“Change” and “Mettle” (series 2, episodes 2 and 3)
In which Tim and Daisy look for work and everybody has to show what they’re made of.
For the last day or so, I’ve been turning over in my head this piece at Salon.com by TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. Seitz takes a look at the many shows on the air right now that run pop culture through a meat grinder and then write scripts based on what comes out, from classic Simpsons to Community to Chuck. Seitz’s argument is that these shows won’t age well that, indeed, classic Simpsons already isn’t aging well to people who weren’t there, simply because of how deeply indebted they are to the pop culture of the time they existed in. Something like Cheers or I Love Lucy fought hard to keep the modern world out of the scripts, and that’s created something that may have more of a sense of timelessness because it’s based on ideas that are universal and stories anyone would be familiar with. But something that’s as attached to its particular era as these shows just might be doomed to be seen as very hard to watch in just a few decades’ time. (We’ve already seen this with shows like Murphy Brown, acclaimed at the time of airing but outdated within a few short years, thanks to a reliance on up-to-date references.)
Utilizing pop cultural and political references can make a show seem fresh and funny to those who are watching it for the first time as it airs. It makes it seem like the show takes place in the same world you live in, and if you’re on the same wavelength as the show, it makes it seem like it’s speaking your language, that you and the show are super best pals. The peril of this approach is that the show can eventually feel isolating, as though it was made at the time without the future in mind. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Seitz’s argument—some things will always be funny, and I think that classic Simpsons is one of those things—but I think there’s a point to it, and I’m doubly reminded of it when watching these latest two episodes of Spaced. Both take fairly standard sitcom setups, but the first tells a more or less timeless story about being out of work and needing to find money somehow, while the second grounds almost everything in a reference to a show that’s no longer on the air. I laughed because I got the reference to the show, but will my kids laugh?
This may seem largely beside the point to most of you, but eventually, Spaced is going to have to be judged on the merits of how well it appeals to people outside of those who were alive when it was first on the air. I think it passes that test, as does its closest American counterpart, Community, but it’s a near thing. There’s a joke early in “Change” where Daisy is trying to tell Marsha about a friend that she met while she was traveling, and she appropriates the entire plot of the Disney movie Mulan to put in the mouth of her friend. It took me a few seconds to place Mulan, and by then, I’d already missed some jokes that were probably enormously funny in 2001 but take a little more legwork in 2011. (Eddie Murphy, for instance, has become so inextricably linked to the Shrek films—another example of something that’s aged poorly, thanks to copious pop culture references—that I forgot he got his animated voicework debut in Mulan.) Mulan was a big hit, but it’s kind of faded away as the legacy of the ‘90s Disney films has done the same. And that made the jokes require the extra bit of work that kept them from being side-splitting in 2011.
Or take “Mettle,” which is almost entirely based around two lengthy pop culture riffs. In the first, Tim and Mike compete in a Battlebots-esque competition that will determine whether or not they get a spot on a show called Robot Wars. (I believe Robot Wars was the original article, though the U.S. saw Battlebots become more popular.) This eventually turns into a Fight Club gag that doesn’t do much other than play on the most famous line from Fight Club (you know, the one about the rules) and gives us an excuse to see Nick Frost without a shirt. (You know you wanted to.) In the second, Daisy takes a job through the temp agency she’s begun working at, and it places her at a nacho restaurant. But once she gets there, the restaurant is straight out of the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with Daisy reluctantly pushed into the Jack Nicholson role. Where the Fight Club gag is very straightforward, the Cuckoo’s Nest gag requires a bit more nuance. It requires the show to slot all of the elements of the restaurant into the Cuckoo’s Nest setup, and it requires the show to more or less tell jokes above and beyond the parody aspect, because it would be easy to miss the parody. It works wonderfully—far better than I thought it would—and that’s because the pop culture gag is the basis for character-based stuff about how Daisy’s realizing that her dreams won’t be as easily realized as she thought they might.
This all ties in to one of the things some of you have been mad at me for in comments every week, which is is not sufficiently putting myself in the headspace of someone who was watching the show for the first time in 1999 or 2001. And, yeah, I haven’t been doing that. Part of that has been because this series is putatively about someone watching the show for the first time in 2011 and seeing how it holds up (quite well, thank you). But another part of that is because no one can ever experience some piece of pop culture all over again and feel the impact of what it was like at the time when it first came into being. I can remember the hubbub that surrounded The Matrix or the Star Wars prequels. I can remember just how big The X-Files was at the time. But I can’t re-experience those emotions, nor can I suddenly feel what it was like to stumble upon Spaced in the middle of the night on the tube and realize that these people were talking directly to you. Spaced now comes with expectations—expectations a British friend of mine argues have damaged the show, since it creates the idea that this is something more than just a silly comedy—and it’s impossible to entirely set those expectations aside, to pretend it’s 1999 or 2001 all over again.
