The show has been called the anti-Friends, and there’s an air of truth to that.
We don’t usually review non-genre television shows on SciFiMovieHype.com, but Spaced merits an exception. As the TV series where Shaun of the Dead auteurs Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) cut their teeth, it has attained near legendary status in the U.S., where copyright issues over the soundtrack limited it to bootlegs and online for a very long time.
The show has been called the anti-Friends, and there’s an air of truth to that. It recounts the lives of Daisy (Stevenson) and Tim (Pegg), a pair of well-intentioned slackers who share a flat in a North London house with assorted other misfits. Their landlord Marsha (Julia Deacon) apparently subsists on cheap merlot and cigarettes, while their tormented artist neighbor Brian (Mark Heap), goes into a creative tailspin whenever he finds any real happiness. Tim’s best friend Mike (Nick Frost) is a congenial gun nut with a fixation on all things military, while Daisy’s gal-pal Twist (Katy Carmichael) has raised passive-aggressive snarking to an art form.
From the beginning, the series resolutely defies the tone of typical U.S. sit-coms of the era. It uses just one camera, it lacks a laugh track, and many of the gags depend on well-timed editing cuts as much as the material itself. More strikingly, the consumerist orgy which dominates most network shows is nowhere to be seen. Spaced looks real — reflecting the way many of us lived and dressed in our twenties — rather than some idealized fantasy of chic lofts and designer wardrobes.
That serves as the foundation for a constant series of riffs on sci-fi geekery and pop culture in general. Tim is an unapologetic fanboy: an aspiring graphic artist who pays the rent by working in a comic book store. Daisy fancies herself a writer, though the empty pages of the typewriter mock her mercilessly whenever she tries to actually create anything. They define their experiences through various Gen X icons — Star Wars, The X-Files, and Lara Croft, among others — and much of the humor draws on analogies between their mundane existence and key moments in beloved movies and TV shows. The mile-a-minute references don’t always work (one extended sequence based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest goes nowhere), but more than a few are saved by the cast’s exquisite timing.
The show itself benefited from rather good timing as well: the first series aired in 1999, the second in 2001. Between them stood a seismic shift in the geek universe ,with the release of The Phantom Menace (and the agonizing disappointment felt by many fans) and the surprise arrival of The Matrix (which usurped George Lucas’s crown before succumbing to badly received sequels of its own). Spaced takes exquisite advantage of those circumstances without descending into creator-based rants, allowing very funny opinions on, say, Jar-Jar Binks to flow from the characters rather than the writers behind them.
Indeed, the characters themselves are the series’ real strength. Simply put, they’re not just vehicles for in-jokes. Time and again, Spaced veers away from expected cliché to reveal surprisingly touching truths in their lives. Heap, for example, brings a sensitive vulnerability to Brian, revealing a gentle and often comically injured soul beneath a façade of bohemian pretentiousness. People of a certain age will nod knowingly at the references, but more so at the situations the characters find themselves in and the way in which they react to them. Pegg, Stevenson and Wright know their demographic uncannily well, having shared their experiences and looked at the world through the same skewed lenses as most Gen Xers. They mock because they love, and because they too have felt the sad absurdity that their protagonists are going through onscreen.
They also understand how platonic friendships work — something few other TV shows have really grasped — which helps cement the charm of their central couple. Tim and Daisy are essentially best mates with no aspirations to romance, and Spaced devotes itself to the unique chemistry of a man and a woman who just like hanging out together. The real find in that sense is Stevenson, if only because we haven’t seen her talents showcased so well on this side of the pond. Daisy doesn’t exist to play off of the male figures, nor to provide a politicized example of feminist empowerment, but just to be the same way Tim does. Pegg has a tendency to steal whatever show he’s in, and while Frost makes a marvelous sidekick in their movie endeavors, he’s still just a right-hand man. It’s refreshing to see someone really and truly share the screen with him as an equal, generating her own energy to serve as a perfect counterbalance to his.
The DVD itself was carefully constructed to give those who bought the bootlegs reason to pick it up. All fourteen episodes are included, along with a third disc of interesting but rather run-of-the-mill bonus materials. Two audio commentaries are included. The first, lifted from the original British DVD, is merely adequate, but the second is the set’s true strength, as Pegg, Wright and Stevenson are joined by long-time American admirers such as Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. If you want to see where these fanboy wunderkinds came from, look no further. If you haven’t seen what they’re capable of yet, then Spaced is an ideal way to start.