Feature by: Victoria Large
Posted on: 13 July 2008
It is, unabashedly, a sitcom premise: two twentysomethings who’ve only just met pose as an item in order to score a great apartment that’s been designated in its classified listing as “professional couples only.” From here there will be comic misunderstandings, wacky neighbors, and sparks between the pair of strangers who’ve been thrown so suddenly into close quarters. Predictable enough, right? Well. What distinguishes Spaced, the half-hour comedy that ran on Britain’s Channel Four for two seven-episode series in 1999 and 2001, is a little more difficult to get onto paper than the above.
Written by and starring Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) and Simon Pegg, and directed by Edgar Wright, Spaced shines with uncommon individualism. Sure, we like to talk about television auteurs, but the truth is that the creative control exercised by Hynes, Pegg, and Wright is almost unheard-of in series television: rare in the UK and nearly impossible on network TV in the US, where episodes are generally written and directed by committee and ordered in much larger quantities (often at the expense of that other q-word).
Famed for its compulsive, rapid-fire pop culture references, Spaced seizes upon touchstones from Star Wars to Evil Dead II and early Tarantino with a geeky enthusiasm that can’t be feigned, and its loaded with the kind of nearly-painful humor that can only spring from lived experiences. The creators’ personal stamps are all over this one: if the series’ central faux-couple, Pegg’s brokenhearted aspiring comic book artist Tim Bisley and Hynes’ work-shy would-be writer Daisy Steiner, feel achingly real, it’s because they kind of are. Yet as real as it manages to be, Spaced also sports all of the familiar tropes of the sitcom world—from the Three’s Company main plotline to that one character that we never see (in this case it’s Amber, daughter of Tim and Daisy’s blowzy landlady Marsha, but you’ll remember the gag from Frasier’s Maris, among others). The Village Voice’s Jim Ridley writes in his review of Pegg’s 2007 rom-com-cum-underdog-sports-movie Run Fat Boy Run that as a writer and performer, “Pegg has staked out a peculiar slant on genre material that ventures beyond irony toward rehabilitation.” This is amply evident in Pegg’s cinematic outings with Wright, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and it is a defining feature of his work with Hynes and Wright on Spaced as well.
Consider the conclusion of “Ends,” the final episode of the first series. In a moment that demonstrates how Spaced can be smart about its genre while still embracing it, Tim slouches over a drink and reflects on the demise of a long-term relationship, remarking to Daisy, “Life just isn’t like the movies, is it? We’re constantly led to believe in resolution, in the reestablishment of the ideal status quo, and it’s just not true. Happy endings are a myth designed to make us feel better about the fact that life is just a thankless struggle.” Bleak as that sounds, he scarcely misses a beat before he asks Daisy to dance, and a happy ending plays out right before our eyes. It’s a scene that neatly bridges the gap between cynicism and hope, the thinking man and woman’s warm-and-fuzzy. Pegg and Hynes trust us to recognize an ideal status quo when we see one, and they know how satisfying it is to watch as a worthwhile one is reestablished.
The success of Spaced is not so much in transcending the sitcom genre as it is in pushing it to meet its real potential. First of all, the premise isn’t the point: “Back,” the first episode of series two, opens with a brief summation of the story so far in which Tim mentions that Marsha believes that he and Daisy are a couple, but he also breezily notes that “that’s not really important anymore.” And not only does the show wisely dispense with the traditional sitcom laugh track, there is rarely ever a sense that anyone is holding for laughter. The jokes are frequent and richly varied: with whip-smart wordplay, loopy bits of fantasy, and old-fashioned pratfalls, Spaced demonstrates the value in using many methods of raising a giggle. To wit: there are literate jokes, like the monologue about a dog named Gramsci who could “smell wealth,” but I recall at least one fart joke as well. The humor can also have bite without ever feeling mean, can get a bit blue without jettisoning its essential sweetness. In other words, Spaced is a show that exudes and earns a tremendous amount of good will, and makes you laugh like hell to boot.
It’s also a well-observed look at growing up and remaining a tad childish anyway, critical and celebratory in the right amounts. In what may be Spaced’s most famous (and frequently Youtubed) scene, from “Gone,” the fifth installment of the second series, Mike describes an “unspoken telepathy” between men, which he and Tim then demonstrate by launching into a wildly detailed and enthusiastic mime of an action movie-style gunfight. The sequence is iconic; encapsulating the characters’ distinctive brand of seemingly involuntary arrested development as well as the series’ playfully skewed sense of humor. A reprise of the same idea later in the episode expands on the idea meaningfully. When Tim and Daisy use imaginary weapons to settle a conflict with some amusingly intimidating teenagers, we’re given a rather joyful testament to the power of laughter and play: they can keep us from getting too badly hurt. (It also suggests, in a nice touch, that Tim and Daisy have established an unspoken telepathy all their own.)
