July 22, 2008
After several years of hearing about a wonderfully quirky British show called Spaced, and then hearing still more about it when its creators went on to make the highly regarded genre-busting film comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and then finally seeing some bits of said show on a bootleg DVD someone had sent me, made from the fairly barebones UK region 2 release, now at long last comes a proper US release of the entire series. Fans of those films should rejoice, for herein is the germination of everything director Edgar Wright and company would subsequently produce, and yet may never quite top.
For those many of us who are already familiar with how sharply funny Simon Pegg and his frequent compadre Nick Frost can be, it is Jessica Stevenson (who now uses her married name, Hynes) who might be the real revelation to Americans here. In the UK she's quite well known as a comic performer on stage and in TV (and has been a collaborator with Pegg for some time), but it's a delight to see her here at her likable best, a semi-spastic but earnest wonder, the perfect foil for Pegg's manchildish character. The show centers around Pegg's Tim and Stevenson's Daisy, two strangers who meet when apartment hunting and decide to make a go of searching for a flat together. They discover it's easier to find a place they love if they pretend to be a married couple. And if that sounds like the set-up to a terrible American sitcom, it very well might, but in Spaced it is the perfect set up for Wright, Pegg and Stevenson's loopy humor and (cornucopia) of loopy characterizations -- which generously lends itself all the way down to a rich supporting cast.
Those players include the inimitable Julia Deakin, a tight-lipped, chain-smoking landlady and mother of a troubled teenage daughter (whom we never see in full); Mark Heap's Brian, a moody painter; Katy Carmichael's Twist, Daisy's fashion-conscious, blunt-mouthed friend; and, oh yes, Aida the Dog doing fine work as Colin the Dog, who joins the cast mid-way through the first series.
As in their films, there are the expected numerous pop culture references but also an impressive number of ingenious sight gags, filmmaking tricks (zooms and sweeps), flashbacks, cutaways, tangential but inspired bits (as in the gleeful moment in the clubbing episode in which their ecstasy-ed-out friend Tyres(!) finds a rhythm in a ringing phone and from his POV it turns into a deranged musical number in his head). All the first season episodes are standouts but I am particularly fond of several: "Beginnings," where it all, yes, begins; "Art," a delirious episode that lampoons pretentious performance art and features a bit of foreshadowing for Shaun of the Dead; and the sweet natured final episode of the first series which even offers a touching finale (which at the time the creators thought might be it). And the episode in which Daisy first acquires the dog also features a memorable paintball battle.
While Season One is arguably (if minutely) superior to Two, the latter has its share of wondrous moments. The second picks up some months later (and aired some two years after the first series), and finds Daisy having returned from a spiritually enlightening trip abroad. The first two episodes contain very arguably the finest Anti-George Lucas/Phantom Menace running jokes ever, including a moment in the comic book store in which Tim works that is almost indescribably funny. The second series also has a few more (but still very few) bits that don't quite work and doesn't quite sustain the level of energy as the first, but these are quite honestly small nitpicks. It remains inspired. Oh, and comic book geeks in particular will enjoy many of the comic-al in-jokes.
You have to keep pretty sharp to catch some of the other references that come fast and furious: a Matrix subplot is too obvious but if you have any A-Team memories you haven't yet repressed they may come gurgling back here, not to mention The Sixth Sense, Close Encounters, Evil Dead, a very subtle Pulp Fiction nod, and, in Season One, what will likely always remain my favorite Scooby Doo joke of all time. (And without spoiling it, I'll just add, look out for the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-inspired subplot in Season Two.)
But those references only work because they fit in with the plotting, and Spaced is much more than just pastiches and references -- it has a heart and soul, too. If you didn't root for the characters as much -- or, frankly, as I certainly did, identify with them so heartily -- it wouldn't have sustained itself so well. Instead, the show leaves you wishing they'd done a third series. But they were right to leave before jumping the shark.
The new DVD set offers plenty of extra goodies, including a very fulfilling behind the scenes documentary that also offers up the gift of some choice early television appearances by Pegg and Stevenson. Then there are ample commentary tracks on each of the series discs, with the Spaced team, which were done previously for the British DVD release; and then, in commentary overkill, there are brand new, extra commentary tracks with that same trio along with special guests: filmmaker and pop culture connoisseur Kevin Smith, screenwriter/blogger Diablo Cody, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (natch), and stand-up comedy genius Patton Oswalt who loves to, in his words, "nerd out" and does so expertly (when he's not lusting after Julia Stevenson); the guests all try to direct the conversation but they go off on various tangents, sometimes amusing, sometimes not all that interesting, but each commentary is good for both some laughs and fun anecdotes, worth at least listening to in bits and pieces (if you're in a hurry, Oswalt's and QT's tracks are the best). The bonus disc also includes a charming recent onstage Q&A with the cast/creators, although watching the thing in one sitting is probably best left for die-hards. Of which I am now one.
Posted by cphillips at July 22, 2008 11:02 AM