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Spaced: "Help"/"Gone"

“Help” and “Gone” (series 2, episodes 4 and 5)

In which Tim gets a break and Daisy teaches everyone how to make a nice stew.

One of the problems with watching anything nowadays is expectations. Unless you’re one of the few who gets to see early screenings of movies or gets review screeners of TV series, pretty much everything now comes with a certain level of hype or buzz. If you’re someone who’s tied in to that world of hearing what everybody thinks about everything—and if you aren’t, good for you!—then it can be hard to approach something fresh. An example: I saw the movie Blue Valentine about a month after the first reviews started appearing, and while I liked it, I didn’t feel the intense, seething passion for it many of its most fierce proponents felt for it. And I felt like I was a bad film fan for not liking it nearly as much, for thinking that it was good but flawed. That’s the thing about expectations; when something doesn’t live up to them, it becomes even more disappointing than it actually is, and it’s easy to feel like YOU’RE the one in the wrong or like you missed the boat. This is particularly easy to do with things you catch up with years after everybody else has seen them. Remember when the AFI named Citizen Kane the best movie of all time, and lots of people hadn't even HEARD of it, and then they rented it and wondered what the big deal was? It's kind of like that.

Ever since I started this project, people have been saying variations on, “Just wait until you get to the second half of series two!” with that gleam in their eye (or the Internet version thereof). In particular, these folks would single out the episode “Gone,” and a cursory scan of various publications after watching the episode for the first time holds that, indeed, this is generally considered the best episode of Spaced. This doesn’t mean it has to be your favorite episode. Consensus, for instance, would suggest that “College” is the best episode of The Sopranos or that “The Contest” is the best episode of Seinfeld, but I’d pick different episodes in both cases. Consensus is helpful, though. It gives us something to measure against, the closest thing we have to an “objective” standard of quality. If something is chosen as the best by the most people, then that’s something to compare our own opinions to.

So what did I think of “Gone”? I really, really, really liked it. Given time, I suspect I’ll come to love it. It does literally everything I want good television to do, and it’s got a smart, sophisticated plot structure that loops around and doubles back and weaves stories in and out of each other. It’s also wickedly funny, filled with a winking sense of the show realizing all of the things it could do when it was running at its fullest potential. Of all of the episodes I’ve seen, it makes me the most sorry that there aren’t millions of more episodes of Spaced, rather than just the two I’ll get to next week. It’s a great, great episode of television, and if it’s your favorite episode of Spaced or one of your favorite episodes of TV, period, I’ve got no problems with that whatsoever.

But I liked “Help” just a BIT better.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to explain why, the part where I get paid to make some sort of official statement on the two’s quality, relative to each other. But I don’t really know. I have no clue! I’m giving both episodes the highest grade I can, and it’s entirely possible I’d prefer “Gone” if I watched these episodes again tomorrow. If I were asked to put a finger on it, I guess I’d say that where “Gone” is pretty specifically a Tim and Daisy episode (and I love those two) with cameos from Brian, Mike, and Marsha, “Help” is an episode that finds something for literally everybody in the cast to do. (Well, Twist only gets a very brief moment, and she’s seen entirely in shadow, so I guess not everybody gets something to do.) “Gone” is the best possible episode of the Tim and Daisy show the series was in its earliest episodes. “Help” is the best possible episode of the ensemble comedy that’s evolved since then. I like the latter show better, but the former show is great, too.

What’s interesting is that these two episodes are constructed in very similar ways. Both rely on a variety of plot points and incidents bouncing off of each other and building to a comedic climax. “Help,” in some ways, resembles the best episodes of Seinfeld, as all four of the episode’s plots—Tim tries to get a picture back, Daisy and Marsha go jogging, Brian goes out with his mother, and a comics publisher reconsiders Tim’s work—bounce off of each other in unexpected ways. (When Daisy is hit by a car belonging to Damien, the publisher, and recognizes him from Tim’s drawing of him, it’s a terrifically funny moment.) “Gone” doesn’t quite attain that level of complexity—Brian and Mike seem like they’re headed off on their own B-story, but they mostly disappear—but the story of what happens to Tim and Daisy on their night out is very, very smart, weaving in bits from earlier that seemed as if they’d have no connection to anything else at all, like that battle of non-existent guns.