Of these two episodes, I prefer “Change,” which digs deep into some of my favorite things about the show and some of my favorite themes within the work. One of the things that marks the episode as definitively of its time is the ease with which Tim and Daisy both find new jobs after he’s fired and she loses her benefits when the government official tricks her into admitting she went on holiday. If this episode were made today, the two likely would have struggled to find work for far longer (though I somehow doubt all of the jokes about the ponderousness of the government bureaucracy would have gone out of style). As it is, Daisy is very quickly placed in a bookstore by the temp agency—where her charming social skills are immediately put to work—and Tim gets a job at a rival comic book store before being lured back to the original article by Bilbo. (I like that the man who runs Silent Reading appears to just be Bilbo with a fuller head of hair. It’s a very funny gag, as is the one where Tim’s replacement is just another Tim.)
But that isn’t the only bit of business going on in “Change.” Brian’s also struggling to find inspiration. When he gets the news that his uncle has died, he’s able to paint with far more verve and feeling than he had been able to paint just hours ago. But after he gets a call from Twist, all of that inspiration leaks out of him, leaving him wondering where his muse has gotten to. Marsha, however, has the answer, suggesting that the guy is so happy with Twist (which still seems bizarre to me, but I’ll go with it) that he’s simply unable to paint anything as easily as he once was. His art requires some sort of suffering and pain, and Marsha’s the only one able to provide that to him. It’s a weird twist on the traditional sitcom love triangle, and even though he doesn’t hook up with Marsha again, there’s every suggestion that she might be the better match for him in the long run, simply because he needs someone who can push him to newer, deeper, blacker bouts of misery.
But you’ve also got Amber moving out (in a row with her mom that results in everyone, even Colin, remarking on its viciousness), which leaves an empty room for Mike to move into. I like Mike quite a bit as a character, and I like the relationship he has with Tim, so it could be nice to see him and Tim share more screentime with the both of them in the same house, though I’d be concerned about that breaking up the more fruitful Tim and Daisy pairing. Still, this feels like one of those steps Mike has to take, and I like the way that the show is giving us greater and greater insights into his private life, including the fact that he’s one of the many people out there who doesn’t want to do what he’s doing—acting as a school crossing guard—but goes out there and does it anyway. One of the big themes of Spaced seems to be that growing up is almost never pleasant, but maturation is something you have to do, so you might as well do it anyway.
It’s in “Mettle” where we see even more of an expression of this, and we see it in the Daisy plot. Daisy doesn’t want to be working these shit jobs. She considers them beneath her and her talent. She’s gone through three already, and the (seemingly much younger) woman at the temp agency lets her know that her time at Neo Nachos is seen as a last straw. She’s got to make this work, even if the woman in charge—Tina—is straight out of the Nurse Ratched handbook. She keeps all of the keys, so no one can lock their own lockers. She banishes people who have not found favor with her to “downstairs,” which is a horrifying dungeon of dish-washing and sweat. She fires people for seemingly no reason whatsoever. She’s, in other words, a typical one-episode sitcom boss, but it’s to the show’s credit that it drew the line between Tina and a character like Ratched.
What I like about when pop culture references pop up in a Daisy storyline is that the show rarely seems content to just go along with them as references. Case in point: Daisy comes back upstairs after her stint washing dishes, and she seems to be lobotomized, shuffling through the kitchen, to the concern of her new friend, Billy. But when she gets close to him, she just tosses him a wink. It’s all a joke, really, another way for Daisy to get through this awful day. But when Tina comes to her with a suggestion that she could cover another shift for someone who called in sick, Daisy finally says no. She can’t do this. She’s not this person. She’s a WRITER, dammit, even if she’s having trouble thinking of new articles to write. And it’s here that the episode comes up with its cruelest twist: ALL of the workers at Neo Nachos are writers. They’ve all got creative endeavors in the works. And they’ve all gotten stuck here. (Billy had a short story published in 1997. He started this job in 1998. No publication since.) The day job is necessary for any artist, but it’s all too tempting to get sucked down into the humdrum rhythms of that job, to think you’re so good you can break out of it whenever you want. But any city worth its salt is FULL of other artists who think themselves much better than you, also forced to work such terrible jobs. The moment any young artist realizes this is a tough one, and I love the way the show plays with Daisy’s expectations of her own talent and her own career path here, just as it’s been examining the flip side of this coin, with Tim’s very real fears about people laughing when they get a look at his comics work.
