We’ve been watching the millenial Channel 4 show, Spaced this week, which seems to be the series that really established the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg team that would go on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. (I’ve written about Hot Fuzz before here, regarding its take on male friendship.)
In a lot of ways, “Spaced” is a very traditional comedy with a very traditional situation. Tim Bisley (Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson) play two 20-somethings in need of a place to stay. They find the perfect place, with one catch: They have to pretend to be a “professional couple”.
This setup is actually used for almost none of the stories that follow, but unlike most sitcoms, Tim and Daisy are constantly forgetting that they’re supposed to be a couple, and once they’ve warmed up to the creepy landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin), they find themselves mid-sentence saying something that makes no sense.
“Spaced” features a lot of the cuts, setups and rhythms found in the two movies, and is rife with references to cinema, television, video games and comics. It’s a credit to the show that I probably got about half the references and still found it hilarious. (The references to television are particularly British, and I only know a handful.)
A lot of what makes it work, of course, is the melodramatic camera work and use of movie tropes (camera angles, zooms, flashbacks) in situations that are either inappropriate or that don’t pay off as expected.
For example, Nick Frost plays Pegg’s best moustachioed friend Mike, whose great desire for life is to be in the military, but who can’t get in because of…the incident…that happened long ago when Mike and Tim were kids. Several times, they mention this, and look skyward, as the camera drifts up to a flashback of the two of them as children, sitting in a tree, Mike still with his moustache.
And then they’re interrupted, and the flashback ends. We do sort of find out later on what happened, but it doesn’t really make sense. We just know it was Tim’s fault.
The show’s American parallel is probably “Arrested Development”, though it’s far less sleazy (from what I recall of AD), and far geekier. There’s some of the whimsy of “Northern Exposure”, and you could even compare it to “Friends”, except that it feels a lot less plastic, for all the contrived-ness in its setup and style.
Rounding out the cast is Mark Heap as Brian, the tortured artist who lives downstairs and Katy Carmichael as Twist, Daisy’s bubbleheaded friend “in the fashion business” (she works at a dry cleaners).
These six characters pretty much carry the show, though there are no throwaways: The guy who stole Tim’s girl, the bike messenger “Wheels”, Brian’s mum, and Marsha’s tempestuous never-actually-seen-but-always-heard teenage daughter–they’re all vividly drawn.
Despite the wildness–which actually doesn’t seem all that wild ten years later–the show hangs together by its character development. So much so that, toward the end of the second series, the penultimate show is actually pretty serious. We were worried that the show was going to end on a downbeat.
Having come to the show backwards, as it were, through the two movies, Jessica Hynes was the unknown element. She co-wrote the shows along with Pegg, and moved on to–well, to have a mess of kids, and to do movies. (She plays Simon’s ex-girlfriend in Shaun of the Dead, the one who is also leading a crew of characters to safety, though in the completely opposite direction.) Turns out she’s quite a force.
To reference “Friends” again, I remember in the first season of that show, when it took off all crazy-like, the actors talking about the length of the series, and how sad it would be for them to be in their 40s, still doing the same setup of having roommates and no steady job and no family. Ultimatey, they did go for 10 years, and it was sort of sad. (Or so it seemed to me, I only watched the first season.)
“Spaced” ran for fourteen episodes, encompassing a year or two of the characters’ lives, and by the end, there’s some concern that they all need to move on. (This is the sort of serious moment.) There’s even a speech where Tim talks to Daisy about how lucky they are to have been able to prolong their childhoods–though it was wisely cut out of the actual show.
But basically, here’s a show about 20-something geeks, written, directed and performed by 20-something geeks. And you might have to be, or have been, a 20-something geek in the ‘90s to appreciate it. And there’s almost no way they could have gone on too long with it, or get it back together now for a third season, as they all approach 40.
In fact, in both Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, the characters are in my opinion a little old for the roles. But we’re lucky to have this moment in time crystallized in DVD form, and for the creators to have gone on to do even more cool stuff.