We return to the start of Edgar Wright’s collaborations with Pegg and Frost for one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.
I’m a twentysomething, single, fond of comic books, and a complete fucking nerd. Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) is also a twentysomething, fond of comic books, and a complete fucking nerd. Suffice it to say that Spaced cuts right to the bone, but it worked for me before I became a cynical bastard. Please don’t skip to the end.
Spaced was like so many British sitcoms in the 90s… except that it wasn’t. It was a show that spoke directly to underachievers like a glut of comedies from back then, such as Men Behaving Badly or even Father Ted. But Spaced did it all through a warped lens and a directorial style as schizophrenic as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. The real genius of writers Pegg and Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) was that they repackaged familiar comedic tropes with a touch of the absurd, making something that immediately stood-out from the pack. When it was first broadcast on Channel 4 in 1999, few were quick to realise its brilliance, but there’s a real sense that UK sitcoms will never get any realer than this; its a universe of ordinary-looking people, profane banter, and non-stop movie references. That sure sounds like my world.
Though Pegg and Hynes’ cine-literature scripts are enough to make Spaced a thoroughly distinctive example of the form, they also had the common sense to stick with director Edgar Wright, a man who got his start with the ultra low-budget “tinned Spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Fingers and later tested the “mainstream” waters with the obscure series Asylum. The latter is where he met Pegg and the now-legendary director may never have a better cinematic companion. They both understand that it’s not enough to simply homage your favourite films, but to make these callbacks relevant and seamless. Plus, they’re just so gosh darn clever about what they crib, from recreating the “toaster scene” from Pulp Fiction to scoring an entire episode with music pinched from Resident Evil.
Despite the fact I warmed to Spaced because of its geeky underpinnings, it still functions superbly as a sitcom and, importantly, you don’t need to be a cinephile to laugh along. The set-up works because its so simple: Bisley and future flatmate Daisy Steiner (Hynes) are recently single and on the hunt for new accommodation. They don’t know each other but, after a chance meeting in a cafe, they decide to dupe landlord Marsha (the wonderful Julia Deakin) into believing they are a “professional couple” to snag a flat at 23 Meteor Street, which is revealed to us in an epic pull-back befitting of a location where most of the action plays out. It is the meeting place for clubbing, house parties, paintballing, casual drug use, dog-napping, and even a zombie or two (how prophetic).
What would a sitcom be without supporting players, though? There’s Tim’s best friend, Mike Watt, played perfectly by non-actor Nick Frost. He was Pegg’s flatmate and quite a gamble on Wright’s part, but boy did his casting pay off! As gun nut and lovable maniac Mike, Frost makes for a highly enjoyable screen presence reminiscent of John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski, and his apparent friendship with Pegg is there on the screen. They have become a recognised silver screen duo for a reason. Then there’s Brian Topp, the truly underrated Mark Heap, who plays the strange artist downstairs with a wacky commitment that makes his scenes an offbeat delight. And, finally, despite there being far too many other faces to mention, there’s Daisy’s supposed friend Twist Morgan (Katy Carmichael), an attractive, shallow and judgemental sort who is, ironically, the most likely character to feature in a mainstream sitcom. As good as they all are, though, they’re definitely marching to Wright’s tune.
Right from the get-go, Spaced is a visually inventive series that appears to know no bounds, and definitely comes from the mind of a man who once made no-budget cop movies in his garden. Wright’s camera is forever moving, the editing is tight, and the recreations of iconic film moments are spectacular for their slight budget (a re-staging of the infamous lobby shootout from The Matrix is especially great). If you own the DVD box set, I highly suggest you select the subtitle option which points-out the film references, because every single scene of Spaced is so packed with minutia that each revisit reveals something fresh. How many comedies have done a parody of The Sixth Sense only to have that film’s Olivia Williams in the scene? This show flies by so fast that I’m still noticing things today. There are only twelve episodes total, but I never, ever get bored of watching them.
It’s also amazing that some of the dated pop-culture references haven’t had the same affect on the series. You don’t need to remember Robot Wars to find the sight of grown men playing with toys amusing. But it isn’t all about being self-aware, because we genuinely grow to care about the characters. The bamboo-phobic Tim clearly has a lot of talent even if he doesn’t have the drive – his proposed comic “The Bear” looks badass to me, if only because it was drawn by 2000 AD artists (maybe a spin-off, Mr. Wright?). We also want him to do well because underneath that supposedly “cool” swagger, he’s a good bloke and a loyal friend. We even grow attuned to Daisy’s otherness and appreciate her for meaning well in her largely unproductive efforts to become a journalist. There’s even the possibility that Tim and Daisy might become partners in more than rent, although Pegg and Hynes shrewdly leave this thread dangling in a sea of sexual tension. And, by extension, we care about what happens to their friends. By the time we get to a tank and a raised boombox in the final episode, we can’t help but love these direction-less slackers.
The cast is fantastic across the board, of course, and I haven’t even mentioned appearances from the likes of John Simm, David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Michael Smilie, and even Bill Bailey as comic book shop owner Bilbo. There’s more funny in these twelve half-hour instalments than the entirety of The Big Bang Theory.
These might just be the ramblings of a biased fan, of course, as I’ve even partaken in a tour of Spaced locations with a university chum including, yes, that house on Meteor Street. Therefore, you shouldn’t really take my word as gospel as I’m not even sure Spaced has flaws that aren’t related to budget. Actually, I’m not even sure I could begin to critique it without citing more positives to reset the balance. From beginning to end, Pegg, Hynes and Wright knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish and achieved their goals in superlative fashion. It’s no surprise that the latter would go on to become a highly-acclaimed director and a prize British export. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End are proof-positive of that, but Spaced, to me, is still the project to top. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite sitcom of all time.
What more do you want from a guy who can tell you that the alleyway where Tim and Daisy have their “gunfight” is located directly behind The World’s End pub in Camden Town? Funny how it all comes full-circle, innit?
- Peter Serafinowicz who appears in several episodes as Tim’s arch nemesis Duane Benzie, provided the voice of Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). In the series, he uses a voice very similar to that used for Darth Maul, and in one episode even paraphrases one of his lines from Star Wars. Amusingly, from the second series onward, Tim’s hatred of Duane is matched only by his hatred of Episode I.
Tim’s first line of Season 2 – “As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a graphic artist” – is a play on the classic opening line of “Goodfellas”, when Henry Hill (voiced and played by Ray Liotta) says, “For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Tim’s surname is a homage to comic artist Simon Bisley.
According to Simon Pegg, what the future held for the characters was always left ambiguous at the end of the show. But that hasn’t stopped him imagining where they wound up. Tim and Daisy end up together and have a daughter. Pegg said it was always the plan to get them together, even if it never occurred throughout the show. Brian has a long and happy life with Twist and after his death, his work becomes incredibly popular and sells for millions. Twist winds up in suspended animation and awakes in the future where she finds, to her disgust, everyone wearing silver. Mike ends up with Dexter and moves to South London. Pegg added if there had been a third series, it would end in a Blake’s 7 style shootout. But he and Stevenson knew the Series 2 finale would be the very last episode while they were writing it.