Great TV: Spaced

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Your 20s is a weird decade in life: being out on your own for the first time, trying to get a career going, and navigating the pitfalls of adult relationships without having much experience can be both exciting and frustrating. A lot of the time, it’s being surprised that you’ve either outgrown many things you’ve enjoyed just a few years earlier or else have somewhat stagnated and are grasping at the last remnants of your childhood as every year brings you closer to the dreaded milestone of 30.

At the same time, it’s also a pretty fun time in life, where you’re largely unencumbered by responsibility and can move in any direction with little in the way to stop you. You can party hard, work a mediocre job, and live in an apartment with your friends where you smoke pot in the evenings and drink way too much on the weekends while in general goofing around and trying to get laid. It can be a lot of fun. Maybe somewhat pointless fun, but fun nonetheless.

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And Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg brilliantly captured this weird, sometimes magical, sometimes mundane moment in time in life in the TV series Spaced. Airing for two season and 14 episodes between 1999 and 2001, Spaced followed the adventures of Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Stevenson), two near-strangers who unite in a scheme to live in a couples-only apartment by pretending they’re dating. But this is not the thrust of the series: in fact, the characters literally forget almost constantly that they’re supposed to keep up the appearance that they’re a couple. Instead, it’s about these two 20-somethings as they get into crazy little adventures–some epic and some small–through their overactive imaginations and who are a little, well, spaced.

And with director Edgar Wright behind the camera, Spaced was a pop culture-savvy, visually kinetic, and always hilarious show with the kind of quick wit and somewhat nerdy appeal that Wright and Pegg would just a few years later display in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Every episode was like a small sitcom version of that movie, with episodes focusing around going to an art show, throwing a party in the apartment, playing paintball, or going to a rave becoming overly excited dives into silly homages, slick cinematography, and an overall playfulness rarely seen on television–or anywhere, really. If more sitcoms were like this, TV would be a lot more fun.

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But that’s what makes Spaced such a special show: it was made by a group of people who were destined to go on to bigger and better things in their careers, and it’s also a bit of nostalgia for anyone who was in their late teens and early 20s at the turn of the century. They reference what nerds at the time would have understood, and Tim’s often videogame-minded imaginings are strictly Playstation-based.

But the type of style that Spaced was shot in has now become familiar to many film fans thanks to Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the new Baby Driver–mostly because the same person who directed those movies also directed this show. For fans of those hyper-stylized, reference-heavy comedies, Spaced is where it all started. It only lasted 14 episodes, but (most) of the episodes are themselves miniature masterpieces. Simply put, Spaced is Great TV.

Great TV – Spaced

Daisy Steiner and Tim Bisley are two twenty-something Londoners who, in the first episode, experience life changes–for Daisy, it’s leaving her over-populated fat, and for Tim, it’s his girlfriend breaking up with him and kicking him out of their apartment. By chance, they strike up a friendship in a cafe while both are flat-hunting. After weeks of not finding anything, they find a cheap apartment that’s barred to anyone but a couple, so they decide to pose as a couple despite barely knowing each other–to the point that they learn each other’s names just moments before the landlady meets them.

They move in and become familiar with the two other building inhabitants, their perpetually drunk landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin) and eccentric conceptual artist Brian (Mark Heap). Also becoming regular visitors in their apartment are Daisy’s best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael), a shallow dry cleaner who pretends she works in the fashion business, and Tim’s best friend Mike (Nick Frost), a military-obsessed man-child who has a wildly co-dependent relationship with Tim.

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Spaced is episodic in nature, with running gags building throughout its run and the humor shifting into more personal territory the more we learn about the characters. Overall, however, it follows the surreal adventures of Tim, Daisy, and their friends as they try to figure out what they want to do with their lives. And although they try to put on airs that they’re aspiring to greater things, Daisy being an aspiring writer and Tim wanting to be a comic book artist, much of the show is focused on them figuring out how to avoid work and coming up with new distractions instead.

This becomes a running theme in the first series, where Daisy–having broken up with her boyfriend who’s away at college and struggling as a freelance writer–spends much of the first seven episodes doing everything she can to avoid actually working. Tim, who has been angry and frustrated due to his girlfriend breaking up with him and leaving him for another man, explodes on her about her avoidance of work, and she tears into him about his own issues.

Of course, this pushes her to knock out some magazine articles quickly and for Tim to finally tell his ex-girlfriend, who had been teasing him with a possible reconciliation, that it’s over. The first series ends with Daisy and Tim in a pub reconciling and a tease of a possible romantic relationship between them.

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But about that last part: although it’s heavily teased throughout the series, Tim and Daisy never get together on-camera. Which is a savvy move on the show’s part, since it’s far funnier for these two to be platonic flatmates who get on each other’s nerves a little than the two as a couple. In fact, they have to emphatically state to everyone throughout the series that they’re not a couple, despite having to keep up the appearance that they are to their landlady.

As the series goes on, with the second season picking up a few months after the end of the first series, some changes are afoot. Daisy returns from a long tour of Asia, Tim gets into an argument with his boss at the comic book store and is fired, and Mike moves into their apartment building as a lodger in Marsha’s apartment.  

The second series sees a little growth in the characters, as well: Tim begins to pursue his art career more seriously, Brian and Twist begin a relationship, and Daisy goes through a rough patch where she bounces from one aimless job to another, getting more and more frustrated. This comes to a head when Tim begins dating a woman, which puts their sham relationship in jeopardy and also hurts Daisy’s feelings.

