There’s something a little naff about portraying coronavirus on TV.
It is necessary, of course, in that TV is meant to reflect and interrogate the world that we live in. But at times it felt like watching COVID-19 play out on screen was hitting a little bit close to home.
We were in and out of lockdown, we were trying to WFH (if we were even working at all), we were navigating the so-called ‘new normal’ – and we didn’t necessarily want to see all of that on screen.
It was time for pure escapism, baby, in the ilk of Tiger King and Bridgerton and the final season of Schitt’s Creek.
Grey’s Anatomy‘s vision of the pandemic is grim and confronting and real, offering an insight into what it looks like in the United States, where, at the moment, there are an average of 104,217 new cases reported a day, according to Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
Your Honor, the Bryan Cranston crime show, uses COVID-19 to explain why his character’s courtroom in New Orleans is suddenly empty of media and other observers, but otherwise barely addresses the crisis.
And, of course, there’s reality TV, like the 2020 seasons of The Bachelor and MasterChef, which each offered a fascinating insight into the way the COVID-19 situation accelerated in Australia.
And the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, which offered a look into day-to-day life for a group of queens, some of whom suddenly found themselves without a livelihood, or had to face the health and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 themselves. Over 120,000 people have died from COVID-19 in UK, according to Public Health England.
And in terms of local comedy, At Home Alone Together used the tropes of lifestyle TV to poke fun at the “unprecedented” times we were living in, with an unexpected comedic talent as host, usually serious journo Ray Martin.
But, for me, there was only one representation of life in the pandemic that was both funny and honest, and was a kind of comfort rather than a grim reminder of reality.
It was UK comedy Staged, starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant, that aired on the ABC in September. And it’s back for season two on ABC iView from this week.
In season one, also available on iView, Michael and David are stuck in lockdown, growing increasingly bored/agitated/a little mad. They had been cast in a new production of a classic (and dense) play, Luigi Pirandello‘s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, directed by Simon Evans.
Ofc, lockdown and the shutdown of British arts venues ended that dream, except emerging director Simon has an idea – they can rehearse the play over Zoom so that when lockdown lifts they’ll be practically ready to take to the stage.
Except they don’t really rehearse at all, but rather muse on their lockdown habits, including, for Michael, an intense rivalry with some local birds. They bicker endlessly about who will get top billing and for what reason, the credits changing each episode to reflect their conclusions. It’s a regression – with too much time on their hands, they’re left with just childish ego.
Their real-life spouses, Anna Lundberg and Georgia Tennant, appear over Zoom too, sometimes finding an affinity with one another, each trapped with an actor who is struggling with their self-identity without their work.
I’m not saying I relate to the undoubtedly privileged struggles of two award-winning actors. But there is something very entertaining and strangely affirming about seeing famous people struggle with the same existential malaise and self-doubt, the same listlessness and boredom, as everyone else when COVID-19 upended our daily lives last year.
But they also rely on each other, using their strange friendship as an anchor, in the same the way everyone has needed their loved ones and to experience connection when, by necessity, we have to be apart.
Now, in season two, which boasts guest stars like our own Cate Blanchett and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (!!!), Staged goes meta – as if it wasn’t already.
The season opens with Michael and David being interviewed over Zoom by comedian Romesh Ranganathan about the success of Staged, the TV show, and how “invaluable” it was for people during lockdown.
They’re soon offered the opportunity to be a part of the American reboot of the series, except they’ve lost faith in themselves because comedy legend Michael Palin told them they’re not funny.
But they later discover the quick-witted, increasingly manic series is being recast “for the American market” and because they’re not “believable as friends”, with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth…
Colin Firth has gotta play David Tennant and Hugh Grant play Michael Sheen and I refuse to back up this assertion.
I’ll let you watch seasons one and two on ABC iView to see what ensues. At least Staged kept the real – or is this the real? – David Tennant and Michael Sheen busy over the last year. That’s a level-up from jigsaw puzzles.