August 17, 2008

I like the way the British handle TV series. They do a limited run, so there’s a much better chance of avoiding lame or filler episodes, and then, only if it’s good, well-received, and there are more ideas to use, do they do more.

That difference in philosophy came to mind while trying the new complete series DVD set of Spaced, a Britcom that aired from 1999-2001. It had two seasons of seven episodes each, and they’re some of the best sitcom episodes I’ve ever seen. Readers of this site will find lots to enjoy and appreciate, given the numerous popular culture references.

Americans will best know male lead Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). He’s really cute in this, with his dyed platinum blond hair (which also minimizes the receding hairline). Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and directed Shaun of the Dead, also directed this show, which was co-written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes), the female lead.

Two London twenty-somethings, Daisy and Tim, pretend to be a couple in order to get an apartment after meeting at the local coffee shop. He’s an aspiring graphic novelist who also works in a comic shop called Fantasy Bazaar (a familiar character type in my circle). All we see in the first episode are graffiti-looking character designs for “The Bear”, but one of the funniest scenes is when he’s trying to tell Daisy about his comic. He goes on and on about the backstory but there’s an obvious hole in it that he clearly hasn’t thought of. She questions him about it, which results in “uh… uh… but here’s this other cool thing” hand-waving. I’ve had almost the same conversation with people in real life.

Daisy, meanwhile, wants to be a journalist but never actually writes anything (which also sounds like people I know). She’s a procrastinator when faced with the terror of the blank page and one of the most wonderfully realistic female characters ever on TV. Liz came back to watch this with me, because she’s a Pegg fan but hadn’t previously heard of Spaced. In response to Daisy’s crazed decorating — wrapping everything in tinfoil — for their housewarming party, Liz said, “She’s nuts, I love her!”

Spaced cafe scene

The supporting cast includes Brian, the downstairs neighbor artist, and Marsha, the creepy landlord. Nick Frost (also in Shaun of the Dead, which was inspired by the third episode’s zombie attack sequence) plays Tim’s gun-crazed best friend Mike, while Daisy’s buddy is bitchy Twist, who can’t say anything without cutting someone down.

The pop culture references, obscure in-jokes, and brilliantly realized film and TV homages are a huge part of the show’s appeal, but they’re handled more maturely than in many other cases. They’re not just verbal name-drops (although Daisy teases Tim about his unnatural affection for Gillian Anderson), but also visual cues. Even if you don’t recognize them, there’s a comfortable familiarity to their structure. For instance, when a joke reference to Scooby-Doo comes up, Daisy says she always felt like Daphne, and Tim responds that oh, yeah, he was Fred, but then the camera cuts to show him in a green shirt and her in orange, putting the lie to their self-identifications.

Or there’s the feel of Close Encounters of the Third Kind when they go up the stairway to a much better party, or The Shining, with creepy twin girls. I felt so very clever when I did recognize a reference, because they range so widely. One of the extras is the Homage-O-Meter, an onscreen display that provides more information about what’s being referenced (essential!). I especially liked it during episode five, season one, when it natters on about chaos theory.

Spaced cast

Anyone in today’s culture has watched an awful lot of video, so this show plays on that DNA, but not in a self-conscious, self-congratulatory way. It’s entertainment for the YouTube clip generation, but it has more to say than just “wasn’t that cool”? Spaced is old-fashioned (in the best way) in its premise and its dedication to craft. A joke is set up, and then it pays off, with awesome delivery to keep it fresh and funny. Tim is capable of saying the silliest things absolutely straight, like “we’re having a sale on X-Men comics at the shop and he wanted me to draw a poster of Wolverine slashing prices with his adamantium claws.”

The list price of this complete set is a little high, as BBC America sets tend to be, but it’s stuffed with extras (and you can find good discounts most places). Each season has biographies not only of the cast and crew but of the characters as well; a trailer for each episode; outtakes; and two commentaries on every episode. The first set come from the original UK DVD release of the series with Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, Edgar Wright, and some of the other cast, depending on the episode. The second were done new this year with American “special guests” as follows:

  • Season 1 Episodes 1-3: Kevin Smith (who makes it all about himself, as usual, but he’s entertaining, and they talk about the cultural differences and Jessica’s name change and the reason for the title)
  • Season 1 Episodes 4 and 5: Diablo Cody (it-girl screenwriter of Juno)
  • Season 1 Episode 6, Season 2 Episode 5: Matt Stone (South Park)
  • Season 1 Episode 7, Season 2 Episodes 2 and 4: Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, JLA writer)
  • Season 2 Episodes 1 and 3: Quentin Tarentino
  • Season 2 Episodes 6 and 7: Bill Hader (Superbad, Saturday Night Live)

They’re all huge fans of the show. The British commentaries are mostly about “remember that?”, while the American ones have a lot of fan appreciation. There’s also a feature-length documentary called “Skip to the End” that’s impressively complete and interesting in its details. I didn’t recognize Jessica Hynes in it, because she’s slimmer with much longer hair.

Additional features include an on-stage reunion panel from October 2007 and deleted scenes with commentary. From the alternate ending comes this quote, that nicely sums up the show:

Daisy: We live in a fantasy world, Tim. We’ve just constructed this fake utopia where, y’know, we never get old and never have to face the responsibilities of adulthood. We’re just stretching our childhoods out as far as they can go.

Tim: Yeah, I know. We’re lucky aren’t we?

With all the extras, this is a complete portrait of a great show. You’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of this. (A complimentary copy of this DVD was provided by the studio.)

