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Edgar Wright’s ‘Spaced’ Showed the Growing Talents of a Brilliant Genre Filmmaker

With the impending release of Wright’s ‘Baby Driver,’ we take a look back at “Spaced”, the TV series that helped launch his eclectic film career

“They say that the family of the 21st century is made up of friends, not relatives. Then again, maybe that’s just bollocks.” 

Spaced is a very special sort of television show. People are quick to praise other influential British sitcoms like The Office, The IT Crowd, or Peep Show, and while Spaced certainly wasn’t ignored by the public, it’s still a show that flies under many people’s radars. Spaced is also special because the two seasons of the show offer a beautiful glimpse into the growing talents of visionary director, Edgar Wright. With Wright’s latest feature, Baby Driver, about to hit theaters, there’s no better time to revisit—or binge on for the very first time—Wright’s ambitious sitcom that showed the world his chaotic, magical style of filmmaking.

Spaced begins with Simon Pegg’s character, Tim Bisley, begging his significant other to not break up with him. This is juxtaposed to the equally unsuccessful trajectory that Jessica Stevenson’s Daisy Steiner has found herself in. It’s a funny, subversive introduction to this series and the characters that inhabit this universe. It’s also a starting point that many of Wright’s characters begin at. Shaun of the Dead’s introduction in particular parallels the opening minutes of Spaced in a lot of ways.

What’s fascinating about Spaced is that the series is strangely couched in the highly sitcom-y premise that relative strangers, Tim and Daisy, have to pretend to be a couple in order to be allowed to move into an apartment. That might not sound very revolutionary, but it’s hardly a Three’s Company sort of situation where the two of them are constantly needing to prove their love. It’s a much geekier sort of show with the trappings of the premise quickly receding into the background. The second episode even has them coming clean to fellow tenant, Brian (Mark Heap), with there being minimal consequences over their deception. All of this does eventually come to a head in the final episodes of the series, but it’s not a crucial gamechanger. In fact, it’s more an excuse to reveal that the entire chain of events that puts the series in motion is actually courtesy of some ridiculous buffoonery at the hands of a Ricky Gervais character.

Wright’s ambitious directing is certainly one of the reasons that Spaced is so impressive, but it’s also beneficial that Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson write the series. It’s why these characters feel so natural for them and how they can give off such memorable performances. The synthesis between their skills and Wright’s work so well here. All of this results in Spaced being such a good hang-out sitcom where you just want to be around these relatable characters who feel beyond real. These are 20-something slackers who are trying to get their lives together. There’s a lot to be said in the comforts of that, especially when a lot of the pop culture topics being discussed in Spaced weren’t puncturing through the mainstream at the time. The show itself was a nerd and in the minority, just like the fans who liked the stuff within it.

The limited supporting cast outside of Tim and Daisy are certainly weirder and exaggerated versions of people that we all know. The exploits seen between Tim and his friend Mike (Nick Frost) end up connecting so well that Wright would extensively bank on stories featuring Pegg and Wright as a pair in his “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy.” Incredibly early on in Spaced’s run, the show tells a story where Brian is interested in impressing a conceptual artist named Vulva, but Brian continually can’t be conceptual enough for him. This is a very bizarre storyline for the show and one that tries to get as avant garde as the art that it’s poking fun at in the episode, but Spaced treats all of this like it’s entirely normal. This is a normal Brian storyline, and that’s kind of bonkers. Wright also makes all the depictions of the clown-like “artists” in the episode effectively terrifying and strong companions to the zombies that he also has roaming the installment. They’re disturbing things.

Wright constantly films Brian from canted, impressionist camera angles to further sell the illusion of his off-kilter, disturbed nature. Surprisingly, all of Brian’s tortured artist material lands and never feels played out, in spite of the whole experimental theater area being a pretty overdone trope at this point. He’s a strong character that generates a lot of humor from his absurd interests and projects.