In fact, series two of Spaced feels altogether much tighter than series one. The adventures all bleed into each other in a more satisfying way, and the character arcs all more or less make sense. The show has also figured out a good way to use the entire cast in these episodes. (Notice how it uses Brian’s story as a rough parallel to Daisy’s in both episodes.) But once again, the show bumps up against an element that comes from the time it was produced and doesn’t work as well as it might have. The notion of Mike and Tim trying to get on Robot Wars completely makes sense, and the plot here could work more or less intact if transported to a sitcom storyline about car racing or something less of its time. (This is the thing that keeps the storyline from being as dated as last week’s Matrix parody.) But it’s still an odd bit of cultural ephemera to be reminded of. Like Mulan, it prompts a quick dart through the memory banks—one that detracts from the humor at hand—to recall these kinds of shows. (The Fight Club reference isn’t as successful at becoming anything more than a reference gag, but it’s short and sweet enough to not really matter. Plus, it’s really funny.)
But here’s where the Robot Wars episode might win in the end: Once everybody who’s watching this has absolutely no idea what Robot Wars was, it won’t really matter. They won’t need to go look up the show on the Internet to find out what it was all about. On some level, robots beating the crap out of each other is still robots beating the crap out of each other, and that’s still funny. And even if you don’t know who the “Philippa” Daisy pretends to be is (as I didn’t at first), the chemistry between the two characters will carry you through. I don’t think “Mettle” is as successful as “Change,” but it has at least one inspired storyline, and it shows a good way to get past being a work with a lot of reference humor when you’re making a bid at being timeless: Keep everything else silly enough, and keep the characters’ relationships believable. That’ll make any other sins more than forgivable.
- I find Brian’s art installation from “Mettle” impressive. I probably would have stood and stared at it for a while, though I doubt I would have gleaned much from it. Plus, it’s always nice to see evidence that Brian does know what he’s doing on some level.
- It’s worth pointing out that “Change” is probably the episode I’ve laughed most consistently at in the series so far. There are just a lot of really great lines and gags in this one.
- One thing I like: There are more edits this season tying all of the characters together in their journeys. Especially when the characters are all split up as they often are, it gives a sense that they’re all telling the same story and gives the show a good sense of comic momentum.
- Tim: terrorizer of children. Man who runs from comic shops just like them.
- Yet another montage of Tim dancing down the street in sheer joy, this time with Bilbo. But he’s still heading the ball as it comes toward him. This, apparently, is a common fantasy of British men. (Or so I have to assume.)
- Sometimes, the best gags are the simplest ones. As I mentioned, that giant chart explaining all of the offices in the government building was an old joke already when the show dragged it out, but the level of complexity Tim and Daisy had to decipher still made it funny.
- Can you believe we’re only two weeks from the end? Well, yes. Yes we are. Any more general themes of the show you’d like me to tackle in the final four episodes, like I talked about pop culture reference gags this week?
- "It's a Disney film, yes."
- "Eddie Murphy does the voice of the dragon. So to my mind, it's his third best film."
- "I was defending the fantasy genre with terminal intensity, when what I should have said was, 'Dad, you're right.'"
- "Jar-Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fucking Shaft!"
- "Sorry about your job, Tim." "Sorry about your uncle, Brian."
- "Why don't you lend me the bus fare?" "OK." "Yeeeeah."
- "Brian, it's me." "Hello, me."
- "I miss me, too."
- "So don't forget to wash your sheets... and penis."
- "I no speak Vietnamese. I English."
- "I can't just pluck another winter skin care dos and don'ts out of the air."
- "We'll be able to legitimately use our walkie talkies without having to go to the park."
- "How else am I gonna afford aspirational magazines?"
- "Can I get some service, please?" "Oh, fuck you."
- "Mike's cooking beans, then we're gonna polish his guns and watch The A-Team."
- "Get out!" "Yaaaay!"
- "Can you point me in the direction of personal growth?" "Fuck you."
- "I think we should lose the axe." "I like the axe." "I like my face." "I like your face." "We should keep the axe."
- "He shot himself in the foot. Terrible mess. Very moving, though."
- "Well, well, well. If it isn't the triumphant roboteers."
- "You haven't been up in my region for a while."
- "Some of us don't find it so difficult to remain at work, Daisy."
- "He usually likes to be Phillippa."
- "They're all writers, Daisy."
- "The second rule is... no smoking."
- "Welcome to the real world, Michael. It's not a fair place. Prepare to be annihilated."
Next week: Tim gets a break in “Help,” and Tim and Daisy spend a night out in “Gone.”