“Art” and “Battles” (series 1, episodes 3 and 4)
In which Brian hears from a long-gone love and Tim gets to have his revenge. Also, a dog appears.
One of the things that’s difficult to confront when watching Spaced is that you have to put out of your mind all of the shows that have come since it aired, particularly American shows that took great inspiration from it. (Correct me if I’m wrong, British readers, but it sure seems to me as if the show has been a greater influence on this side of the Atlantic.) Similarly, you must confront the fact that series director Edgar Wright was trying to do some of the things he’d realize much more successfully in his feature films on a shoestring budget, making all of this feel like a sort of warm-up for the things he (and the cast, honestly) would do later. At this point, Wright’s films and American sitcoms that drew inspiration from Spaced (including, most notably, Community, which is now so thoroughly the American Spaced that talk of a remake seems even more nuts than it might have two years ago) are so ingrained in the culture that it’s hard to see what this show must have been like airing in 1999.
Obviously, anyone watching Spaced for the first time in 2011 can take it on faith from people who were there in 1999 that this stuff seemed revolutionary back then. And I’m enough of a scholar of the form to know that basically nobody was doing anything quite like this at the time. Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson apparently pitched the show utilizing the kooky humor of Northern Exposure (with its occasional homages to famous films) as a touchstone, but here, already, in episodes three and four, they and Write are going beyond even that, creating a new kind of sitcom grammar, almost by the seat of their pants. If I were to point to an influence on the series, it would be The Simpsons, which created the basic grammar of the cut-away gag. But Spaced found a way to ground it in reality and make it work in a live-action format, and all for what appears to be five or six pounds.
So I can certainly appreciate how groundbreaking the series was at the time and applaud it for its innovations. The question, then, becomes if it’s so rock-solid as to still be funny, seeing so much of it after other shows have pillaged it wholesale. I’m thinking of this in particular this week because I watched two episodes—“Art” and “Battles”—that use conceptual ideas that were later copied and improved upon by other shows. There’s a zombie fighting sequence in “Art” that lasts about a minute, while “Battles” builds to a paintball battle between Tim and his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Both of these ideas would be ground up as grist for the mill on Community, and the performance art sequences in “Art” have been one-upped by many, many other shows. (Though, granted, a sequence featuring weird performance art was hardly unique to this show.)
One of my concerns about Spaced in these early episodes has been that the show might think that simply referencing pop culture is good enough, that it doesn’t have to build a joke around pop culture but can, rather, just say, “Hey, isn’t this like (insert name of movie)?” followed by a cut-away gag and call it a day. And, to be fair, there’s been a little of that in all of these episodes. The zombie sequence, for instance, is pretty much just Wright and Pegg recreating Resident Evil for shits and giggles, and while they try to pay it off at the art show at the end, the callback doesn’t work nearly as well as it might. There are a lot of good jokes in “Art,” but the show is still clearly finding its way and figuring out what its characters can do and what kinds of jokes it can tell with them. “Art” is probably a step up over last week’s two episodes, but there’s still an overreliance on shtick-y humor and making references to other stuff to make references to it.
“Battles,” on the other hand, is pretty damn close to great. The structure of the episode is incredibly smart. It builds from a series of minor incidents to stories that illuminate certain things about both Tim and Daisy, and when it turns a paintball battle into an action-movie analogue, it does so with wit and panache. Even better, there are actual stakes involved for one of the central twosome, stakes that make it easier to get invested in who wins the paintball match. Tim, see, has been thinking about how he lost his girl to the irritatingly yuppie-like Duane, a guy who’s always got his cell phone ringing and always has the perfect answer for everything. And wouldn’t you know it, Duane’s also in the paintball match? If ever Tim was going to get even the slightest bit of revenge, it’s right now.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the problem with “Art” (and I say “problem” loosely, since it’s still a very funny episode) is the fact that it has basically nothing to do with Tim, while relegating Daisy to a side-plot. When I tried to make my way through the series so many years ago, I stopped after this episode. I had laughed plenty at the show, but I wasn’t feeling terribly drawn into it, and I was hard-pressed to explain why. But now it makes more sense. As much as I like Brian as a supporting character, he hasn’t had enough of a chance to grow to really carry his own storylines. Tim and Daisy are the two characters Spaced has necessarily spent the most time developing as characters, which means that abruptly tossing a storyline to Brian in this episode feels more forced than it might have normally felt. (Briefly, that storyline involves Brian’s former art partner—and lover, apparently—Vulva resurfacing with a new show that he invites Brian to come see. Naturally enough, Brian goes, and drags the rest of the gang with him. That’s about it.)