The influence of pop culture on Spaced has been briefly touched on, but it’s really the lifeblood that gives the show it’s bombastic energy. Early on into Tim and Daisy’s first meeting she asks him, “You’re not one of those people who spends their nights on the Internet talking about symbolism in The X-Files, are you?” and that really says it all. All of the references in Spaced, whether it’s this, Terminator 2, Resident Evil 2, The Evil Dead, or whatever, are all extremely authentic. It’s clear that Wright, Pegg, and Stevenson are in love with these things and that they’re talking about them because they’re inextricably linked to who they are and their point of view. They need to feature these references. It’s not just them trying to seem cool. One episode seamlessly turns a renegade freezer into a HAL 9000 surrogate in a perfect 2001 riff, just because it can. These people see the world in pop culture references, so of course the show is going to reflect that and play into it stylistically whenever possible.

This is a series that when a character is experiencing evolution, growth, and change, they gain strength from comparing themselves to the titular character from Disney’s Mulan. When Tim is in need of guidance he prays to a poster of Sarah Michelle Gellar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Daisy unfurling and applying lipstick can be given the same dramatic weight as a light saber unsheathing itself. Demonstrations of manliness are expressed by Battle Bots fighting their masters’ wars for them. Pop culture is the altar here.

Spaced is filled with plenty of fantasy sequences and stylistic flairs that are a clear precursor for the style Wright would play around with in his films (there’s a Shining reference before the first episode is even half over). Sound effects augment actions to give them greater weight and make this feel like some live-action version of a cartoon, and in many ways, it is. When Pegg and Stevenson were initially pitching the series around, they referred to it as a cross between The Simpsons, The X-Files, and Northern Exposure (the show’s fantasy sequences were a big influence), and somehow that combination is pulled off here.

Right from the very first episode Spaced is constantly playing with genre, dipping into stylistic horror or science-fiction whenever a gag conveniently suits the circumstances. The fact that Spaced plays with those boundaries so early on helps the series feel adaptive and fluid—almost like a proto version of Community that doesn’t go as all-out with its homages. Regardless though, it’s the show’s tendency to play around and experiment with style that has led to Wright emerging as such a visionary filmmaker after the series’ conclusion. Everything he’s doing in Spaced is evident in the films that he’s later turned out.

Tim and Daisy are individuals who are constantly changing reality and hiding in pop culture as safety nets from the harsh truth of how badly the world is kicking their asses. One episode shows Tim getting particularly caught up in Resident Evil 2, but Wright visualizes it all as if Tim’s actually blasting away zombies. The ill-advised combination of Tim doing a bunch of speed and virtual zombie slaying turns into a beautiful genre mash-up that taps into horror very well. Tim is even outright quoting RE2 by the end of the episode. It’s easy to see how Wright could take this concept and go all-out with it in Shaun of the Dead. A similar scene that’s dependent on the influence of video games sees Tim getting particularly frustrated with his ex-girlfriend. He goes about relieving his stress by playing Tomb Raider 3 and continually letting Lara Croft drown in water. This pop culture is his therapy, so of course his world should also be contextualized through it all. All of this is strengthened by the specificity behind it all rather than Tim blindly referring to “some video game” without having any knowledge behind it.

Another brilliant moment set during the first season’s finale sees Daisy giving Tim a verbal beat down over the bad choices he’s found himself in lately regarding his ex. As Daisy throws insults and truth bombs at Tim, the argument is intercut with footage of a fight from Tekken where one opponent is mercilessly getting beaten up. As Tim turns the argument around on Daisy and her shortcomings, his video game fighter proxy begins turning the tables in his virtual battle. Not only does this function as a shining metaphor that processes an adult altercation through a filter that makes sense to Tim, but it’s the same melding of emotional catharsis with video game action that Edgar Wright elegantly depicts in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The scene is even beautifully capped off with Daisy striking a victory pose (complete with wooden laugh) as the visuals mimic the winning screen from out of Tekken. It’s a shot and gag that could be from right out of Scott Pilgrim.

 

Furthermore, Spaced’s second season premiere also has a lot of fun by experimenting with huge fight scenes. Wright constructs battles that feel like they’re riffing on The Matrix’s bombastic, gravity-free battles, but the chaotic set pieces also feel like precursors to the stunning, unusual fight choreography that Wright later plays with in Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End. It’s yet another skill that gets to blossom and refine itself throughout the show’s run.

