In 10 Words or Less
What creativity can do for the common sitcom
Loves: Shaun of the Dead, one-camera sitcoms
Likes: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Britcoms
Dislikes: The short runs of British series
Hates: That we probably won't get any more episodes
It used to be that when I watched British TV imports I was as depressed as I was entertained, because I realized we weren't getting anything quite as good on the airwaves over here in the colonies. Today, with our networks regularly cranking out solid series like "Lost," "30 Rock," and "My Name is Earl," these impressive UK shows are a supplement to the TV I'm enjoying, rather than an antidote.
That doesn't make it any easier to know that the Brits have been enjoying "Spaced" for years, while we've been swallowing down re-runs of "According to Jim." In fact, the films that were born of the late '90s collaborations between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, only served to further remind me that outside of imports (and a few barely-announced airings on Bravo,) I was missing out on something great. Until now.
The story of Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Stevenson (now Hynes)) is a simple one and a rather standard sitcom plot. These two underemployed twentysomethings meet in their respective single misery, and find an outstanding rental property that's limited to professional couples only. Recognizing the opportunity, the new "couple" convince the apartment's owner Marsha (Julia Deakin) to let them live there. Thankfully, unlike the similarly-plotted "Three's Company," that aspect is limited mainly to the show's set-up and the ocassional run-in with Marsha that threatens to reveal their secret.
The majority of the show is focused on the duo's day-to-day existence, uneventful and otherwise, as they live their pop-culture-obsessed existences. Speaking like more current Quentin Tarantino characters, their language is steeped in Star Wars and zombie films and other cult/fringe media, and they think in the language of movies and television. Thus, there's a huge number of references to geek culture, which, in the hands of a creative director like Wright, results in a show that moves in and out of reality at a rapid, yet smooth clip. At one point you have the guys playing video games, the next moment, it's a frame-by-frame homage to Pulp Fiction or an awesome send-up of The Sixth Sense. To anyone with a love of comic books, movies or TV, it's like hanging out with your friends.
This being a British series, two seasons of the show only adds up to 14 episodes, so they have to move fast to create the characters, including Daisy's ditzy pal Twist (Katy Carmichael), Tim's lifelong friend Mike (Shaun's Nick Frost) and fellow renter Brian (Mark Heap), and tell the stories they wanted to tell. Those tales see the group looking for a good time and a good buzz, trying to pay the bills and a few more out-there ideas, including a finger-gun alleyway shoot-out, entering a robot battle competition or getting into a paintball battle with a guy who stole Tim's ex-girlfriend. The first season is a bit more down to earth than the second run, where there's more of a sense of "effort" to the characters' lifes, as they are more proactive, rather than reacting to their world.
The thing about the series that makes it so truly unique, besides the fact that the leads are also the writers, making for a "singular" vision, is, despite the fantasy visuals and occasionally bizarre plots, it is utterly realistic. From the depiction of drugs, which are taken recreationally, without moralizing; to the wardrobe, featuring clothes that are worn multiple times during the series (which is so unusually rare outside of cartoons); to the relationships, which are hardly healthy, yet work for the characters. It's easy to believe that these people exist and that their lives don't pause when the cameras stop rolling. Wrap them in a world of sci-fi and fantasy, and they become the customers at your local comic shop or the people you chat with online.
So when you have Daisy, who is honestly your average girl-next-door in terms of looks, and Tim, who's also an everyman, it's very easy to believe they can co-exist in a non-sexual way, yet there's a subcurrent of attraction. We aren't talking about two beautiful people who shouldn't be able to keep their hands off of each other, pretending they can't stand each other. These two are friends first, and anything else, perhaps later. That, plus the bro-mance between Tim and softhearted Mike, gives a somewhat cynical show about a pair of slackers (though, refreshingly, it's the guy who's more motivated this time) a sense of sweetness that makes it whole and entirely entertaining, as it comes to an ending that's satisfying yet frustrating, because it makes great sense, but you don't want it to stop.
Hey, Isn't That...
The world of "Spaced" is populated by an impressive collection of talent that will be recognizable to any fan of British pop culture, including comics Bill Bailey and Michael Smiley (playing the amazing E-head Tyres), voice of Darth Maul Peter Serafinowicz, "Little Britain" star David Walliams (as the indescribable performance artist Vulva), Paul Kaye and a certain paper company branch manager.
Can't say anything about the packaging, as we received check discs, but the 14 episodes are split evenly between two DVD, one season per disc, with a third DVD with extras. The DVDs feature sweet animated anamorphic widescreen menus with nice comic art of the characters, and options to watch all the episodes, select individual shows and chapters, adjust subtitles and check out the special features. The menus could be a bit better laid out, as not having a resume button on the subtitle and commentary screens can lead to frustration and lots of remote clicking on some machines. There are no audio options, while subtitles are provided in English. There is no closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfers on these episodes are rather solid, though they have that soft, almost dreamy quality that is so prevalent in British television (which improves a good deal in Season Two.) Other than that, the video quality is pretty good, with nice, appropriate color and a good level of detail, while there's no noticeable dirt, damage or digital artifacts. Check out the rave in Season One's "Epiphanies" to see the disc stand up to a real presentation challenge. It's not going to stand up to the usual crisp video you get on most discs these days, but it's good nonetheless.
The sound is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, which do a fine job with the dialogue and frequent use of music. There's nothing dynamic about the mix, which comes straight down the middle, though the sound effects and songs have a nice weight to them, giving them the power they need to have a proper effect. I'm not an expert on the soundtrack of the show, but it's believed that most every important cue is still in place, including the Star Wars themes and the Propellerheads' "Matrix" song. Replacing these songs simply was not an option, so it's good to hear them in place.