This gets to one of the key differences between U.K. and U.S. series. Every so often, a U.K. writer will go to the press and complain about how they wish the British broadcasting system worked like the U.S. system. To many of us in the States, this sounds like madness. TV writers have a degree of freedom in Britain that would be unprecedented here. They get to choose when to end their shows and not keep the stories going on too long. They get to write every episode and plan intricate character arcs. They get to bring back the shows only when they think it’s warranted. (See Matt Zoller Seitz for more.) But looked at from the other perspective, the idea of having MORE TIME must seem appealing to some British writers. Even the best British series simply can’t have worlds and characters as fleshed out as even some mediocre American series, where there’s so much time to fill that writers can build intricate characters and settings simply because that’s the only thing they have to do. This has a tendency to create fans absolutely obsessed with character minutiae and the like, and it means that it’s a lot harder to make an episode about a U.K. sitcom oddball—like Brian—emotionally resonant than it is to make one about a U.S. sitcom oddball—like, say, Taxi’s Reverend Jim—moving. Taxi can get into everything that makes Jim tick. Spaced, necessarily, has to just let Brian be Brian and hope that’s enough.
And, honestly, it might have been later in the series’ run. But at this point, I’m still most interested in Tim and Daisy, and having to hang out with their neighbor and hear about his past partner (in all senses of the word) doesn’t give me the sense of investment I’d need to keep coming back, no matter how much it makes me laugh. It also doesn’t help that the episode ends on a very, very obvious performance art sequence, one that is mostly just weird for the sake of being weird. After spending all of this time building to Vulva, he ends up being less a character than a plot device, a way to throw everything Brian hasn’t become in the art world right back in his face. The resolution of the storyline, which abruptly brings Tim back into things, is also a disappointment, since it pretty much just… ends, and then we’re back in the apartment with Tim and Daisy, and the episode’s main character, for all intents and purposes, is gone again. It’s a weird structure, one that doesn’t entirely work and one that relies too heavily on stereotypical jokes about weird artists.
Lest I sound like I hate EVERYTHING (and I promise to move on to the much better “Battles” in a moment), I did quite like the episode’s Daisy subplot. Because of the things Pegg and Wright went on to do (many of which also starred Nick Frost), it’s tempting to write off Spaced as a show for guys, especially geek guys. But Stevenson brings a strong female perspective to the show, one that continues to surprise me. Sure, her Daisy is a riff on single girls in sitcoms, but it’s a strong riff. (I liked the sequence where she gets a letter from a prospective workplace and delivers a monologue in which she imagines herself as the goofy, sitcom lead, keeping everybody at the workplace charmed, only to open the envelope and realize she didn’t get the job. Funny AND kinda heartbreaking.) Daisy’s struggle to figure out who she is and where she fits in the greater world ties into the series’ single greatest theme: the process of maturing. And we’ll talk more about that in a bit.
But first, “Battles,” which is an episode that takes all of the right steps forward and few (if any) steps backward. The pop culture referencing is savvier, blended in better with the texture of the show (check out how the heads floating around Daisy when she concocts the idea that she wants to get a dog look like Pazuzu from The Exorcist). The two storylines focus on the main characters and build nicely, while also giving us a good look at the supporting players (Mike, in particular, gets some nice emphasis in this episode). And while there aren’t as many quotable lines in “Battles” as there were in “Art,” it’s also a much funnier episode, taking advantage of all of the various things Spaced can do and do well. My biggest laugh came from something entirely wordless: a quick cut-away gag about young Daisy dragging a box down the street and pretending it was a dog.
But the best thing here is the story. We haven’t really gotten a look at Tim’s former relationship beyond the shots of him bemoaning it in the first episode, but here, just as Daisy finds herself alone, he finds himself reliving the pain of what happened, thanks to a letter he gets in the mail explaining just why everything fell apart. Naturally, he begins to let his rage at Duane fester and grow, and when he sees Duane at the paintball battle, he begins plotting to take him down, even though the two are on the same side. (This conceit, as you could imagine, goes out the window rather quickly.) Soon, Duane is mowing down the other guys on Tim’s squad, one by one, and Tim gets involved in a standoff with his rival, a standoff that almost turns into another loss for Tim, before Mike intervenes.
What’s great about this is the way that it uses the basic shots and edits of an action film to its own advantage. The show is beginning to realize that it doesn’t have to perfectly ape pop culture for us to get the idea. It can ape the look and feel of pop culture—something that Wright is insanely good at—and we’ll play along. There’s nothing in “Battles” that couldn’t have been done by anyone, even with a pretty cheap camcorder (notice how frantically Wright cuts around the storyline’s central stunt so that Pegg doesn’t have to actually catch those two guns that fly into the air), but the genius of the episode is that it figured all of this out first. The paintball episode of Community was famously a budget-buster, but this one manages to create the feel of an action epic with less total screen time (remember that a lot of time is taken up on the Duane backstory and on Daisy’s subplot) and less cash. It should definitely earn points for degree of difficulty, if nothing else.
