Spaced Out

One of the best television shows of the early '00s finally gets a big American release

It's one of the most enjoyable shows on television from the past decade or so. It features a mismatched collection of buddies who hang out a lot and sometimes have "adventures," but mostly it's about nothing except the relationships between those characters. That overarching setup could describe a lot of sitcoms, from Seinfeld and Friends to any number of shows approximating them, but it also applies to a show that's easily as notable as the former and absolutely demolishes the latter, despite only lasting for 14 episodes. But the average viewer may never have heard of Brit-com Spaced because, well, it's British.

The "sit" of the "com" is that undiscovered comic-book artist Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and unproductive writer Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes) meet on the street while each is searching for a place to stay. Finding an ad for a fantastic apartment that specifies "professional couple only," Tim and Daisy decide to pose as a pair for the good-natured alcoholic landlady, Marsha Klein (Julia Deakin). Add the downstairs tenant, marginally talented artist Brian Topp (Mark Heap), Daisy's fashion-conscious best friend Twist Morgan (Katy Carmichael), and Tim's oldest comrade, the combat-crazy Mike Watt (Nick Frost in his professional debut), and you have an utterly remedial and pedestrian set-up for a TV show.

So why is Spaced so worthwhile? How could it warrant a full-blown special edition, multi-volume DVD collection with all the episodes, a feature-length documentary, and the requisite commentaries and deleted scenes aimed specifically at an American audience seven years after the show ended its original run? What could possibly cause noted fans Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, Matt Stone, Patton Oswalt, and Bill Hader to specifically record additional commentaries for the U.S. release of a low-budget show that has only had middling exposure on these shores on a couple of minor cable channels and the underground bootleg circuit? The answer is that Spaced does everything right, and almost to perfection, so much so that those who see it almost instantly become disciples.

For one, the lead actors also wrote the show. Pegg and Hynes (who went on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) created characters that seem almost real, and they allow their characters' obsessions to find form in a compelling and singular shared vision. It's young people writing a show for and about young people, and it absolutely rings true. As vital as that spark is, however, perhaps the most important facet in this particular gem is the director, Edgar Wright. Unlike most American television, which features a variety of hired guns from episode to episode, Wright directs each episode of Spaced, giving the show a visual and iconographic continuity that's rare in most television, let alone a sitcom. And Wright has style and vision to spare. His facility and confidence with a camera reminds one of early Danny Boyle and the Coen Brothers, directors who seemed absolutely fearless in the formative stages of their careers.

One of the central gags of the show is that even the most routine events are given weight by a bold cinematic approach to the material. Swish pans and wipes, crane shots, and extensive editing all give physical manifestation to the characters' inner lives, which are filled with pop-culture allusions, adding to the effect that these people seem like the sum total of the stylized worlds they consume. More to the point, these characters envision their own lives as a movie. Despite references to British television that will be lost on many American viewers, most of the big laughs come from Star Wars and Pulp Fiction references and, from out of nowhere, a brilliant riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Everyone involved does seem to now regret referring to The Matrix, however.)

If you only know Pegg and Wright from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which are both spirited send-ups of genre films, then you owe it to yourself to seek out the meta-sitcom that started it all. You'll discover the fruitful seeds of those films contained within, as well as promises of more to come. Unfortunately, all involved claim they are now too old to properly continue Spaced with a third season or a wrap-up special, as Ricky Gervais was able to do with The Office and Extras, so we'll just have to continue the journey of Tim and Daisy in our own minds. Perhaps that's all too appropriate.