“Chaos” and “Epiphanies” (series 1, episodes 5 and 6)
In which Colin is kidnapped—by aliens?!—and the gang goes clubbing.
I’ve always preferred, on some fundamental level, sitcoms where the characters in the comedy like each other and enjoy hanging out together to sitcoms where everybody despises each other. And what’s remarkable to me about Spaced is how early in its run its created a rather convincing argument for the fact that these six people, who wouldn’t have had anything to do with each other if not for the happy accident of Tim and Daisy and an apartment all coming together, have a real affection for each other. Yeah, sure, Marsha’s a bit of a comic, horny landlady figure (and I hope the show does more with her soon-ish, rather than let her remain this stereotype), but the show has created a rather convincing friendship among the other five, and it’s done so very quickly.
The best sitcoms, I’d argue, create groups of people we want to hang out with. We’ve talked a lot about the ways that Spaced was different from other shows that had come along before it in the last two weeks, but we haven’t talked a lot about the ways that Spaced fits snugly into the grand old sitcom tradition of creating TV people who seem like they become your friends. This isn’t a show like The Office, where most of the characters quietly despise each other, even as the creators maintain a certain affection for all of them. This is a show about people who have created a solid little group of friends and invite us to join them every week. The necessary building blocks of the first three episodes out of the way, the series can just invite us to come and sit around in their apartment while they play, and there’s very little that’s more fun to do than that.
This week’s two episodes largely focus on the gang coming together to accomplish some impossible mission or another (while Marsha stays home). In the first, Tim lets Colin get away from him, taken by an evil doctor who wants to use the tiny dog for animal testing, so the group gets together to retrieve the canine. In the second, Tim’s friend Tyres drops by and starts babbling about an amazing new club that the group just HAS to try, so they all go together. There’s not really much to either story, particularly the latter episode, which mostly amounts to letting the characters hang out with each other and exploit their various romantic tensions, but both exude a real sense of fun. Spaced, then, isn’t an especially plotty sitcom like, say, Arrested Development. It’s a hang-out sitcom. The vibe is more about just having a good time and not worrying too much about what’s going to happen next in the plot.
Honestly, take a look at “Chaos” for a pretty good example of this. The episode revolves around something that could be seen as a fairly plot-heavy idea: After Colin’s kidnapping, Tim takes it upon himself to find and rescue the dog, so Daisy isn’t upset anymore. He knows it’s his fault, so he wants to stop her from feeling bad. And if in the process he rescues a few kittens, well, that’s the kind of thing heroes do, right? But there’s very little TO the plot. It pretty much just consists of Tim expressing an antipathy for the dog, Tim letting the dog get taken, Tim and Daisy mounting a search handled via musical montage, and the letter explaining where Colin was taken falling into the gang’s lap via the postal service. A lot of other comedies would have turned this into a complicated farce. Spaced is more interested in the way Colin’s disappearance sets off little explosions within the group as a whole. It’s a little sleepy, a little lackadaisical, sure, but that’s part of its charm.
I also like the fact that Spaced takes place in a universe where everybody’s fundamentally a good person, except for the people who obviously aren’t good people. Early in the episode, Tim invites Brian over to watch the Star Wars trilogy, and after it’s over, he’s in tears at watching the Ewoks sing their little ditty, while Brian contemplates what he’s just seen. Tim posits that if the gunners on the Star Destroyer decided to blast the escape pod carrying C-3PO and R2D2 out of the void, the Empire would have remained standing, as the two robots’ arrival on Tatooine sets off the entire trilogy’s events. It’s the sort of discussion hardcore Star Wars fans have had millions of times before, and Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson capture perfectly the way these little monologues build and build, from one small thing to another and then another. But Brian’s mind is on something else. It’s on chaos theory.
Chaos theory says, according to Brian, that there exists a way to account for every single event that has ever happened, that if you can come up with an equation comprehensive enough, you can explain the workings of the universe and, indeed, predict the future, right down to what kind of sandwich I’m going to make today. It’s an idea that’s just sort of tossed out there, but it also gives the episode it’s name, and it does so for a reason. Spaced, like many sitcoms, takes place in a universe that’s fairly predictable. The doctor in his dark clothes and dark glasses is such an obvious bad guy that Tim even remarks on it when he bumps into him. But the lowly security guard, who just happens to see what the doctor is up to, retrieves Colin’s collar and sends it to Tim and Daisy, the better to make sure they can rescue him (and the kittens). When the gang rushes the animal testing compound, Mike and Brian are meant to take out the guard, but they end up talking to him and having a good time.