The Daisy subplot is also very funny, centered as it is on Daisy trying to overcome the loss of Richard (whose breakup call is a very funny way to open the episode) by getting a dog she names Colin. There’s not really much to this story—Daisy goes to the pound and finds a cute dog who will be put down if she doesn’t adopt it, so she adopts it, and it becomes fast friends with everyone—but I increasingly find myself enjoying Daisy’s desperate attempts to find some sort of purpose in her life. While Tim tends to filter his life through films and TV shows and comics he’s digested, Daisy filters her life through everything she’s been told she should have, but it never quite works out as well as it does in the wider cultural views she gets. Colin is the first thing that really works out for her, even if he IS apparently some sort of Satanic hellbeast (as evidenced by the closing shots). And, hey, if you’re trying to figure out a way to make your show better, there are few things that a cute dog can’t fix. And Colin is VERY cute. (He’s such a good boy! What a good boy!)
As mentioned above, both “Art” and “Battles” deal with the series’ central theme of the maturation process well. To a degree, Spaced is about people who know they’re old enough to be beginning their lives but people who have yet to figure out quite how that works. Both Tim and Daisy can sort of see the path they’re supposed to be on, but they’re not as good at finding it as, say, Duane is. What links everyone who lives in their little house is that simple idea of needing to be in the right place to find the right way forward. If Brian wants to be an artist and finally get the Vulva monkey (and let’s please work that phrase into daily conversation) off his back, he’ll need to grow up. If Daisy wants to be a writer, she’ll need to grow up, too. And if Tim wants to be the kind of guy who wins the girl in the end, well, you can see where this is going, and it doesn’t involve staying up all night, playing video games. Even if Spaced has been so thoroughly copied at this point that it can no longer feel new, this central throughline, this idea of people coming together to help each other grow, is so eternal that it feels fresh, even 12 years on.
- I’ve completely been there with Tim. When you’re building your own schedule, it’s so easy to stay up until the sun comes up and not really realize you’ve done so.
- I was rather surprised at the tameness of the zombie sequence. Given that it apparently inspired Shaun Of The Dead, I was expecting… I don’t know what I was expecting. But something more than that.
- One thing I continue to like about the show is that it will throw in little routines that have nothing to do with the plot but are just there to get a laugh or two. It’s a very Vaudevillian, anything-for-a-laugh sort of thing to do, and it almost always works.
- Brian’s monologue about his childhood dog is maybe his funniest moment on the series so far. Such a bizarre, bizarre collection of words.
- Pegg’s already trying out the voice he’ll use at the end of Hot Fuzz in his confrontation with Duane in the forest.
- This week's Spaced esoterica: I was able to see the pilot for the American Spaced after posting last week's article, and while I'm glad the show didn't go to series (it was pretty bad), it wasn't AS bad as I'd feared it would be, while still being kind of awful. Really, the only thing that saved it was Sara Rue as the American Daisy equivalent, which is very good casting. (You can see some clips from it here.)
- Hey, that's TV's Peter Serafinowicz, better known to most Americans as the one consistently good reason to watch Running Wilde! (Even that wasn't enough, sadly.)
- "Her name was Cassandra. She was a psychic. She gave me her phone number." "It's our phone number." "Man, she's good!"
- "I opened it by accident because we've both got I's in our names."
- "What? He's a tranny?" "More than that." "A big fat tranny?"
- "It's hard to hear the story of a love affair between two straight men, one of whom is the most divine woman alive."
- "Shitting shit it!"
- "Do you think I should lose the waistcoat?" "I think you should burn it because if you lose it, you might find it again."
- "A beast with a mind ... a mind ... and fists!"
- "Shit. I'm not supposed to eat Twiglets." "Why not?" "They make me violent."
- "It's not about my tits anymore, Tim."
- "Just because Sarah hurt you, you feel justified in wreaking your petty vengeance on womankind."
- "It hurt, but it scared the shit out of the dog."
- "I could have flown off the handle, I could have smashed his face in, I could have set fire to him, but I didn't." "What are you gonna do when you see him again?" "I'm gonna set fire to him."
- "I'd dress him up in period costumes and take amusing photographs."
- "There. You see? Such vibrant colors."
- "You gonna answer that?" "I've got an answering service." "You've got an answer for everything."
Next week: Aliens and clubbing in “Chaos” and “Epiphanies.”