19 Responses  
Charles RB writes:  

“I like the way the British handle TV series. They do a limited run”

A mate of mine once joked that if we had done 24, it would’ve been called 6.

Paul O'Brien writes:  

Interesting to see they’re promoting this as a BBC show in America, considering it was broadcast on Channel 4.

Johanna writes:  

To us, all UK TV is BBC. :)

clay writes:  

Wait, it’s not?

Seriously, I thought the four main channels were all under the “British Broadcasting Corporation” umbrella?

odessa steps magazine writes:  

I believe the gimmick with “BBCA” is now “the best in British Television,” not necessarily “just BBC shows.”

for example, BBCA just started (or will soon start) showing Primeval, which I believe is an ITV show.

I’m glad to see Spaced finally over here. I’ve had the R2 set for quite a while now and like the fact I can now make references to the show and people will know what I mean. :>

Adam Arnold writes:  

I picked up this boxed set at the BBC America book at Comic-Con after reading a review in Entertainment Weekly. I’m actually kind of amazed I somehow missed this show all this time. Maybe it’s the title that can throw you as it’s not the best title for instantly knowing what the show is about, but in a way…it’s perfect.

Johanna, another series you should try to track down and see is “The IT Crowd.” You’ll laugh yourself silly.

Lyle writes:  

I think only the big time anglophiles know about the difference between BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Channel 4 is probably second best known for managing to get a crossover series with buzz like Queer as Folk or Skins, but that’s still not so well known.

I’ve joked with the spouse that if we ever took a vacation to the UK I’d probably spend most of the time watching TV.

As for BBC America, a lot of their programming comes from other networks though I’ve seen some viewers (dedicated anglophiles, based on what I said earlier) who’ve complained that BBCA gives BBC shows more of a chance and are quicker to dump the ITV/Channel 4 programs if they don’t catch on quickly.

Charles RB writes:  

“I’ve joked with the spouse that if we ever took a vacation to the UK I’d probably spend most of the time watching TV.”

Five minutes of Eastenders will change that VERY quickly… ;)

Paul O'Brien writes:  

“Seriously, I thought the four main channels were all under the “British Broadcasting Corporation” umbrella?”

No, the BBC is responsible for BBC1 and BBC2. ITV is a full-blown commercial channel, as is Five (though it’s not a very successful one). Channel Four is a weird hybrid, set up under the Thatcher administration, which is supposed be advert-funded while providing public-service and minority interest programming. It interprets that remit very loosely.

All of these channels have now spawned a flotilla of digital siblings on Freeview. The BBC now has BBC3 (youth) and BBC4 (arthouse), not to mention a news channel, a parliament channel and two kids’ channels. ITV has been joined by ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4. Channel 4 has E4, More4, Film4 and 4Music. And even Five has some spin-off channels whose names I forget.

We also have a digital channel called Dave, so-called because “everyone knows a bloke called Dave.” It seems to mainly run repeats of Top Gear.

British broadcasting is a strange place.

John writes:  

Spaced is a sweet, wonderful little show that just gets better and better as it goes a long. My favorite character is, actually, the Ecstasy-taking bike messenger. He wasn’t on much, but he was fabulous when he was.

GMcG writes:  

As much as I like it, I think Spaced may be one of the most over-rated shows ever. It’s almost 10 years since it started, and 7 since it finished, and people are still raving about it.

It was good, but it wasn’t THAT good.

Charles RB writes:  

“the Ecstasy-taking bike messenger”

You can briefly see him turned into a zombie in Shaun…

Johanna writes:  

Hunh, I never noticed that — I’ll have to watch the movie again. The mention of Ecstasy reminded me of something Liz and I noticed while watching but I couldn’t figure out how to work into the review: the casual use of drugs as a part of regular young adult life, whether at a club or pot at home.

GMcG: It’s new to us, for the most part, so excuse our enthusiasm. Most over-rated, though, I have a bunch more candidates ahead of it. Like Lost. Or Sopranos.

Chris G. writes:  

The first time I watched Spaced — one of the times the late great cable channel Trio ran it — I remember realizing, to my surprise, just how much I cared about the characters by the final episode. It’s a wonderful little show and I wish I could give it a hug.

The IT Crowd is going to air on IFC starting in September.

clay writes:  

The BBC now has BBC3 (youth) and BBC4 (arthouse), not to mention a news channel, a parliament channel and two kids’ channels.

So… “Channel Four” is different than “BBC4″? I think that’s where my confusion came in — I thought they referred to the same thing. (That’s why I mention the “four main channels” — I thought I was talking about BBC 1-4.)

Charles RB writes:  

“The IT Crowd is going to air on IFC starting in September.”

You lucky people!

“So… “Channel Four” is different than “BBC4″?”

Yeah – BBC4’s only a few years old and a digital channel, whereas Channel 4 is terrestrial and you get it by pressing 4 on the remote. I don’t know why it’s even called BBC4.

James Moar writes:  

Charles: I assume the BBC3 and BBC4 names are intended to make people associate them with the established names and large audiences of BBC1 and 2, seeing as they replaced previous digital channels by the names of “BBC Choice” and “BBC Knowledge”.

Not that anyone but us British residents or extreme Anglophiles needs to know a bit of this, says the guy who can name all the US networks and some Japanese ones.

Charles RB writes:  

That’s probably it – pity the large audiences don’t seem to pay much attention to 3 and 4, eh?

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