In some ways, fictions like Star Wars (or like Spaced) are so enjoyable and so comforting because they take place in this version of the universe. Everything is predictable within a certain set of parameters. The bad guys are clearly known to everyone, and even the lowliest person on the totem pole will try to do the right thing when it comes right down to it. The chaos of the real world doesn’t have to be chaos if you have an equation big enough to explain it, and for people like Tim and Brian, people who see the world through invented lenses, fiction becomes that equation. Tim relates to the world through pop culture—and Spaced does, since the show is so thoroughly from his and Daisy’s point of view—because pop culture is a way to make the world make sense, to turn chaos into something neatly balanced and explicable. If you treat people nicely enough, they won’t mistreat you even when you hand them your gun, and if two people in the same age range with the same interests of different genders move in together, well, of course they’re going to start to fall for each other. It’s not just the sort of thing that happens; it’s in the equation.
“Epiphanies” is a slightly stronger episode than “Chaos” and likely the first truly great episode of the show so far. There’s a moment near the end of it where the show hammers home just how much these people have come to care for each other (and how much we’ve come to care for them), and it blew me away for how deeply felt it was. The episode concludes with Tim’s old friend Tyres convincing everyone to go out clubbing, and the sequence at the club didn’t dominate the episode like I thought it might. Instead, it’s neatly contained in the last five minutes or so and nearly wordless but for a brief exaltation from Brian that he’s just got to dance (thereby giving him a chance to cure his longstanding fear of spilling someone’s drink when attempting to dance and getting hit in the face). At first, the sequence seems almost awkward, all self-consciously flashy camera moves and silly dancing. (Honestly, I could have done without the DJ names, which are one of the few moments in the series so far that scream, “Hey, look! It’s 1999!”) But it slowly weaves its spell, showing how the various characters spread out over the dance floor, pairing off in different combinations and even turning the act of checking a coat into an excuse for a dance number. (A friend of mine argued after Scott Pilgrim that Edgar Wright should direct a musical, and I would daresay he’s right.)
But then the music cuts out, shortly after Brian gets his chance to prove that drink spilling doesn’t have to end in pain. And we’re with Tim and Daisy, sitting on a couch, somewhere away from the action, and it’s almost like a tiny, private moment that we’re somehow privy to. Earlier in the episode, Tim seemed to be slightly sweet on Twist, while Daisy continued to be slightly sweet on Tim, but this is the moment that lets us know it will all be OK. It might take 14 episodes, but these two crazy kids will end up together. It’s a great scene because it’s a quiet one in the midst of the loud and because it plays up all of the hidden dreams Tim and Daisy have, the ones they might not dare express, like both becoming wildly successful, successful enough to buy a big house and turn one room in particular into a club, just for them and their friends. They’re not there yet, but they have every reason in the world to believe they will be. It’s a lovely little moment and a lovely little notion, and it underlines exactly what this scene is trying to do: These are a bunch of friends who’ve been knocked around of late, but they’re picking themselves up and going out for some fun, the better to just take a night off.
Tyres, of course, comes to find the two, and he pulls them up off the couch to go down into the sea of people below, asking if they want to join the “collective.” But the collective turns out to just be their friends. Not that they mind at all, as they greet Twist and Brian with enthusiastic squeals and hugs, as if these were people they’d known for decades, not just a few weeks. Where’s Mike? Well, he’s up on a small stage, leading a dance to a remix of the theme song from The A-Team, temporarily having forgotten that he’s never really going to be in the army, that he Eskimo rolled his canoe and was laughed out of his outdoor group. It’s a grand moment both for the characters and the audience. Here are these people, finally casting aside their troubles for a little while and just dancing away. Everything else can wait for later. Tyres heads out into the smoky white light of the outside. His work here is done.
For all of the ways that Spaced sometimes feels like a bunch of twentysomethings clearing out the barn and putting on cheap glosses on their favorite pop culture moments (and I mean this with the utmost affection), the reason it doesn’t turn into some reference gag factory like Family Guy is because it builds these characters deftly. After three episodes, I wasn’t sure if Brian was a strong enough character on his own to carry a whole episode. After six, I feel like he’s an old friend that just happens to live inside my television. After just a couple of episodes, it didn’t feel like whatever connection the show was trying to sell between Tim and Daisy was all that strong. Now I just want them to realize their feelings for each other and get on with it already. (If the series had nothing else working for it, it would have Pegg and Stevenson’s terrific chemistry. The moment when Tim seemed to be flirting with Twist a bit made me ever so slightly angry.)
