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!”
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.
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.)