Both episodes also take old, old sitcom plots, plots that could have been thrown away as too cliché, really, and find something new and fun in them. “Help” centers on that old chestnut of someone needing to get something they’ve accidentally sent back, lest it harm a friendship or possible career bump. “Gone” centers on a night out with friends after other plans fall through. Both plots have been done so many times that there’s not really room to do too much new with them. Spaced gets around this by just committing to both stock plots and finding a way to make them uniquely its own. “Help,” for instance, takes that basic framework and warps in elements of action films and thrillers. “Gone” is ultra-sincere in places, particularly about the characters, and it tells its story in such a way that it’s almost a mystery, as little pieces of what happens fall into place and the audience figures out things even the characters don’t know (like the oregano/marijuana switch). I’m normally not a fan of the structure where an episode begins at a moment of high drama, then flashes back to see how all of this came to be, but “Gone” uses it about as well as it possibly could be used.

Both episodes also dig deep into key elements of young adulthood. “Help” centers on the idea of getting out of the house and trying to make something of your life, while “Gone” centers on going out to the bar with friends (or, in this case, I guess it would be the pub). Both of these scenarios will be eminently familiar to anyone in their young adult years or to anyone who’s been through those years. “Gone,” in some ways, occupies the same place in series two that “Epiphanies” did in series one, but because its central experience—going to a bar and getting shit-faced and getting into random scrapes with strangers—is slightly more universal than going to a club and taking ecstasy, it feels somehow more accessible. (I’m not dissing “Epiphanies” here. That’s still a very good episode. “Gone” is just better.) It also probably helps that, like ecstasy, “Epiphanies” is all amped up and blissed out, while like alcohol (and pot, come to think of it), “Gone” is slightly more mellow, in between all the gun battles.

The central idea in “Help” is that comics publisher Damien—of Dark Star comments, which is probably a riff on Dark Horse (but I don’t know enough about the comics world to say for certain)—is looking for some new work. The books he’s been publishing have gotten hackneyed and old, and if he could just find something different, he might be able to make everything fresh again. His assistant, Sophie, suggests a number of names, including Tim Bisley, who apparently sent in a portfolio the year before and was laughed out of the room. Damien’s apparently ready for Tim now, so he asks Sophie to get the guy’s portfolio again. (The sequence where all of this happens, intercut with Tim blowing enemies away in a video game, is really well done.) And so Tim frantically gets his portfolio together, thoughtfully taking out a drawing of Damien saying he’s a “wanker,” though Daisy soon finds it and in the confusion of Tyres’ arrival (the return of Tyres is another point in “Help’s” favor), the portfolio gets sent to Damien WITH the bad drawing in it. Tim lets Daisy have it, returning to one of the show’s other favorite ideas, that Daisy is responsible for her own fate and tends to make excuses and should really just get off her ass and make something of herself. So she goes jogging with Marsha. Meanwhile, Brian’s mother arrives, and he takes her out for lunch, where she learns some disconcerting things about him.

Really, that might seem like too much for one episode, but the genius of “Help” is that all of this stuff bumps up against all of the other stuff in a way that feels surprisingly organic. Sometimes, when all of the characters get involved in everybody else’s storylines on a show like this, it can feel like they live in a universe where they’re the only people who live there (latter-day Seinfeld often ran into this), but in “Help,” it feels perfectly natural that Damien picks up his lunch at the same café Brian and his mother go to or that Damien hits Daisy with his car. Series two is all about the characters moving forward, about Daisy finding the inspiration she needs and Tim taking steps to improve his life and so on and so forth, but in “Help,” the plot itself feels like it has a similar momentum, as events collide with other events, and everything goes a little haywire here and there. It’s just a lot of fun to watch these things bounce off of each other.