And although the start of the second series is just as good as any episode of the (flawless) first, by the last three episodes the show begins to show some fatigue. Perhaps it’s because there was already almost no plot to speak of to begin with, but the premise of the show begins to fall apart, especially when Marsha finds out that Daisy and Tim had been lying to her about being a couple–which hurts her feelings more than anything, especially since it turns out the idiot news agent that took down her classified ad (played in a weird cameo by Ricky Gervais) got that part wrong and it was never a requirement in the first place. Besides this, Daisy also decides to leave, just as Tim’s new girlfriend is moving to America for a long period of time on business.

So the last few episodes are, surprisingly, a letdown. And maybe it’s because for once they actually had to wrap up plotlines, or even have more emotionally driven plotlines than ever before, but these episodes lose the quick, quirky charm that made Spaced so unique.

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Even with this small letdown at the end, everything that proceeds it is so fun and nutty that it’s easy to forgive the show for not sticking the landing–especially since it was long-rumored that they may do a third series, which has since become a moot point that will never happen due to too many years having passed.

Instead, the DVD set of the series includes a small tease of Daisy and Tim as a couple with a baby (who he’s trying to name Luke, despite the baby being a girl), still living in the same flat at some point in the future. Which is a nice conclusion, and maybe better that it exists as a small extra tease–it’s a far cleaner and quieter distant conclusion than actually filming more of the series and potentially ruining it.

Daisy: You’re so damaged; just because Sarah hurt you, you feel justified in wreaking your petty vengeance on womankind.

Tim: Yes… yes… and I’d do it again, I tell you, I’d do it again in an instant! [Laughs maniacally and jumps out of the window]

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Spaced existed on a precarious plane of existence where the most ridiculous thing could happen in a flash and then just move on to the next scene without worrying about having to mention it ever again. This is the loopy fun the show indulged in: crazy imagine spots where not just the characters, but the show itself, would experience stylistic shifts where they were suddenly re-enacting a video game, or (as the quote above states) the character laughs maniacally and jumps out of the window. Then they snap out of it and they’re back to mundane reality.

Quick flashbacks are shown of their childhoods or previous experiences, complete with the camera panning upwards or to the side and then quickly back once the flashback is done, as if the characters were just watching it; moments where characters go into wild imaginings of potential future scenarios with stylistic shifts that reflect something from the thriller, horror, or sci-fi genres; and dialogue peppered with pop culture references that are either appreciated by other characters or fly over their heads (and sometimes the audience’s, as well). To call the show “hyper” is an understatement: it has ADD.

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But that’s also a great appeal of the show and why straightforward, long-form narratives didn’t work for it as well as its themed episodes. The first series and the first half of the second series exemplified the strength of this approach: the second episode’s about Daisy wanting to throw a party in their new apartment, and having these wacky characters gather together for this single purpose gives everyone a loose common thread to play off of.

In one of the series’ highlight episodes, the entire episode is focused on the whole gang going to a rave. Each character is explored based on their related issues connected to the possibility of going to a rave (Brian is terrified since the last time he went to a party with music he ended up getting punched in the face; Mike is feeling low because he’d been kicked out of the Rough Ramblers that morning; Daisy’s fidgety and wants to go out; and Tim’s reluctant to go and argumentative with Daisy). At the rave, it seems all of their personal issues are resolved via the magical realism the show employs. Meanwhile, the cinematography of the episode eventually begins to replicate the effects that all of them are feeling, since they are all on ecstasy.

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And since every character is just this side of being sane, none of this kind of craziness feels out of place. Daisy tries to be sweet and sunny but has a dark side and is far lazier than her grand ambitions would suggest. Tim is a cynical, angry man who retreats into fantasy and childlike behavior to avoid the grimmer aspects of reality. Brian is a perpetually wigged-out artist that’s so self-conscious at times it’s amazing that he’s survived this long. And Mike is just a big kid who’s stuck at age 12.

So in the cartoonish world of Spaced–with its nutty adventures, perpetual quest to goof off, and how it heightens even the smallest of squabbles and concerns into epic battles of grave importance–this small band of friends makes sense. After all, if your characters can barely take themselves seriously, how could (literally) the world around them?

“Skip to the end.”

For anyone who’s been in their 20’s in the past 30 years, Spaced will remind them of that decade of their life–maybe not literally, but the general shape of it: of that period in your life where you have big ambitions but are unsure how to accomplish any of them; where you’re living a somewhat low-rent life but you’re having too much fun goofing off with your friends to care; and how you’re maybe a little too absorbed in the pop culture world you’ve grown up in and it actually informs your understanding of the world.

The dialogue is sharp and fast-moving, the characters are flawed but relatable and funny, and the cinematography–particularly the way it makes the reality of Spaced an elastic one–is truly impressive. Maybe at one point in your life you were Daisy or Tim. Maybe you still are.

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It went off the air 16 years ago at this point but it remains fresh and relevant even today. Even though technology has upgraded from PS2s and land lines, people in their 20’s are still the same the world over: kind of confused, kind of focused on the wrong things, and torn between what they should be doing and what they want to do.

Spaced is only 14 episodes long and the series is over within 7 hours, but it’s such a densely packed show  that you’ll find yourself going back and rewatching episodes, quoting lines, and starting to feel a little spaced-out yourself. A highly bingeable show, Spaced is the sitcom all pop culture fans deserve and will appreciate. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. So grab some jaffa cakes, stop bogling to Aswad, and watch it today.

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Categories: culture, television

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