bizarre behaviours. I'm aware that I'm sucking the fun out of a relatively harmless passion project, and I'm no fan of playing the "check your privilege" card - but hey, lockdown does strange things to us all.
Image credit: Netflix/BBC, Matt Cartoons/The Telegraph