I also rather like the characters of Sophie and Damien. Sophie seems like she might become a recurring love interest for Tim (though with just a few episodes left, I don’t suspect she’ll be much of a permanent one), whereas Damien seems like a one-shot character, though his accent makes everything he says funnier than it has any right to be. (He plays everything not just with a Scottish accent but with what I can only describe as an EVIL Scottish accent.) I like Sophie’s effortless cool, the way that she completely tongue ties the usually confident Tim with a saucy little smile, then invites herself out to a date with him. It’s clear she likes him, but it’s also clear she won’t cede power willingly. On a show where all of the female characters can be a little broad (and, OK, a little ditzy), she’s a different kind of archetype, all sharp angles to Daisy’s warmth.

But “Help” is also just wonderfully FUNNY, with the intersections between the stories providing a lot of the fun but with plenty of other great gags, like the way that Tyres has a tendency to turn anything into a beat he can dance to or the way that Mike’s solution to the whole problem of getting the drawing back involves lots and lots of guns. (The cut to Nick Frost’s blankly staring face after that short insert gave me a huge laugh.) You’ve also got Mike in ridiculous exercise clothes, Brian trying to explain his art to his mother, and the tragic history of Daisy’s short-lived exercise career (basically, she stopped exercising for the good of humanity). That all of this is wrapped up in some of the show’s ideas about maturation and growth is the cherry on top, but “Help” would be funny without the thematic weight. The episode not only gives everybody something to do; it gives them all something FUNNY to do.

“Gone,” on the other hand, is more muted, though muted in a good way and in a way that involves a complicated plot wherein a bunch of young punks accost Tim for his weed and end up getting Daisy’s secret stew ingredient of oregano instead. It’s also a terrifically funny episode of television—I could listen to Jessica Stevenson explain how to cook potatoes for an entire episode, I think—with a great closing gag, of Tim and Daisy never realizing that what Daisy gave the punks was the oregano, not the weed, and thus dosing the chicken stew with enough marijuana to stone the whole gang out of their gourds. There’s also the same pleasant sense of the plots all intersecting at just the right moments, as Colin and the keys arrive at the same time, thus providing all four of the characters just what they were looking for at just the moment when they need it. And in a season that’s been much lighter on suggestions of Tim and Daisy being a true love match or what have you, there’s even a little scene where the two seem about to kiss and are then interrupted by the arrival of the dog and keys. (Normally, I’d be irritated by these sorts of stalls, but Spaced somehow makes this kind of blatant writer delay kind of sweet.)

I also liked the way “Gone” captured the feeling of going out with a friend on a night when you both need something to distract you from the things you’d otherwise be obsessing over. Tim and Daisy’s little talk about being single, about how maybe a relationship isn’t the greatest thing in the world, struck me as a very accurate reflection both of who these characters are at this point and of those sorts of conversations (and hasn’t everybody had one like that?). This series, I’ve realized after this episode, has been a little light on the great scenes that animated series one, the scenes where Tim and Daisy just hang out and talk shop. Sure, every episode has a scene or two designed to remind us that these two are such great friends, but this was the first episode this season to feature so much Tim and Daisy interaction. I get why the show has split them up this season, since it can be hard to work, say, Mike into a Daisy storyline (a U.S. remake would have had to contend with this at some point), but I love the chemistry between Stevenson and Simon Pegg so much that I wish the show had found more ways to force the two together this series.

“Gone,” too, is very, very funny, particularly in the Pegg and Stevenson scenes, but also in the way that the plot loops around itself over and over again, letting the viewer be several steps ahead of the characters. (I like, for instance, that the show doesn’t call attention to Daisy’s additional ingredient to the stew, not really, letting the viewers get what’s going on on our own.) I like the way Marsha recounts her own tragic past, then sees who she would have been if not for meeting her husband. I like the way newswoman Marsha throws to Tim back at the pub. I like the way Mike talks to the dog. I like the way Tim first encounters the young guy who wants to thrash him at the urinal and launches into a properly soused monologue about a variety of British cultural references that mean nothing to me. (I’m still uncertain what the hell that “orange-y for crows” bit is supposed to mean, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t know what Tim was saying without the subtitles.) And, hey, Duane returns, and even though he doesn’t get much to do, everything he does is hilarious. Does he just always talk like that? I guess so.

