“Beginnings” and “Gatherings” (series 1, episodes 1 and 2)
In which Tim and Daisy hatch a ridiculous scheme and hold a housewarming
Spaced might be the first comedy of the Millennial generation.
I know, I know. I hate as much as you do when some guy gets on TV and starts spouting off about generational divides and how people born in 1975 do THIS, but people born in 1985 do THIS. And that “Millennial” label has always struck me as a stupid one (though I much prefer it to “Generation Y”). And, yes, technically, all three of the series’ primary creative forces—Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes, but we’re going to stick with Stevenson for these pieces, since that’s who she was at the time of the show’s production), and Edgar Wright—were born well before the usual cutoff date for when the “Millennial” generation began (usually anywhere from 1978 to 1982). So, strictly speaking, they’re all Gen-Xers and we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. But the more I watched the first two episodes of Spaced—which I saw several years ago, along with the third, before never watching the rest of the series—the more I realized that what the show is doing is markedly similar to what the sitcoms that began to arrive around the midpoint of the last decade would do over here.
It’s one thing to call a show “ahead of its time.” That often implies that what something was doing was so avant garde that the audience of the time just couldn’t wrap its brain around it and soundly rejected the series (like, I dunno, Buffalo Bill). But so far as I know, Spaced wasn’t doing anything so radical that the British just couldn’t handle it when it originally aired in 1999 and 2001. Indeed, the show seems to have instantly become a hit with certain people and subcultures, in a way that’s rare, as word of it spread on both sides of the Atlantic fairly rapidly. References to Spaced have appeared on series as far flung as How I Met Your Mother (which does a nearly identical riff on Spaced’s “telepathy” gag) to Cougar Town (which did a fake shootout that referenced Spaced, or so I’m told), and the original series is held as such a holy text in some quarters that when Fox—and Mc-fuckin’-G, of all people—were planning a remake of the series for American TV, people freaked out.
So what were people responding to so heartily? It’s hard to tell in the first two episodes, which are both very good but nothing so amazing that they inspire instant devotion. On the other hand, there are hints here of what is to come (again, I assume, based on the good word of people I trust). What I think comes across most strongly here in these episodes, what people responded to, even if the plotting was sitcom typical and the jokes were funny but not SO funny that they demanded to be heard, is the fact that people like the central characters on Spaced hadn’t really been seen on TV before. It’s easy to say that Spaced is about “nerds and regular girls,” since, well, Tim and Daisy are those characters in a nutshell, but that’s also highly reductive. What Spaced is actually about, what people related to so much, is people who have learned to relate to the world via the lens of pop culture and are just starting to figure out how to relate to each other in more direct ways. When Tim’s ex-girlfriend Sarah kicks him out, the best he can think of to prove he’s emotional is saying that he cried like a baby at the end of Terminator 2. But that’s not what she wants to hear. Presumably, in the course of the series, that will change.
If you’ve never seen or heard of Spaced (and, honestly, that’s probably likely, since the series remains mostly a cult sensation in the U.S.), the premise is sitcom basic: Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Stevenson) find themselves without homes. Tim’s been kicked out by Sarah, while Daisy finds her boyfriend, Richard, off to Hull, leaving her alone back in London. The two meet at a small café, and over the course of what seem to be a few weeks, they strike up a friendship over their shared homelessness. (I’m assuming they both have a place to stay for a while, since neither seems destitute.) Eventually, an offer that’s quite possibly too good to be true pops up: There’s a nice, furnished flat open for 90 pounds per week. There’s just one caveat: Professional couples are preferred. And so, this being a sitcom, Tim and Daisy decide to fake being a couple, going through the “getting to know you” process remarkably quickly. (The fast-paced montages where both explain everything they’ve learned about the other to each other as a sort of fact-checking mission are some of my favorite “let’s get this character exposition out of the way quickly” devices ever, particularly the idea of a mouse-spider genetic hybrid that supposedly terrifies Daisy.)
The flat they move into, of course, is in a house populated with wacky neighbors, including artist Brian (Mark Heap)—who traffics in anger, pain, fear, and aggression (in a montage that’s somehow funny both times it’s shown)—and the permanently tipsy Marsha (Julia Deakin), the landlady who seems to buy just about anything Tim and Daisy say about their couplehood, including the idea that the two have two anniversaries, one for the first time they kissed and another for the first time they had sex. (She also buys that the two had sex before they kissed.) The series also incorporates Tim and Daisy’s respective best friends, Mike (reliable Pegg sidekick Nick Frost), a wanna-be military man, and Twist (Katy Carmichael), who “works in fashion,” which means she works for a dry cleaner. Tim works at a comic book shop and wants to be a comic book artist. Daisy wants to be a writer of some sort and describes herself as a journalist, though, as Tim says, she hasn’t really given it a shot just yet. (One of the series’ most charmingly retro touches is the fact that Daisy uses a typewriter, rather than a computer, to write on.)
