Spaced Series 1 review

From the TWU archives, Sean Alexander looks at the series Spaced. First published in the print zine in (gasp) 2004. 
British TV comedy experienced something of a renaissance in the late Nineties.  Reeves and Mortimer, Alan Partridge and The League of Gentleman have all left a rich legacy for future historians to analyse and deconstruct in years to come.  But arguably even the overwhelming success of ‘modern’ sitcom The Office papers over today’s comedies’ credentials for inheriting the classic sitcom mantle.  Because the nineties were when sitcoms grew up, becoming more comedy drama than broad situational farces.  The evidence of The Vicar of Dibley’s sole inclusion underlines this.  While comedy, by nature, has always run a fine line between the funny and the sad, modern shows like Little Britain and Nighty Night are continuing the nineties trend for tragic comedy.  However, there was one sitcom made in the past five years that did uphold the cosy traditions of halcyon days.  With a twist.  It depicted an eclectic group of friends and their struggles to find happiness and meaning in an increasingly hostile world.  But it added a post-modern, pop-culturally obsessive and occasionally surreal style to its familiar template.
Its name? Spaced. It ran on Channel 4 for two series between 1999 and 2001.  Written by comedians Simon Pegg (previously best known for the slightly dark and twisted sketch show Big Train) and Jessica Stevenson (hitherto the downtrodden - and eternally weight-conscious - Cheryl in The Royle Family) it tells the story of twenty-somethings Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner’s attempts to find purpose and fulfilment in the occasionally scary world of pre-Millennium North London.  Posing as a ‘professional’ couple, they are joined in their illicit co-habitation by a variety of colourful housemates.  There is their landlady, Marsha, a woman for whom the pursuit of the opposite sex is matched only by her capacity for a bottle of red or three.  Downstairs is tortured artist Brian, forever carrying the pain - and the paint - of his endeavours on his sinewy torso.  Elsewhere, Mike is Tim’s gun-loving, ex-territorial army best friend, as likely to bring some small arms to any house party as any beverage.  While Daisy’s best friend, Twist - with her lisping voice and day-glo ensembles - is as terminally vacuous as she is self-absorbed.

So far, so familiar, you may say.  But Spaced - like all great art - is about so much more than its constituent parts.  For a start, there is the touchingly real relationship that develops between Tim and Daisy: despite their growing attachment, and need, for each other, theirs is a love that need not speak its name.  Then there’s the ensemble playing of the rest of the regular cast.  Nick Frost as Tim’s best friend Mike brings a real sense of loyalty and heroism to what could have easily become a one-note cliché.  While Julia Deakin’s Marsha is often an observational sage amidst the twenty-something angst around her.  Mark Heap as Brian is alternately manic and cuddly by degree, while - a million miles away from her later Corry-turn as florist Lucy - Katy Carmichael rescues even Twist’s self-obsessed personality with believability and sympathy. Oh, and have I mentioned the film and television references too numerous to mention?  Part of the reason Spaced was the first sitcom of the new century was that, despite its clichéd format, it acknowledged the television heritage that preceded it.  And the stylistic flourishes - notably the common use of fast zooms and jump cuts - embedded in each episode recall the post-modern boom of the early nineties. The best way to appreciate Spaced is, of course, to experience it.  So saddle up…and come get some!

Episode 1: Beginnings 
In which twenty-somethings Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner pose as a professional couple to solve their mutual housing problems.
Spaced’s premiere episode starts the series as it means to go on.  It’s fast-paced, witty and not averse to bending the rules of narrative for dramatic effect.  It is also characteristically interspersed with copious in-jokes and homages for any watching pop-culture obsessive.  What the episode achieves best is the effortless establishment of its premise and the diverse characters within.  Tim and Daisy’s chance meeting and subsequent easy relationship sets the tone for much of what is to follow, while the onslaught of film and TV references begins straight from the start.  Of these, the use of The King and I’s ‘Getting to know you’ and the episode’s undisguised rip-off of rom-com Green card for its plot are the most effective.

