This week marked a joyous occasion for pop culture geeks here in North America: Spaced — aka, the show that those folks from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz did before Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz — was finally released onto Region 1 DVD. Until now, the only way to get a hold of it was to order the UK release (which required a multi-region player capable of handling the PAL format).
But no longer: All of the various musical copyright issues have been cleared up, and now, those of us on this side of the pond can finally immerse ourselves in the word of Tim and Daisy sans YouTube and multi-region DVD players.
But why all of this hullabaloo for a British sitcom that only ran for two seasons (i.e., 14 episodes) nearly ten years ago? Lord knows I’ve sung the series’ praises more times than I can count, both on and off Opus, and I know I’m not the only one (a good portion of the Twitch crew, for example, are pretty vocal in their love as well). What’s the reason for all of the fuss?
There are several reasons for all of the love. For starters, the show is probably the most pop culturally literate show of all time, with each episode packed to the gills with references to movies, video games, comic books, TV shows, and so on.
Sometimes the references are incredibly subtle, incorporating nothing more than a hand gesture lifted from Showgirls or the use of a kitchen utensil for a Uri Gellar moment. At other times, they’re surprisingly elaborate.
Whatever the case, the references come fast and furious, and the series has the ability to turn on a dime suddenly, moving from a subtle 2001 reference to a not-so-subtle Scooby Doo reference in just over a few seconds.
But Spaced is most definitely greater than the sum of its referential parts. The pop culture references and post-modern pastiches are integral to the show’s nature, but the show isn’t just about being clever for cleverness’ sake. Spaced is full of beloved, if extremely quirky characters, and their stories as twenty-somethings trying to survive in a post-adolescent, pre-adult no man’s land can become surprisingly compelling at times — once you get past the obscure Doctor Who and Leigh Bowery references.
For all of its post-modern deconstructions and cheeky references and critiques, Spaced wears its heart surprisingly openly on its sleeve for all to see. And while the characters seem doomed to be stuck in a perpetually juvenile dreamworld constructed almost entirely of love for comic books, television, and movies (and, yes, some recreational narcotics), they’re surprisingly fleshed out, believable, and sympathetic.
Here’s the basic premise: Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes) are two twenty-somethings drifting through life. He’s an aspiring comic book artist who has just been dumped by the love of his life and she’s an aspiring writer living with a bunch of squatters. The two of them decide to fake being a couple so that they get a decent flat in London. Throw in a couple of eccentric friends, an odd neighbor, a drunk landlady, a pet dog, some British rave/drug culture, and a bit of romantic tension, and you’ve got the setting for Spaced.
Even if you don’t get the Star Wars references, or you know precious little about British children’s television from the 1970s, or don’t know John Woo from John Carpenter, the series can still be enjoyable because the characters are never sacrificed to make room for the references. Ignore the references, and in many ways, Spaced is your typical “coming of age” storyline about twenty-somethings attempting to find their place in the world. And sometimes, just sometimes, it makes brilliant observations about the world in which we live.
However, if you have even an inkling of pop culture awareness, that’s when the series’ true beauty and depth is revealed. Beyond just the sheer volume of pop culture references, and the ingenious ways in which they’re incorporated into the episodes, the very ethos under which Spaced operates is worth celebrating. And this ethos has several facets.
For starters, and this is very important, the audience is always in on the joke. This isn’t the case of the series’ creators — Pegg, Hynes, and director Edgar Wright — simply parading their pop culture knowledge around for everyone else to admire. Rather, the more’s the merrier, as they say. The jokes may often be subtle, but certainly not inscrutable or bizarre. (And it helps that the DVDs have the “Homage-O-Meter,” a subtitle track that flashes what movie, TV series, comic book, or even Spaced episode is being referenced in a particular scene.)
Second, it’s obvious that the material being riffed on is deeply and dearly loved by Pegg et al. You see this in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but this is where it all started. They get it as only true fans can, and so the humor, however cheeky, has a certain affection to it — which only makes it funnier for everyone involved.
Third, the series occasionally takes the piss out of “serious” or “highbrow” culture, i.e., the stuff that elites, artistes, critics, and pundits often hold up as having true merit. One of the series’ characters is a tortured artist named Brian Topp who lives in the basement of Tim and Daisy’s building. Brian — whose primary artistic endeavors are anger, pain, fear, and aggression — has devoted his life to creating real art.
The series takes great delight in showing that, for all of Brian’s talk of wanting to make “real” art, the work he does is as pretentious and silly as that which he criticizes. (This is never done in a mean-spirited way, though; Brian, in his clueless manner, is as likable and sympathetic as any of the show’s characters.)
There are several other instances where Spaced pokes fun at the cultural shapers and movers, the stuff that receives all of the pundits’ applause (e.g., highbrow feminist magazines, popular theatre, trendy art galleries) — all the stuff that pop culture is compared to and supposedly found wanting — and turns it on its head. In the world of Spaced, the artistes, cultural snobs, pundits, and critics are beaten by the comic book geeks and sci-fi nerds. And what a sweet victory it is.
However, the series also enjoys poking fun at those same geeks and nerds. One of the series’ running jokes is Tim’s love of Star Wars and his equally intense hatred of The Phantom Menace, to the point that he feels personally betrayed by George Lucas. And while his conviction is certainly admirable, it does cause him to do rash and foolish things.
All of this brings us to where the true genius, and the true heart, of Spaced can be found: In its cheeky, goofy, irrepressible way, Spaced affirms again and again that pop culture — the silly sci-fi blockbuster movies we watch, the comic books full of puffed up, spandex-clad heroes, the Saturday morning cartoons and video games that rot our brain — actually means something.
Those things are not disposable trifles or cultural detritus, but rather, in their own way, they actually speak to us and communicate something true and meaningful for and about us. We may demean them and write them off as mere distractions, but they are an intrinsic part of our worldview, and it’s almost impossible — for some of us, at least — to communicate meaningfully without relying on them to some extent.
As I made my way through Spaced the first time, I found myself thinking back to all of the conversations I had with roommates — deep, meaningful conversations — in which quotes from The Simpsons and Pulp Fiction were used as often as, if not moreso than, more “intellectual” or “philosophical” material. Or how just a random movie quote from something as seemingly trivial as Fletch or Caddyshack might be all that’s needed to say what we meant. Or how, in our desire to be heroes and do great deeds, we latch onto, however falteringly, the heroes and myths of our day and age: folks with names like Luke Skywalker, Batman, the Silver Surfer, Frodo Baggins, and Captain James T. Kirk.
It may sound silly, and perhaps it is, but it’s true nevertheless. Spaced realizes this wonderful truth, and affirms it time and again.
However, even with all of the above, there’s a personal reason for my love of Spaced: it helped my wife and I understand eachother a little better. At the time we were dating, and I had just discovered the show and was itching to share it. Once we started watching it, we suddenly realized that we bore an uncanny resemblance to Tim and Daisy, and their interactions often looked like ours.
Like Daisy, Renae can be incredibly energetic and enthusiastic, and is always wanting to try something new, go somewhere different. And like Tim, I’m often moody and brooding, and really want nothing more than to stay home and watch movies or read. Seeing Tim and Daisy’s interactions play out on the small screen, and seeing their foibles and flaws, actually helped us work through ours. To this day, whenever we watch Spaced, one of us almost always points out scenes that remind us of the other.
And in that way, too, Spaced becomes much more than just a culturally literate sitcom, or a brilliant display of post-modern self-referentialism. Above all else, it’s simply a great show: funny, clever, well-made, and amazingly affecting.