Pop 20: ‘Spaced’ is ‘Friends’ for geekdom

[24 July 2008]

By Aaron Sagers

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

Maybe it’s about four years too late to be bringing this up, but I was really never B.F.F. with the show “Friends.” Even before I had ever lived in New York City, I found the sitcom about six fairly successful 20-somethings living in huge Manhattan apartments and spending not-insignificant chunks of the day drinking bowls of cappuccino in a trendy coffee shop just slightly hard to buy.

The “Friends” weren’t my friends. No, at the time the show was on, my friends were in various states of unemployment, and while entire days were spent doing nothing with them, we were also often broke and hanging out at bars or on each others’ couches. My friends never had a peppy theme song, and although we did play in fountains a few times, it was never innocent and lovable, and law enforcement was involved at least once.

Plus, the “Friends” gang was too attractive for me to hang with. I think I could easily out-cute Ross, but the rest were too reminiscent of the glossy, air-brushed headshots hanging in my local Supercuts. Once I moved to Manhattan, the contrasts were even more striking, but the most annoying was my reality versus the spooky whites-only “Friends” universe where a cook and struggling waitress could afford a swanky Greenwich Village space and where there’s always a couch open for a party of six at the local hangout.

While I could never relate to Joey, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and Chandler, it was on a 1999 stint living in the U.K. (and later, briefly, on the Bravo channel) that I was exposed to “Spaced,” a Britcom that adequately captured my world of roommates, comic books, video games, movies, munchies, beer and very odd friends who looked very normal.

And since the complete series has just been released on sea-to-shining-sea American format DVD, I feel like it’s my duty as a cultural tour guide to spread the word about a show that’s a “Friends” for geekdom and the pop-culture-soaked, Reagan/Bush I (or is it Thatcher/Major?) generation.

A show that counts Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Patton Oswalt and Diablo Cody as fans, “Spaced” got it right in only two seasons and 14 episodes by being clever and never too cute. Creators Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright (of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” fame) and unknown-by-Yanks-but-beloved-by-Brits actress Jessica Tynes (nee Stevenson) describe it as “a cross between ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Northern Exposure.’” But the “show about nothing” element of “Seinfeld” can’t be denied either.

The nutshell description is an underemployed comic book artist Tim (Pegg) and unproductive writer Daisy (Tynes) pretend to be a couple to move into a small London flat. The intrusive landlady hovers about, a pretentious and vulnerable artist lives below them, and a “fashion fascist” best friend and gun-nut “A-Team” aficionado friend (Nick Frost from “Hot Fuzz”) pop in regularly.

Without giving over to the “wacky hijinks” temptation, the show keeps it real while being so surreal. In a nice cliche-switcheroo, it’s Tim that’s neat and motivated and never once does the Daisy say, “Oh, you boys!” or some such nonsense. The characters may sit around and do nothing, or waste time avoiding work in a perpetually sunlight-deprived apartment. They stay up all night playing “Resident Evil” then being humiliated at a job interview – all while realizing that they’re not the cool kids anymore.

Sure, there are frequent cutaways, shot in fantastic cinematic style, that reference “The Shining” and “Star Wars” but they’re homages and not cheap parodies like more-recent “Family Guy” episodes. Even an extended finger-as-gun shootout is so cool and seriously choreographed that John Woo would be proud.

The “Spaced” universe is a weird parallel to the one I know where lines from movies roll trippingly off the tongue in normal conversation, where an inner monologue is framed in widescreen and plays as a scene from a movie. It’s a universe where Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully remains a sex goddess and there exists but three “Star Wars” movies, despite what George Lucas may say. The universe is more schlubby than sexy, and Rachel and Ross never really end up together, but I’m way more comfortable being “Spaced” out than I’d ever be in Central Perk.

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DIG! (Or, what I’m popping into this week):

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”: Purists of the comic book will have already seen the movie and passed judgment – and most likely groused about the significant variations between the two medium – but “Hellboy II” is more for fans of fantasy and buddy action-comedies than anyone. Humans fade to the background in this superior installment as the freaks take the stage and our hero, a big, red good-guy demon with shaved horns and a fishman sidekick, takes on trolls, fairies, elemental beasts and a few other critters I can’t quite define set out to destroy mankind. Something of an amalgam between “Men In Black,” “Lethal Weapon” and the visual style of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the movie is great fun and easy to handle. Now you have something to detox from the intensity of “Dark Knight” with.

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Entertainment columnist Aaron Sagers writes weekly about all things pop-culture. He can be reached at sagers.aaron AT gmail.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/pop-20-spaced-is-friends-for-geekdom/