Of the supporting cast Mark Heap’s Brian makes a particularly bizarre first impression.  His montage of artistic subjects - anger, pain, fear and aggression - are a high point of this series as a whole, while the ‘renting downstairs’ joke is an undisputed classic.  Meanwhile, Marsha’s amorous and booze-ridden personality marks her out as the ‘pseudo-Rigsby’ of this particular domestic scenario.  And, by episode’s end, the cumulative effect is to give the feeling of a family unit already developing around the characters - despite the fact that Nick Frost’s Mike barely makes an appearance.
First appearances/mentions: Dark Star comics; Fantasy Bazaar and its proprietor, Bilbo; Tim’s ex. Sarah…and new man Duane; Amber, Marsha’s daughter; Daisy’s boyfriend Richard.
Best bit: The shot of Tim and Daisy - clearly imagining themselves as the cool Fred and Daphne from Scooby-Doo - actually looking the spit of Shaggy and Velma.

Episode 2: Gatherings 
In which Tim and Daisy unpack, get on each others nerves and decide to have a housewarming party. 
Second episodes - like second albums - can be tricky things.  And Spaced is no different.  The episode starts slowly - only building a head of steam with the house party - while some rather uncharacteristic griping between the principals mars the chemistry established in episode one.  Naturally, the homages continue to come thick and fast:  most successful are Daisy’s Misery-esque writing spurt, the 2001 fridge and a couple of great Close Encounters visual gags.
On the character front, Marsha seems to have a bit of a thing for Brian, while Daisy’s friend Twist is introduced…and proves to be a classic case of vacuous self-absorption.  And we finally get to meet - properly - Tim’s best friend Mike Watts, who endears himself immediately by bringing a land mine to the party as an ice-breaker.  But Mike is so good-natured as to make even this action seem characteristically warm-hearted.

The party setting does allow for some acidic condemnation of trendy-type social mores.  And it gives us the first hint of one of Spaced’s underlying concerns: that you’re simply never as cool as you think you are.  The mainly 1980s soundtrack helps reinforce Daisy and Tim’s feelings of ostracisation from the ‘real world’, while Marsha’s daughter Amber’s own ‘alternative’ party offers the flatmates a much needed cultural escape route at the end.  An episode that picks up markedly in its second half, laying down the roots of the show’s later preference for surrealism.
First appearances/mentions: Daisy’s writing; Marsha’s thing for Brian; Twist; the ‘cushion chucking’ joke; everyone - except Marsha - knowing Tim and Daisy arent a couple; Tim and Mike’s childhood tragedy.
Best bit: Tim and Daisy’s post-coital fag after unpacking.

Episode 3: Art 
In which Daisy gets a job interview, Brian an invitationand Tim spends far too much time playing video games. 
Spaced hits its stride with this marvellous collision of fantasy and harsh reality. The episode also showcases one of the show’s other underlying themes: the facing of personal demons.  That this all takes place within what appears to be a zombie film only adds to the stylistic tone.  It contains two great scenes: Daisy’s painfully realistic nightmare job interview (her zoning out to the theme from The Magic Roundabout is priceless) and Brian’s second great montage scene as he tortuously prepares to reacquaint himself with former working partner Vulva. The episode also has a great supporting cast, notably David Walliams’ grotesque - and strangely Boy George-like - turn as Vulva.  His ‘expressionistic’ show inspired by Hoovers is one of the show’s most macabre moments and - as with the previous episode’s diatribe on trendy music - allows the writers to rip the shit out of contemporary theatre.  Also look out for ‘Dennis Pennis’ himself Paul Kaye as Vulva’s equally warped co-star.