And, ultimately, that might be what the major difference is between “Help” and “Gone.” “Help” is a flight of fancy, an episode that takes a fairly common problem in sitcoms and then takes it pretty far over the top, in hilarious fashion. “Gone” is much more grounded, a story about people having a quiet night out that’s briefly punctuated by oddness and feigned violence. They’re two terrific episodes, episodes that would cement the show’s reputation if everything else the show had done was crap, but they so perfectly capture two different moods that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The best sitcoms create people we feel like we really know in all their intricacies. In a very short time, Spaced has done just that, and in the space of these two episodes, it capitalizes on everything it’s built thus far.

Grades:

Both: A

Stray observations:

  • Sorry this write-up is so late. I’ve been scrambling, due to some weird additions to my schedule. Next week’s should be up perfectly on time.
  • Maybe I just prefer “Help” because Olivia Williams cameos in it, and she’s ridiculously good looking. Just a thought.
  • Today’s random Spaced YouTube find: Did you know that Jessica Hynes was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009? I sure didn’t, but you can see her talking about it (along with Stephen Mangan, of all people!) here.
  • The elaborate finger-gun battles are a great comic highlight. There’s an outright homage to them in an episode of Cougar Town this season, that even concludes with that show’s character Travis admitting the whole gag was ripped off from Spaced.
  • Both “Help” and “Gone” FEEL dense with allusions to other works, but they don’t really comment on these gags as much as they might. (There were numerous shots in “Help” I was certain were taken directly from various action movies, but they spun by too quickly to pick them out, outside of Tim crawling through the vents like in Die Hard, Alien, or a million other movies.) Any suggestions as to what I might be missing?
  • Tim prays to Buffy Summers. Not a bad place to put your faith.
  • If nothing else, these episodes made me feel like an American remake of Spaced COULD work. Sure, part of the show’s fun is its lo-fi vibe, and that would invariably be scrubbed out of an American version. But, in particular, it might have been fun to have Sophie be a recurring fascination of Tim’s, then have her finally show interest in him in this episode. There’s so much about Spaced that I want to know more about, and there’s just no time for that to happen. The American system tends to wring every last ounce of juice out of shows until they’re withered husks, but, by God, you get every possible story out of those characters.
  • In spite of myself, I really like the DVD menu music on the series two DVD. No idea why.
  • I was really happy to see Tyres again, for presumably the last time. What a great gag character.
  • "I remember his work. All muscles and guns."
  • "What is she? Some sort of crime-fighting jazz singer?"
  • "Tim wants you." "Wants me or needs me?" "Uh, needs you." "Right! Ladies."
  • "Don't worry, Daisy. Tim's just really angry at you because you've jeopardized his future."
  • "I've got the builders in. They're making a wall."
  • "Yeah, but we're gonna need another walkie talkie... or two."
  • "Are you ready, Mike?" "I was born ready, Timmy." "I mean are you ready now?" "Um, yeah!"
  • "Watercolors?"
  • "I just shouldn't exercise. It's not just bad for me. It's bad for everybody."
  • "I know you. You're a massive wanker."
  • "Leave the coffee!"
  • "It's a bit simple, but it's a bit sexy."
  • "Well... that... you're friends, you share a flat, and your name is Daisy."
  • "All men do is destroy things." "Yeah."
  • "You look like a primary school teacher."
  • "...before retiring to a jazz bar and listening to elaborate xylophone music..."
  • "What did you wanna be when I was a kid?" "A monkey."
  • "What did you want to be?" "Elvis." "That's stupid! He's a bloke."
  • "You, my friend, are going nowhere. Oh, bullocks."
  • "Hey. C'mon. Pull my finger."
  • "At last I will emerge as the victor. At last I will have revenge."
  • "How can you tell?" "I'm a catering student."

Next week: It’s all over! It looks like we’re in for some HIGH DRAMA with “Dissolution” and “Leaves.”

Filed Under: TV, Spaced

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