TV for Movie People: Spaced

First things first: welcome to our new regular feature here on FilmNerds that we’re calling TV for FilmNerds. This feature came out of my many conversations and experiences with fellow film lovers in which I discovered a prevailing bias by some of the more discriminating film fans against that infernal household appliance known as the television. Over the years, I’ve come to devote an equal amount of my leisure time to both TV and film and in this humble film nerd’s opinion, there is just as much brilliant, smart and even emotionally powerful content coming over the airwaves (or cable as it may be) as there is on the silver screen. You just have to know where to look. In each installment, we’ll be highlighting a some work made for the small screen that we feel even the snobbiest of TV-hating film fans would admire and enjoy if they gave it a chance.

I decided to open this new feature with a series that served as the cinematic training ground for one of the most buzzed-about young directors working today, Edgar Wright. Wright burst onto the scene with the brilliant zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead in 2004 and followed it up with the Michael Bay-esque action homage Hot Fuzz in 2007. Most recently, Wright set the nerd world on fire with this summer’s underappreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

But to call Wright the sole creative force behind Spaced (1999-2001) wouldn’t be fair or accurate. Wright directed the series but the writing duties fell solely to the two stars of the show, Simon Pegg (who later starred in Wrights first two theatrical features) and Jessica Stevenson, who aside from a memorable cameo in Shaun of the Dead would most likely be recognized by Americans as the strict mother from the cult indie hit Son of Rambow. The trio met working on a British sketch comedy show and decided to embark on their own venture about a platonic pair of 20-something burn outs by the name of Tim and Daisy who move into an apartment together and get up to all sorts of highly referential hi-jinx.

The rest of the show’s cast of characters is relatively small: there’s Tim’s gun-toting best friend Mike (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz co-star Nick Frost) who is obsessed with all things war; Daisy’s best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael), a shallow fashionista who doesn’t get any of the many references bandied about by the rest of the cast; tortured artist Brian (Mark Heap) who screams while painting in the apartment down the hall; and landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin) who rather creepily leers at all the young hipsters while quietly wishing she was one of them.

The show’s first series (that’s a season for us Americans) relies pretty heavily on the gag of referencing other films, going particularly heavy on geek masterpieces like Evil Dead 2, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, of course, the original Star Wars films. A fan favorite among the seven episodes of the first series is the fourth episode “Battles” which features a paintball battle with the brilliant Peter Serafinowicz (Look Around You) that shows a lot of the talent for action cinematography that Wright displayed later in Hot Fuzz.

By the time the second series rolls around though the show, like most television comedies, has become far more at ease with its own characters as well as its sense of style and tone. Rather than rely so heavily on referencing, the show generally focuses on the quirks of its characters and the relationships between each of them and rather than simply become a meta-film playground, the show begins to create some quite excellent film moments of its own.

The standout sequence from the show comes in the fifth episode of the second series “Gone”, which eventually features fake gun battles and one of the best Jurassic Park references ever. Earlier in the episode, however, Wright and company give us an incredibly original and unique sequence that grows out of a very simple question between two friends: where should we go drink tonight? (Click the picture to watch the scene in its entirety)

It’s a scene that can both be appreciated by those who don’t know Tim or Daisy but a scene that so perfectly captures and synthesizes the very specific and evocative tone of the series. It gives us a glimpse inside two very typical, very self-aware young middle class Londoners looking to both have a good time but also make sure that they convey the right message about their own identities while doing it.

At just 14 total episodes, Spaced is an easy watch and never really turns in a dull or unnecessary episode (in part a product of the far superior British form of making all television in a sort of miniseries format). Fans of the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost comedy dynamic will find plenty of it here and the peripheral characters, particularly the wonderfully odd landlady Marsha, get their share of laughs too but the star of the show is the perfectly handled and understated romantic tension between Pegg and Stevenson. Like Tim and Dawn of the BBC’s The Office before them, Tim and Daisy’s never becomes the obvious romantic plotline we constantly expect it to turn into, though there is plenty of suggestion and hinting along the way.

Where to Watch It: The DVD box set features an absurdly good lineup of commentary tracks for each episode, including commentaries by Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody, but if you don’t have Netflix you can watch the entire series for free online at Hulu.