Brian’s demon-busting encounter with his former guru is echoed by Tim’s literal descent into zombie unreality.  From the opening scene ‘Art’ is a marvellous pastiche of the ‘survival horror’ video games embodied most infamously by Resident Evil 2.  That the episode climaxes with a full-on zombie film re-enactment only provides ample proof that Simon Pegg was scripting Shaun of the Dead for a very long time.  Disturbing, yet strangely touching, ‘Art’ is a shining highlight of series one.
First appearances/mentions: zombies; Vulva; Brian standing up for himself.
Quote/Unquote: ‘It’s a subtle blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence’ (Tim eulogises on the joys of survival horror videogames).
Best bit: Brian’s flashback to his collaborations with Vulva: a mixture of expressionistic terror and Bergman imagery.  And some very silly costumes. 
Episode 4: Battles 
In which Daisy responds to more rejection with a dog, and Tim buries some demons with a paint gun. 
If anything endears people to us more than anything else, it’s bravery against insurmountable odds.  It’s a truism that Spaced learns early on, and in ‘Battles’ the show achieves its first heroic culmination of these ideals.  Daisy is dumped by the off-screen Richard - having, typically, fantasised it is her doing the dumping first - and through a combination of faux-pas and inspiration decides to heal her emotional scars with…a dog.  Meanwhile, Tim looks forward to a day of mindless violence away from his Playstation by paint-balling with Mike.  However, what Tim doesnt expect is to come up against his nemesis - and love rival - Duane Benzie: tall, smooth…and Tim’s ex Sarah’s new beau.  Will he be a man or a mouse?  And has he got the (paint) balls to find closure on his former life? ‘Battles’ is the episode where the big boys get to play with some big toys.  And it’s evident that Pegg, Frost and Peter Serafinowicz (as Duane) have a ‘ball’ running around like soldiers and shooting each other with paint.  For an episode with a militaristic bent, Mike inevitably comes into his own…and even gets to play the hero when saving his best friend from his ‘sworn’ enemy. 
 Serafinowicz’s Duane is a marvellously arch bad guy, and the knowledge he was one of the redeeming elements of The Phantom Menace (as the voice of Darth Maul) only adds to the fan-wank element of this episode. Meanwhile, Daisy’s attempts to get a dog - aided, if that’s the word, by Twist - add a more farcical tone to proceedings.  And the resultant pooch Colin, as played by Ada the dog, is surely contender for the best dog actor of all time.  Brian even gets to join in on the ‘demons from the past’ reminiscing of the other characters; his hilariously graphic account of former dog Pompom’s brutal end adding a typically visceral note to his character. Throw in humorous hints to Tim and Mike’s latent homosexuality (they hold hands and Mike even admits to fancying Tim) and a monologue on the joys of making Lara Croft drown, and you have another outstanding episode.
First appearances/mentions: Tim’s ‘canine phobia’; Colin the Dog; Duane Benzie other than in flashback.
Best bit: Brian literally becoming his art in a tribute to ‘the self-reflexivity of Rembrandt’.  Or, as Tim puts it, ‘Brian, you’ve got some paint on you’. 
Episode 5: Chaos 
In which Colin gets dog-napped and Tim and Daisy launch a rescue bid with the aid of Luke, Chewie and Jabba. 
When Spaced series one was being made, the world was waiting with baited breath for possibly the most anticipated film event ever.  And, as already noted, the show already had one connection to The Phantom Menace in Peter Serafinowicz’s Duane Benzie.  As a self-confessed acolyte of the original trilogy, ‘Chaos’ is Simon Pegg’s love poem to George Lucas’ series.  And on the evidence here, it is little surprise that Lucasfilm gave their blessing to Spaced’s pastiche. Basically, Colin the dog goes missing and the others hatch a plan to rescue him.  And that’s it.  But as the series’ most simply plotted episode, ‘Chaos’ rewards through the sheer love and respect it shows for its pop-culture inspirations.  And the shining light of this pastiche is the Star Wars-inspired laboratory raid - disco Imperial march, throwaway quotes and Reservoir Dogs-style code names and all. The episode also cements what we, the viewer, already know: that Tim loves Daisy, and is willing to overcome his animosity to all things - even her dog - to make her happy.  And, inevitably, he become our hero as a result.  The increasing sense of family among the characters means even Brian - who is fast becoming the show’s most likeable oddball - is absorbed into the clan.  And his referencing of chaos theory as an explanation for all events fits the show’s scattergun unreality perfectly - while at the same time providing a novel explanation for how the Empire fell.

This is a real tour-de-force episode, with even Marsha - despite being given little to do - perfectly encapsulating her character’s calm and nonchalant observation of all things through a cloud of smoke and a glass of red.  Charles Dale also impresses in his guest role as the laboratory security guard - while his gun-talk bonding with Mike provides a farcical juxtaposition to the episode’s otherwise frenetic pace. ‘Chaos’ reinforces Spaced’s cool credentials while at the same time providing thrilling, heart-warming entertainment into the bargain.  And there’s even a superb American Werewolf gag to top it all off.
First appearances/mentions: The inside of ‘Fantasy Bazaar’ and its proprietor Bilbo in real time; excessive Star Wars referencing.
Best bit: Tim’s unashamed emotion as he finishes watching Return of the Jedi for the umpteenth time. 
Episode 6: Epiphanies 
In which motor-mouth raver Tyres leads our dispirited flatmates into the promised land. 
Perhaps the hardest thing about growing out of your first flush of youth is realising that you’re not quite as cool as you thought you once were.  And ‘Epiphanies’ sort of sums up that feeling.  Where ‘Gatherings’ had dipped its toe into the whole ‘no longer young’ fear at the heart of all mid-twentysomethings, here Spaced jumps in with both feet.  And as a result produces the best episode of series one. But it’s not all perfect.  In fact, the build up to the grandstanding club scene which occupies the second half is slow, even dull at times.  But the episode receives its adrenalin rush in the shape of Michael Smiley’s Tyres, a - literally - raving madman.  His arrival jolts the housemates - and, by extension, the episode - out of its uncharacteristic funk.  While it’s not all doom and gloom until his arrival - Brian’s ‘Come on Eileen’ nightmare and Tim & Daisy’s Grange Hill analyses are both great - the club scene’s sheer energy and pulsating soundtrack mark a serious upturn in the episode’s enjoyment factor.  In fact, I challenge anyone watching to not want to go down the nearest club straight afterwards!

