Reviews

Spaced: The Complete Series

Call it the British equivalent of Arrested Development, the next step following Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared -- just make sure you call it absolutely brilliant.


Spaced

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes, Nick Frost, Julia Deakin, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael
Network: London Weekend Television (LWT)
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2008-07-22
Amazon

There's something genuinely frightening about Spaced, the cult UK television series from Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Stevenson. It's frightening because even though it debuted almost ten years ago, dotted with pop culture references that range from The Matrix to The Phantom Menace and more, it still feels uncannily relevant. From its premier episode onward, the show is loaded with director Wright's signature kinetic flair, and the characters -- as stereotypical as they may sometimes be -- arrive fully-formed from the get-go, making this 14-episode show as close to flawless as humanly possible. This is truly comic perfection.

The premise of the show is quite simple: Daisy (Hynes) is a struggling writer looking for a new flat. She has a chance encounter with Tim (Pegg), a down-and-out ex-skater and struggling comic book artist. They identify with each other's misery, and a friendship builds during their numerous coffee shop meetings. Right about the time Daisy may snap, however, Tim finds an ad for a flat that is only 90 quid a week, though a "professional couple" is wanted to fill the space.

Tim and Daisy practice their fictional "history" with each other, and finally meet the landlady: the perpetually drunken Marsha (Julia Deakin). The ruse works, Tim and Daisy move in, and soon we are introduced to the remaining series regulars: a perpetually-disturbed artist Brian (the excellent Mark Heap) who lives downstairs, Tim's militaristic best friend Mike (Nick Frost, in his first role), and Daisy's ditzy gal pal, Twist (Katy Carmichael).

Before long, all the characters are colliding and interacting in different ways: Tim is dealing with the recent break-up with his ex (while refusing advice from both Tim & Mike); Daisy is trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Hull (whose insistence on having her call him "Boss Hog" over the phone proves for a few awkward moments for "Daisy Duke"); and that ever-looming question of whether or not anything ever went on between Brian and Marsha (all while Tim and Daisy are pretending to be in love in order to fool Marsha). In essence, Spaced is about being in your mid-20s in the Internet age, and that's all that is needed in order to craft one of the smartest television comedies to ever emerge in the past decade.

Part of the reason that the characters resonate so well is that they are never marginalized. From the get-go, the six core cast members are instantly likable, all trying to be optimistic in the face of everyday scenarios: Daisy getting interviewed for a magazine directed at modern working women (and Daisy awkwardly ending it by saying "Girl power!" while holding up a peace sign); Brian getting involved with Twist and becoming happy (therefore meaning he can no longer find inspiration for his tortured art); Marsha getting in numerous arguments with her ever-partying daughter; Tim getting a mysterious call from Sarah (his ex) asking that they go out for tea months after they broke up, and -- in a scenario we've all experienced at some point or another -- having your battle robot sabotaged right before the semi-finals of Robot Wars.

Tim wants to work for Darkstar Comics, Daisy wants to be a professional writer, and as realistic as their dreams may be, their numerous false starts and missed opportunities wind up taking a toll on them, all while the audience sits breathlessly and wonders when -- if ever -- Tim and Daisy will realize that, in fact, they are actually the perfect match for each other.

Though the anticipation of their to-be relationship isn't as gripping as, say, Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley from the original Office, they sure as hell have a lot of fun along the way. This is largely due to director Edgar Wright (who, of course, would later direct Pegg and Frost in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), who livens up the show with vivid fantasy sequences, flashbacks, whipping cameras, and even the occasional fight with Matrix-aping secret agents. Much like Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared before it (and, to a lesser degree, Arrested Development after).

The characters in Spaced exist in "our" world, and you'll see Tim playing Time Crisis on his PlayStation, Daisy getting involved in an argument where verbal barbs are cross-cut with footage from Tekken, all while the office of Bilbo (the owner of the comic store Tim works at) is decked out as the entrance to Doctor Who's TARDIS. Everything these characters know is from pop-culture, so it only makes sense that they speak and act in those terms, like when Tim gets fired from said comic book store after berating a young boy for asking for a Jar Jar Binks doll (when Bilbo reminds Tim that he similarly likes Ewoks), Tim angrily responds "Well Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fuckin' Shaft!"

Though Spaced wasn't a groundbreaking show, it still became a mainstream introduction to many smaller facets of British culture, most notably in episode #1.6, when Tim's club-centric friend Tyres takes the "gang" out to a rave, and though there is no mention of ecstasy, it was one of the first major (and most accurate) depictions of rave culture in mainstream media. The evening, of course, ends with Mike donning a pink tank-top and getting an entire club full of people to dance to a remix of the theme from The A-Team.