“Epiphanies” makes great use of all of these little relationships the show is building. The scene where Tim comforts Mike in the wake of his tragic roll (with a very silly pun on “Inuit”) really does feel like two lifelong friends giving each other a hard time but comforting each other when the chips are down. The scene where Tim and Daisy flash back to their night of angry Scrabble is both great character work—Tim tries to play SHAZAM; Daisy tries to play PRO-V (minus the hyphen)—and a great suggestion of how these two would make a very good couple. Or even take that long opening scene where Tyres barges into Tim and Daisy’s place on a quiet Sunday and rants about how great the club he visited was and how they should join him. In an instant, Tyres is defined perfectly, and the show has great fun with the idea that his mind is so throttled by the drugs (and the FUCKIN’ MOOD SWINGS) that he’s easily distracted by Tim saying Madonna is just behind him (though, to be fair, Daisy is too). With the majority of the exposition out of the way, the show is just free to present a bunch of characters with real love for each other and let things play out. There’s little attention played to the touchy-feeliness of it all. It just happens.
Or put it another way and circle around to where we began: The best sitcoms build groups of characters and worlds we want to return to again and again. But the process of doing that usually takes a handful of episodes and sometimes takes whole seasons. (This is why the sitcom has always had trouble taking root in this age when shows are judged far more on their pilot numbers than anything else.) After watching the first four episodes of Spaced, I was amused but not exactly clamoring for more. After watching episodes five and six, I was ready to flip the disc over to episode seven of series one. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m writing about these week to week, I probably would have. The strength of a sitcom is in how well it makes a safe place where you want to go every week, a place where the chaos of the real world seems muted and the hugs on the dance floor seem earned. After six episodes, Spaced has passed that test for me. I’m in.
- Random British reference I never would have gotten without Wikipedia of the week: Grange Hill? I had no idea what that was. I’m usually able to just overlook the British-isms I don’t get, but that one sent me scrambling. (Turns out it’s some sort of long-running soap opera that ended in 2008 after 30 years on the air. I’d mostly gotten this from context already, but still.)
- A couple of pop culture references for the eagle-eyed: Tim’s memory of his stepfather is straight out of the climax of The Shining, while his search for Colin is briefly visited by a small figure cloaked in red, just like in seminal horror film Don’t Look Now (one of the great films where Donald Sutherland gets way, WAY in over his head). If you want the ending spoiled, go here.
- Come to think of it, one of the things on the show that might have benefited from a U.S. remake (though I continue to think such a thing isn't the smartest idea) would have been a greater chance to delve into the characters' histories. What we get in this series (I assume) is intriguing but scanty. Give the show 100 episodes, and we'd know everything about everybody. Though that's not always a good thing.
- Minor complaint: The series’ over-reliance on remixes on the soundtrack vaguely irritates me, largely because I’ve never liked remixes. It often feels over-scored, too.
- Come to think of it, much of the camera work and editing in that clubbing sequence was lifted and improved upon for the house party sequence in Scott Pilgrim. Edgar Wright loves doing homages, but the director he steals from the most consistently is himself.
- Three good Star Wars movies later, reads the caption. Was Phantom Menace already being turned upon by fans in the fall of '99? I don't remember it that way, but, then, I was a true believer that the prequels might make the film look amazing in retrospect at the time, so I also WOULDN'T remember.
- Random Spaced YouTube video of the week: Here's a very strange promo for the show from the U.K., which makes it look vaguely like some hardcore late-night sex show (the smoking, the strange voiceover, the odd dancing).
- "To top it all off, her hair looks stupid all the time."
- "Rumor has it, he can smell wealth from 100 feet."
- "Not really. He used the money to buy new knees."
- "We don't have a tumble dryer." "You will, my friend. You will."
- "Yeah, by a crocodile or something."
- "He is a freelance vivisectionist."
- "Mike, I'll see you here at 2200 hours. Everybody else, I'll see you here at 10."
- "Is Jabba the princess?" "Yes." "Here!"
- "None of us has ever done anything like this before, apart from Mike, who as we all know, once stole a tank and tried to invade Paris."
- "You should get one of those eye masks with the cooling jellies. I find them very, very soothing."
- "You're thinking, It's Sunday, I'd rather be in Apocalypse Now."
- "I just wish sometimes, I could control these FUCKIN' MOOD SWINGS."
- "It's what they made up to make the shampoo sound important."
- "I'm using my penis." "Finally!"
- "You're like Mr. T., but white and hairy."
- "Mike, don't let them dress you up as a giant cock."
Next week: Series one comes to an end (sniff) with “Ends.” But where those poor suckers in 1999 had to wait 18 months for new episodes, we’ll just dive right into series two with “Back.”