The episode - appropriately - is another epiphany for the constantly entertaining Brian, as yet more demons are quashed and his relationship with Twist takes a further, well, twist.  He also contributes the most mind-bending comedic moment with his departure into the hitherto unexplored dimension of ‘penis art’.  And it is very much Brian’s episode in many ways, as he most perfectly encapsulates the theme of fear and awkwardness in the face of generational change. If there was one moment when Spaced became the coolest, most life-affirming comedy-drama around it is in the club scene.  With brilliant choreography, spot on freeze-frame captions (‘Brian Can’t’ being the best) and a genuinely tender scene as Tim and Daisy review their relationship, ‘Epiphanies’ greatest achievement is in reminding the viewer of the joys - and the heartbreaks - of youthful enthusiasm.  And as a reassuring reminder that even the most awkward and ordinary of people can be cool for one night.
First appearances/mentions: the incredible Tyres, probably Spaced’s most unsung hero; the £20 joke; oh, and keep an eye on the end credits.
Best bit: the whole of the club scene: one of those few times when viewer enjoyment becomes mixed with the fun being had by the cast.

Episode 7: Ends 
In which Mike faces his re-evaluationand Sarahs return threatens the family unit. 
Just as an opening episode of a series should set the scene - introducing the characters and the format to enable some ‘familiarity’ for later episodes - so a final episode should resolve certain issues established in the premiere.  And in ‘Ends’ Spaced completes its first run in such satisfying style.  The return of Tim’s ex provides not just a complication to the - albeit, platonic - relationship between Tim and Daisy, but also a threat to the show’s very format of cosy domesticity established over the previous six episodes. Running alongside the main plot are two other threads, one developing, the other resolving.  Brian and Twist go on their first date to a suitably unusual - but, somehow, totally appropriate - avant-garde exhibition, which allows the show to once more have a less than concealed dig at trendy contemporary art.  Meanwhile, Mike - his childhood secret with Tim being finally revealed as an accident for which Tim blames himself - goes before the re-evaluation board to rejoin the Territorial army following the ‘Paris’ incident of 1994.  This is one of the funniest elements of what is largely a downbeat and introspective episode; Mike’s responses to the ink-blot tests of the review board being particularly hilarious.  And the Office and a Gentleman-inspired celebration afterwards is both touching and probably as camp as series one gets. 

Other standout points are the incredibly clever mirroring of Tim and Daisy’s argument with the martial-art moves of Street Fighter (which Daisy wins with a pixelated flourish) and the twin montages of Tim and Brian’s joy at achieving success with women.  The episode - and the series - ends with an acknowledgment of the maturity both it and the characters have reached over the previous seven episodes.  And the fact that Tim calls Daisy immediately after breaking up with Sarah again signals how attached this most unconventional of couples have become;  a couple ultimately drawn together by their mutual directionless and fear of having to grow up in the real world. And the final scenes of Tim and Daisy dancing to ‘Is you is..?’ are as apt an ending as you could wish for.
First appearances/mentions: the skateboard accident video; Daisy’s desire to go to Asia and visit the Taj Mahal.
Quote/Unquote: ‘Life just isn’t like the movies’ (Tim’s moment of clarity reinforces Spaced’s growing sense of maturity…while providing a metaphor for the series as a whole.
Best bit: Brian’s hilariously inept, but endearing, montage of joy; deliberately mirroring Tim’s much cooler attempt earlier in the episode.
Next Time- Series 2

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, Spaced was hysterical! Love it so much.