Many simple scenes throughout Spaced are turned into visual goldmines during gleeful moments when the camera will just spin out with reckless abandon and a chaotic style will take over the show. Almost as if it’s a manifestation of Tim and Daisy’s nervous demeanor. It’s an entertaining aesthetic that works well for the show and its pacing. This chaotic approach also lends itself to cut-away style gags during a time that was largely before shows were doing this. Spaced would help set the mold for the fast-paced style of joke delivery present in shows like 30 Rock. This will sometimes result in weird, bizarre jokes that the show effortlessly falls into, like a near-perfect visual gag that recreates characters from out of Scooby Doo. This is done so casually that it almost doesn’t even feel like it’s intentional and like the visual was stumbled upon by accident. In spite of this seeming like a throwaway gag, it gets called back in the series’ penultimate episode when Shaggy and Velma action figures now function as totems of Tim and Daisy’s friendship.

Spaced is a show where a scene can end with a quick Bodyguard homage not because it’s being derivative, but because it’s the quickest, most visually interesting way of hammering the point at hand home. It’s just being economical with the storytelling and it’s why so much can be crammed into each 25-minute episode. There’s a flashback sequence in the show’s second season that involves a playground bully from Daisy’s childhood. The memory is told through an animated comic book to rather effective results. A similar segment has Tim detailing his plans for the evening with the whole thing being illustrated in the style of his comic drawings. Another episode tackles rave and drug culture to brilliant results, with the credits even listing the director as “Edgar Wright Here Wright Now” as an ode to absurd DJ names. That’s how much the show wraps itself up in style. It’s the sort of thoroughness that I’ve only witnessed in Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta of The Leftovers giving themselves RZA-infused names, and that was over 15 years later. Additionally, the heavy use of shots where drinks are getting slammed down is a pretty clear precursor to the same frenetic photography that Wright uses for drinking in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End.

Wright’s passion for music has been brought up here, but right from the first episode of Spaced it’s clear how much Wright is influenced by music and how he uses it to help tell his stories. Spaced’s second episode not only features a sequence that uses “Let’s Do the Time Warp” effectively, but also Tim ranting about how he doesn’t want the song to muck up his party. The series is very self-aware in the musical decisions that it’s making. Another small, yet effective, detail is how the show can take classical pieces of music like Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood,” and then remix them in modern, flashy ways. It’s a great musical representation of what Wright is doing with the show itself. It’s taking a basic romantic sitcom and then subverting it in the most modern, pop culture-heavy way possible. Even at this point Wright was mashing up music in exciting ways—something that seems to be heavily explicit in the upcoming Baby Driver—when existing music wasn’t getting the job done. There’s a mashup of Camisra’s “Let Me Show You” with the theme song from The A-Team, for instance as a banging club track. Plenty of series release soundtracks featuring music from the show, but Spaced is one of the few examples where the content demanded that it happen, as well as it being the sort of TV soundtrack that’s so good that you’d still have it in heavy rotation in your library.

Spaced’s first season accomplishes an impressive amount, but its second season embraces its creative tendencies with even more passion. For example, the second season premiere begins with a perfect black-and-white intro of London that lampoons Woody Allen’s iconic introduction to Manhattan. “Chapter One. She adored London, a city that was as passionate and beautiful as she was…No, too derivative.” It’s at that point that Tim hijacks the narrative with his own flashy intro sequence straight from out of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, “For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a graphic designer…” Here the series is taking storied staples of pop culture and injecting them with a new slant which works all too well. Not only that, but it efficiently distills Tim and Daisy’s point of view by reducing them to two films like Manhattan and Goodfellas. It’s a scene that tells you everything about them in very few actual words.

At one moment where Tim and Daisy are particularly low, Tim laments, “Life just isn’t like the movies, is it? We’re constantly led to believe in resolution in the establishment of the ideal status qua, and it’s just not true. Happy endings are a myth. Designed to make us feel better about the fact that life is just another thankless struggle.” After this wrenching, pessimistic monologue, music spontaneously begins playing on a jukebox with Tim and Daisy ostensibly dancing their troubles away. Life and its problems are abandoned courtesy of a reassuring fantasy. It’s another strong example of why they need outside influences to invade their lives.

