If you ever felt, as I did, there was some missing backstory associated with the smartly amusing Shaun of the Dead and its somewhat-less-brilliant follow-up, Hot Fuzz, you may be excited to make the acquaintance of Spaced, the consistently ingenious British TV show where director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost cut their comic teeth. Storywise, it’s no relation to Shaun of the Dead, even though it feels somewhat like a prequel — and it’s a bit thrilling to think of Tim Bisley, the videogame-addicted comic-book artist Pegg plays in Spaced finally given a chance to face the zombies who populate his dreams in a real-world post-apocalyptic showdown.
Zombies do make an appearance in Spaced, but only as a flight of fancy — wannabe gunslinger Tim imagining his Resident Evil game come to life in a tour de force that opens Episode 3. What Spaced is, is the story of Tim and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes, née Stevenson), two young Londoners who meet as they’re scouring the classifieds in search of new flats after their previous relationships imploded. To secure an affordable rental designated in the paper as available only to a professional couple, Tim and Daisy take a crash course in each other’s life stories and clumsily pretend to be in love. (They’ll spend the rest of the series studiously but somewhat conspicuously avoiding the real thing.) A cast of supporting characters is smartly introduced in sitcom fashion, most notably Tim’s best friend, gun-nut Mike (Nick Frost), Daisy’s best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael), the tortured artist living downstairs and the landlady above.
The workaday subject matter is enlivened considerably by a serial flotilla of pop-culture references: shots and scenes in Spaced deliberately echo everything from The Empire Strikes Back and Tron to The Conversation and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s also the constant spectacle of Tim spending days and nights, videogame controller in hand, doing his level best to ignore the various crises unspooling around him, and of Daisy, trying to write, trying to get a steady job, trying to work out her conflicted feelings for her shiftless flatmate.
It sounds like boilerplate for a sitcom, but Spaced has a twinkle in its eye that’s awfully endearing. Director Edgar Wright is awfully good with a camera, and his winning precociousness behind the scenes is a good match for the tangents (some of them alcohol-fueled) and digressions (some of them a wee bit druggy) of Pegg and Hynes, who did double duty as screenwriters. There’s something cool and reassuringly stylish about the way the opening titles slide sideways onto and across the screen near the beginning of each episode, after a short introductory sequence that sets the tone. Anyway, you have to admire a show that will go to the lengths Spaced does to provide a context for absurd action sequences — like a paintball game involving Mike, Tim, and Duane, the ex-mate who stole Tim’s girlfriend, or the late-night rescue mission mounted to bust Daisy’s miniature schnauzer, Colin, out of the pound. And the sense of humor and comic timing is spot-on, especially in the show’s first season, which boasts a significantly higher chuckle-per-minute count than either of the feature film follow-ons.
Perhaps inevitably, the second season feels a bit less fresh, more played-out, but its missteps are redeemed by the marvelously unexpected one-two punch of the last two episodes, which constitute a silly but absurdly satisfying denouement to the endeavor, complete with penultimate cliffhanger. (Another second-season episode revolves around a delightful play-acted gun battle that’s another gentle highlight of the series.) The conclusion works so well because it so gently pays tribute to the show’s emotional throughline, which is the unspoken but powerful bond between its unabashedly goofy main characters. There’s been much talk about a third season, but as the actors grow visibly older — Pegg shedding his hip facial hair to play a straight-arrow cop, Frost growing a little wider around the middle, and Hynes electing to do her own thing on television and in inoffensive Brit entertainments like Confetti — it seems apparent that this program represented a particular sensibility among the cadre who made it, a friendly, youthful electricity that’s no less precious for being of a moment that has regrettably but unavoidably passed.
Spurred by comments at the Mobius Home Video Forum, which is always a reliable source of inspiration for non-mainstream viewing, I ordered the three-DVD Region 2 “Definitive Collector’s Edition” that’s available from Amazon.co.uk. It includes every episode from both seasons along with audio commentary and a guide to all of the movie references (handy when you can’t remember for sure when a bit of outrageous foreboding was nicked from The Omen or The Exorcist), plus a daunting feature-length documentary about the whole series. (I haven’t watch that latter feature yet, but I understand it includes a coda that pretty well adds closure to the whole experience.) If you own a region-free DVD player, this is a great way to spend some quality time with your television.