Friday, April 19, 2013

Not Your Average Britcom: SPACED

Let's get Spaced
If you like your comedies smart and zingy and fueled with pop culture riffing, you're due for a visit to Spaced. Written by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, Spaced is a British TV series that ran from 1999 to 2001 and still plays hummingly over a decade later. Long a cult favorite among geeks and filmmakers, it was well ahead of its time and credited as a major influence on the pace and comic style of such shows as Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Community. What made it unique was not just the way it was made--more like a short film than a situation comedy--but its ability to mash together an offbeat, often surreal sense of humor with the pop culture-soaked psyches of its twenty-something leads.

Set in a suburban North London flat, the show's 14 episodes follow platonic roommates Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Stevenson) as they learn to deal with living together, their oddball friends, and their larger place in the world. On its face that could describe any number of stories about slacker youth. But with its clever, finely tuned scripts and clueless yet sympathetic characters, Spaced brought a topical freshness to the drab sitcom world not unlike Quentin Tarantino's pop makeover of crime films.

Along with Pegg and Stevenson's scripts, equal credit goes to series director Edgar Wright, who went on to make Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His resourceful touch utilized every ounce of ingenuity to give practically every scene a visual zip or ping, turning an ostensibly low-rent sitcom into a charmingly baroque cinematic funhouse.

Stevenson (now Hynes)
And yet for all its Star Wars jokes and quick cutaway gags, what really grounds the show is the chemistry between Pegg and Stevenson and their ability to connect with their characters' frustrated aspirations. Pegg has since established his comic chops in Wright's later films (and as Scotty in Star Trek), but the less well-known Stevenson more than holds her own. Her Daisy is a mix of vulnerability, self-delusion, and goofiness that balances on a knife-edge of comic timing and pathos. Watching her you realize no other actress could milk the same material for so many laughs.

The rest of the cast is equally good, from Tim's gun-toting best friend, Mike (Nick Frost in his acting debut), to downstairs artist Brian and chain-smoking landlady Marsha. In fact the key to the show may be its perfect blend of talents as much as its deft mix of throwaway gags and cartoon-like setpieces. And while there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from spotting the many homages to old sci-fi, action, and horror movies, it's not essential. I still haven't caught all of them--just as some of the occasional U.K.-specific references flew past me. But again, it doesn't matter: if you miss one joke or reference, there's another just around the corner--one likely to be funny all on its own, since the emphasis remains on character, not (usually) look-at-me cleverness.

The show lasted only two seasons (known as "series" in England), cut short by the global success of Wright and Pegg's Shaun of the Dead. Given how the program only continued to get better in its second year, it's a shame the planned-for third season never came to pass. But at least these 14 densely packed--and highly rewatchable--episodes made their way into the world and onto U.S. screens.

NOTE: This title expired on 12/17/13. If you're considering purchasing the (seriously awesome) boxed-set DVD, please support this site by using the link below. Thanks.


Guy Smiley said...

Wonderful series, which I've watched in its entirety twice now on Netflix.

I finally broke down and bought the DVDs, for the inevitable day when it gets removed from Netflix, and because I'd heard great things about the included documentary which ends with a final appearance for Tim and Daisy, giving the characters, and the story, a proper ending. Well worth it.

I just discovered this site and I think it's great. I'll be back! With all the titles set to expire over the next month, I hope you'll help keep us informed about expiring titles too. I need to get cracking on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Slings and Arrows!

David Speranza said...

Yes, the DVDs are a great addition to the Spaced universe, not only for the excellent doc but for all the commentaries and outtakes. I got the discs soon after watching the series the first time, and continue to dip back into them. It's a show that keeps on giving, for sure.

Glad to have you on the site, Mr. Smiley. I'm honored to have an actual Muppet perusing my words. I'll definitely try to keep everyone apprised of any notable expirations (although it's going to be trickier now that Netflix has closed off its public database--something I'll address in a future post).