Though episodes run on fantastically absurd premises at times -- like the time when Tim comes back from a club on speed and then plays Resident Evil for 24 non-stop hours -- they still have a heart, as during that time Brian goes to see his former artistic partner, the transsexual artist Vulva, in a bizarre performance piece. When Vulva meets Brian after the show, Vulva begins degrading and mocking all "the shit I used to do with you!", which is when Tim -- still awake and paranoid -- mistakes Vulva for a zombie and then punches Vulva right in the face. Tim was, it seems, inadvertently serving as a surrogate for Brian's true feelings, and standing up for his friend in the face of emotional abuse (which, in this case, just happened to be because he thought that Vulva was going to eat Brian's brains).

The episodes wouldn't work if there wasn't a moral heart to it all (just wait until Colin the dog gets introduced), but never once does it feel that there's a message being forced upon you. The message is there -- it just happens to come at the end of yet another non-stop laugh-riot.

When the cameras do shot-by-shot reenactments of scenes from Pulp Fiction, when Daisy begins casually polishing an imitation Klingon battle blade, its moments like these that never feel tacked on or forced. This is perhaps the best part of Spaced's pop-culture savvy: you can still enjoy it even if you aren't immersed in geek culture. It just so happens that you get an extra laugh out of the moments when you identify that clever One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reference, or when Tim's bad breakup causes him to play Tomb Raider III and drown Lara Croft over and over because he was just in a mood to watch things drown (and, best of all, the immortal episode #2.5, with its pitch-perfect depiction of "the male psyche").

Even this jaded reviewer sat stunned when at the climax of Episode #2.6, where a child at a restaurant plucks the notes to Crispin Hellion Glover's "New Clean Song" on a piano -- a reference to the Back to the Future actor's terrible cult-classic solo album that only a few hundred people would ever (or should ever) know. The show may seem like its catering to the geek/nerd contingent, but the sheer love of pop media that pours out of every frame proves infectious, regardless of whether or not you can catch each cultural reference.

The show rarely gets serious, but as the final montage plays in the series finalé and Lemon Jelly's "Stauton Lick" provides the score, you can't help but feel your heart tightening up, genuinely sad to see these characters go and move on with their lives. We sympathize because we can identify all too well with those important, busy years that we have while our 30s hover, waiting.

Fortunately, the pain of the show's end is eased somewhat by the absolute plethora of special features that have been lovingly included in this set. Each series includes two sets of commentary: the original UK commentary (in which Wright, Pegg, Stevenson, and Frost wax about what went into each episode and memories from the making of the show), and brand-new commentaries in which Wright (occasionally joined by Simon and Jessica) brings in a giddy array of guest commentators: Kevin Smith, Patton Oswalt, Bill Hader, Diablo Cody, Matt Stone, and Quentin Tarantino.

Though each commentator usually discusses the show in general (instead of the episode that's playing in front of them), there is a genuine sense of fun and affection during the proceedings, and no guest outshines another (though Patton Oswalt joking of how he would bring Jessica Stevenson down to his "naked puzzle basement" is worth hearing its own right).

Also included are outtakes (that are genuinely funny), deleted scenes (which -- though amusing -- are wisely deleted), TV spots, a Q&A with the cast and crew in 2007 in which Pegg winds up stealing the show with his sharp wit and genuine insights, and -- best of all -- a feature-length documentary called Skip to the End (a reference to a line that bookends the first and final episodes together). The documentary shows Stevenson, Pegg, and Wright visiting the old sets where they filmed particular scenes, discussing the making of the show in great detail (and featuring some early clips of the shows that Pegg and Stevenson guested on before Spaced), and -- at one point -- even stepping outside the "Spaced House" to find some fans actually taking pictures of its exterior, only to be stunned to find the trio (and cameraman) leaving the house right in the middle of their shots.

Best of all, however, is that for those who have been anxiously waiting a Spaced Series Three or even a Spaced movie, there is a final shot at the end of the documentary in which Pegg and Stevenson actually become Tim and Daisy once more, showing what might have happened to the characters years later ...

It would be easy to overpraise this show simply because of its readily-embraceable quality by the fanboy niche, but Spaced isn't defined by its overstuffed pop-culture references: it's ultimately defined by its lovable characters and its genuine, witty humor. Even at 14 episodes, it proves to be delightfully rewatchable, a cultural touchstone for a slacker generation that may or may not even know it exists. It knows no demographics: it only knows how to entertain, and, really, what more could you want out of a sitcom?

10
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