The imaginary gunfight sequence provides a fine example the distinctive, almost defiantly outsized visual style that Wright lends the show as its director. Spaced may be a sitcom to its core, but Wright is a born filmmaker, and each episode finds him not only taking cues from the movies but taking cues from big movies—think 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jurassic Park. And this style isn’t strictly for its own sake. The show’s humor often springs from the incongruous grandeur it affords a pack of London might-bes and the big dreams that they have for themselves, and the wildly cinematic visuals feel well suited to a series that’s defined by how it delivers big ideas – and ambitions – in a small package.
And these fourteen half-hour installments are crammed with goodies, not the least of which are the vivid characterizations of the rest of the show’s ensemble cast, who I have somehow failed to get around to discussing until now. Nick Frost helped to create his warfare-obsessed but endearingly innocent character Mike (based on a long-running joke with friend and frequent screen partner Pegg) and imbues him with goofy vulnerability. As Daisy’s friend Twist, Katy Carmichael would be unpalatably snobby if she weren’t so amusingly oblivious, and Mark Heap shines as the downstairs neighbor, a tortured artist named Brian. Earnest and sometimes cripplingly shy, Brian is a sympathetic oddball whose story arcs emerge as comic but compelling (Watch him encounter a viciously nasty ex in “Art” or leave his shell to go dancing in “Epiphanies.”). And then there’s Julia Deakin’s Marsha – a character who might have crossed into crass cartoonishness in the hands of a less skilled performer – who has a genuine humanity and occasional moments of real poignancy (Her monologue about how she met her ex-husband in “Gone” is a memorably delivered tragicomic touch, refreshingly suggesting that there are worse things than being a singleton.)
Even the infrequent guest stars leave their mark: Michael Smiley as the E-infused bike messenger Tyres; the great Bill Bailey as Tim’s comic store boss Bilbo; Peter Serafinowicz as Tim’s towering, growl-voiced nemesis Duane; David Walliams as an egotistical artiste. And it speaks highly of the show that while it is, among other things, a comic romance between the two leads, it manages to introduce a thoroughly likable alternative love interest for Tim in Lucy Akhurst’s sleek, successful Sophie, who is written and acted with admirable compassion even as her presence generates tensions among the core characters. (“What a bitch,” a jealous Daisy mutters after Sophie leaves the apartment, and it’s funny because it isn’t true.)
I do want to return to Daisy and Tim, though, a pair made all the more wonderful for being as frankly flawed as they are. “I know there’s something I’ve got to be, I just don’t know what it is,” Daisy tells Tim after a memorably botched job interview in the episode “Art.” But characters who know who they are and have what they want usually aren’t very interesting or funny, so thank God for Daisy and Tim, fumbling toward adulthood as best as they can.
Miserable over a devastating breakup and anxious about his career (or lack thereof), part of Tim’s appeal is that he is devoid of the worrying complacency of Pegg’s eponymous character in Shaun of the Dead. Tim’s apparent immaturity (love that shot of him as the tallest one waiting for the half pipe at the skate park) is tempered by a seriousness about his goals and his relationships. Of course, it is nice to see him lighten up to a degree in later episodes, a side effect of his friendship with Daisy, who makes an unlikely but well-matched roommate for the embittered and sometimes-petulant Tim. All klutzy enthusiasm and scattered attentions, Daisy may not get much writing done or live up to her own jet setting dreams, but there’s plenty to love about her. Whether she’s reacting politely to the exclamations of a rude performance artist or adopting a dog out the fear that he’ll be put down, her actions routinely reveal an expansive heart. (Recall that she initiates the relationship that the initiates the show: she sits with Tim when they’re both strangers, and she refers to him as a “friend” before he considers himself one.)
Hynes and Pegg make a fine comic team, matching one another expression for rubber-faced expression. Factor in the rest of the ensemble and you have a remarkable unit. When the final episode opens with a parody of the distinctive credits sequence of another Brit sitcom, The Royle Family, the reference could scarcely be more apropos: as the show progresses, this group comes to feel like a loving, if dysfunctional, family, and out of the angst of the directionless Spaced nails that most joyous kind of serendipity: of finding happiness and scarcely realizing it all.
There is a level of irony in the fact that this portrait of not-yet-accomplished twentysomethings is the work of creators of some precocity. (Hynes, Pegg, and Wright were all in their mid-to-late twenties when the first episode of Spaced hit Channel Four.) Indeed, one of the joys of the show is in watching a group of talented people realizing the measure of their collective powers. It’s sort of like an excellent breakthrough film or a brilliant first LP, but it lasts longer.
Then again, perhaps I miss my meaning. Because this is, after all, a sitcom. So I suppose it’s everything you’d long since stopped hoping for in a sitcom. Bright, daring, and sneakily moving (And I did mention funny, didn’t I?), Spaced makes the extraordinary look easy. It’s a work of great promise, to be sure, but it’s also a great work, full stop.