While the above monologue about life itself paints Tim as blasé and removed, his most passionate moment in the series is when he’s yelling about The Phantom Menace.

“You are so blind! You so do not understand! You weren’t there at the beginning! You don’t know how good it was, how important! This is it for you! This jumped-up firework display of a toy advert! People like you make me sick! What’s wrong with you? Now, I don’t care if you’ve saved up all your 50p’s, take your pocket money and get out!”

It’s not love or even life that gets Tim excited, it’s movies. This is clear in exchanges like the above one which really boil down Tim’s perspective.

Spaced obviously leans into pop culture a lot in order to heighten its comedy, but the show also isn’t afraid to embrace weird tangents and extremes in order to sell some very random jokes. One scene sees Tim telling Daisy to keep it down in their apartment because they don’t know who’s listening. The show then whip-pans over to some government official listening into their conversation because he’s wiretapped them. This doesn’t connect to a larger part of the plot. It never gets re-addressed. It’s just the sort of insane humor that Spaced attempts to normalize. Another random aside seems to imply that Tim has psychic powers, but it’s completely abandoned and ignored before it’s an angle that even gets a chance to get moving. It’s brilliant.

Then there are moments when pop culture is actually working in tandem with this random nature. A broken memory of Tim’s as he reflects on his father being a “nice guy” sees the man chasing a young Tim through a hedge maze with an ax a la Jack in The Shining. Binging on Star Wars doesn’t have these characters talk about action scenes or special effects, but rather examine how the gunner that’s present on the Star Destroyer in A New Hope is really the true hero of the franchise in a chaos theory sort of way. Any time you can successfully combine deep philosophical theories with George Lucas sci-fi epics, you know that you’re doing something right.

Spaced says so much throughout its run, but it also sticks its landing in a way that really solidifies the degree of quality present in these two seasons of television. The near-final image of Tim picking up Daisy from the train station, traveling on a Battle Bot, dog in tow, and looking ever-the-dweeb, is really the perfect union of their friendship to ride out on. Not long later, as Tim and Daisy watch TV together, he inches his head closer to hers. It’s a micro-gesture but one that says absolutely everything by saying nothing at all.

That is until a short epilogue that truly closes the door on the series takes place. This epilogue also manages to buck the trend of conventional endings by providing this surprise conclusion in a special Spaced documentary made specifically for the DVD release. Before seeing the final moments occur, there’s no reason to suspect that this documentary feature (which is appropriately titled “Skip to the End”) would turn into something canonical for the series, because why would you?

“Skipped to the End” makes for a rather creative approach to epilogues where Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, and Edgar Wright try to touch base with the owner of the flat that they filmed Spaced in. They can’t get ahold of her, assuming that she’s out, but after they leave, worlds bizarrely blend together when a present version of Tim and Daisy exit. Not only are they still living there, but they’re now a couple with a fresh little baby (not named Luke, but possibly named Leia). It’s the perfect, non-flashy piece of closure to such a satisfying series, and it’s a strategy that I’ve truly never seen employed before.

It’s that endless degree of creativity that makes Spaced such fundamental television and a program that’s still being discussed nearly 20 years after its debut. Spaced’s unconventional approach to comedy would make it possible for so many oddball comedies to happen. There’s a reason that the 2008 DVD release of the series features audio commentaries from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, Judd Apatow, Matt Stone, Seth MacFarlane, Seth Green, Vince Gilligan, Dave Willis, Bob Odenkirk, and Patton Oswalt. This show influenced some of the brightest minds currently working in the industry and with Wright having developed such an interesting filmography in the meantime, it never hurts to revisit where it all began. With there now being so many avenues to create television, the idea of Wright committing to another limited series would be very exciting. However, even if the guy never returns to the medium, at least his films are still pushing his skills to beyond their limits while keeping the uncontrollable energy of Spaced alive.

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