It’s all, truth be told, a little silly. The first two episodes, in particular, lean a little too heavily on the sitcom-y device at the show’s center, the idea that these two could fake being a couple but would perpetually misspeak and be on the verge of being found out, leading to more and more comical misunderstandings and cover-ups. The first episode is so centered on setting up the premise of the show that it doesn’t really find time to have a proper story. (There’s some business about Brian and Marsha coming over, but it’s more of a sketch than it is anything else.) The second episode is looser and funnier, but it, too, doesn’t provide any real narrative drive. Granted, this IS a comedy, but the awkward house party storyline doesn’t exactly find any way to differentiate itself from all of the other awkward house party storylines series had done before.
And yet there’s a core to the series that’s somewhat irresistible. Tim and Daisy feel like perfectly formed, completely realized characters from the first, and Pegg and Stevenson play them with an obvious understanding of who these people are and where they come from. Pegg, of course, would go on from here to cult stardom, now turning up all over the place in Hollywood films as a wink to geeks, a way to suggest, “This time, we got it right!” But it’s fun to watch him figuring out his persona here, what he can and can’t do as an actor to garner laughs and seem sympathetic. I’m even more impressed by Stevenson, who takes a fairly basic type—the kinda goofy funny best friend who’s just a touch hyperactive—and makes her someone completely distinctive. When she and Richard are on the phone together in “Gatherings,” calling each other “Daisy Duke” and “Boss Hogg,” you instantly get a sense of this girl and why she’s fallen for someone like Richard and her own opinions of herself. Similarly, when you see her with Twist, you’re able to figure out just how these two became friends, and much of that’s thanks to Stevenson. The other characters are all fairly broad, but they’re mostly there, at this point, to act as foils for Tim and Daisy’s character development, so that’s not really a big deal.
If there’s a thing keeping me from immediate investment in Spaced, it’s probably my own expectations as someone raised on American television (and, thus, more attuned to its sensibilities than British TV, though I love a great many British series). American TV, especially American comedy, is thought of as a series of quick, short, funny stories about continuing characters. They may add up to a greater arc. They might not. The important thing, though, is that every episode hit the ground running, telling a full story and allowing for plenty of easily digestible one-liners and funny bits. British TV, increasingly, seems to be driven by a writer-driven model that conceives of TV series as long stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends. These series are split up into separate “seasons,” sure (the British call them “series” for some unfathomable reason, and I’ll be using that convention in these pieces), and then split up into episodes, but they’re, more often than not, simply chunks of a larger story.
And that’s what I’m bumping up against with Spaced. I like what I’m seeing, and I like the characters, but the series doesn’t feel a particular need to draw me in just yet. It’s going about its business, setting up all of the pieces that will head in certain directions, and hoping that I’ll like the sensibility enough to stick around until those pieces start doing things that are really interesting. And I can get behind that. As mentioned, I DO like the sensibility, and I CAN see where these characters could go to interesting places. But it also seems sort of obvious where this show is heading, ultimately, at the end of its 14 episodes. Tim and Daisy are going to fall in love (again, I assume, and don’t spoil me on that), and when they get together, after the appropriate amount of time, it will feel incredibly rewarding for all of the time I’ve spent with them. But in the first two episodes, this is a series that isn’t pushing too hard or too far. It’s content to be “nice.”
But that’s fine. Would that there WERE more nice shows on the air. The thing I’m most interested in about Spaced right now IS that tone, that sense of people putting their lives together and figuring out who they’re going to be. If there’s something that distinguishes American comedy at the moment, it’s a sense of aggression, a sense of overwhelming meanness in many of our most popular shows (have you met Two And A Half Men?). That’s changing, somewhat, on shows like Community and Parks And Recreation, but neither of those shows are, y’know, hits. And certainly there are plenty of acidly funny Britcoms, shows that take familiar sitcom scenarios and pour dark humor all over them. But Spaced is sunny and sweet, a show about people who are just starting to poke their heads out of self-constructed shells and see the blinding sunlight of the kids’ party just upstairs. I want to keep hanging out with the people on Spaced because they want to keep hanging out with each other, and that’s never a bad thing.
Grade: B (for both episodes)
- My understanding is that Spaced very quickly becomes something terrific in the back half of season one, leading into a very great season two, but I haven’t seen it. Can you give me some sense of the series’ quality arc without spoiling what happens? (Though, honestly, this doesn’t seem like a show where spoilers are going to matter much.)
- How do we want to work this, folks? I’d normally fill this section with quotes and jokes I found amusing, but the things that are funny on this show are often so dependent on delivery or on Pegg and Stevenson’s chemistry or on sight gags that they’re hard to translate into words. (For example, I laughed awfully hard at Mike trying to look menacing with a gun, which is something you can’t exactly type out and make as amusing as it is on screen.) The joke-jokes I laughed at I’ve mostly used up in the main text, so … Spaced quotes thread?
- In the future, these write-ups will go up at noon Central time on Wednesdays. This one’s a little late for a variety of reasons, but we’ll endeavor to do better in the future.
Next week: Zombies and paintball? What the hell show is this? It’s “Art” and “Battles.”