"Spaced" was released in two season sets in Britain, and fortunately, it seems that the majority of the bonus content has made it's way across the pond to this mega-set. The biggest and most anticipated extra is the set of 28 episode-length audio commentaries, two per episode. Brought back from the first DVDs are the original commentaries, featuring Pegg, Wright, Stevenson and guests including Deakin (Ep. 1.2 & 2.2), Heap (Eps. 1.3, 1.5, 1.6, 2.4, 2.6 & 2.7), Frost (Eps. 1.4, 1.6, 2.3 & 2.5) and producer Nira Park (Ep. 1.7). The feel of these commentaries is very loose and friendly, but they do a good job of being somewhat screen-specific, with plenty of info about how the episodes were made, as they point out settings and share stories from the set. It's funny to hear as they reach the end of each set of tracks, how their approach becomes sillier, and they begin to introduce themselves as different people, yet still have plenty to say about the show.
The second set of commentaries are new, retrospective tracks, featuring Wright or Wright and Pegg or Wright, Pegg and Stevenson, with celebrities who are fans of the show, and whom the "Spaced" crew are fans of. This includes Kevin Smith (Eps. 1.1-1.3), screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) (Eps. 1.4 & 1.5), "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone (Eps. 1.6 & 2.5), comic Patton Oswalt (Eps. 1.7, 2.2 and 2.4), director Quentin Tarantino (Eps. 2.1 & 2.3) and "SNL" star Bill Hader (Eps. 2.6 & 2.7). These tracks are less screen-specific than the original tracks, and tend to focus more on explaining British references to American audiences and themes in the show. The theme discussions make sense, as Smith focuses on their shared interest in comics and films, Tarantino talks about the use of pop-culture references and Stone discusses drugs and censorship. The loosest tracks are oddly the least attended, as Wright shares mic with Oswalt and Hader by himself, and they just basically chat as the show rolls on. Oswalt and Cody serve as the best guests for commentary purposes, as they ask a great deal of questions, though Cody clams up part way through her tracks, leaving the discussion to Wright, Pegg and Stevenson.
The next biggest extra is on Disc Three, and that's Skip to the End, a feature-length documentary on the series. At a hair over 80 minutes, it covers everything you'd like to know about the series, though there is a good deal of repetition from the commentaries (there's only so much you can say about 14 half-hour episodes of television.) Participation by the cast and crew, as well as guests like Walliams and Bailey, and fans including director Eli Roth and Internet figure Harry Knowles, make for an interesting and entertaining watch, which is built around a tour of the filming locations by Pegg, Stevenson and Wright. The whole thing culminates in a pretty funny moment that is almost too incredible to be coincidental, and is followed by a short "Spaced" sequel of sorts, for the hardcore fans of the series. All in all, an excellent bit of fan service.
A bit shorter, but just as good is the "NFT Q&A" which was filmed during a 2007 "Spaced" marathon held at the National Film Theater in London. First up is a chat with Wright and Pegg, hosted by DJ/writer Andrew Collins, before they are joined by the rest of the cast, sans Stevenson, who couldn't make it, and provides a message by video. Again, if you take in all the bonus material, you'll hear some info multiple times, but it's a bit less formal and slightly more personal to the participants this time. The sound could have been better, as it can be hard to hear the questions and responses at times, but the featurette is at least subtitled.
The other extensive extra comes in the form of a subtitle track called the "Homage-O-Meter," carried over from the original DVDs, which points out all the various references throughout the 14 episodes. This is no simple bit of fluff either, as you get some jokes included, plus future references, where the bit was referenced elsewhere. Apparently this was curated by Wright, which makes it a pretty official run-down of all the various homages in the show. It certainly helps when the reference is British, as I had no idea what "Brian Can't" was supposed to mean.
The rest of the extras are season specific, and are spread throughout the three discs. There are two sets of raw footage, adding up to almost 14 minutes of on-the-set experience. It's not outtakes, but more like behind-the-scenes footage, and is actually pretty interesting to watch, like the supposed fight between Marsha and her daughter, who is actually played by Stevenson off-screen. If you want outtakes though (and who doesn't?) there are three groups of those, for a total of over 26 minutes of screw-ups, which are expectedly hilarious, especially anything with Walliams as Vulva. You've also got a host of deleted scenes, 31 is all, for a total of 32 minutes of excised material. The one most will want to check out is a scene involving a Gillian Anderson look-alike who acts as Tim's muse. All the deleted scenes feature audio commentary from Wright and Pegg, who do a good job explaining why the segments were removed, which should be a must for such DVD content.
For the first time in a long time, there are text screens I actually wanted to read, with cast, crew and character bios on Season One, Two and the bonus third disc (though there are no character bios on the third disc.) Humorously written and filled with tidbits like top five lists from the characters, they changed my view of what text extras can be. You also get to see the trailers run for the show on British TV, with 14 clips (three teasers from each season, and eight episode-specific previews), as well as Daisy performing "Teddy Bear" as Elvis, a manual photo gallery with great pictures from the set and the commentary sessions, and a three-minute music video called "Spaced Jam," a jazzy bit of electronica-influenced music with lines and clips from the show. And that's about it.
On the Hunt
Brought over from the second season DVD, there's a video clip hidden here that's worth a look. It's not very hidden, but it's not right up front either.
The Bottom Line
In the span of just 14 episodes, Pegg, Stevenson and company managed to create a cast of characters and a world that are better developed than those that populate the vast majority of the sitcom landscape, while Wright raised the bar for half-hour artistry. Add in the fact that it's genuinely funny and laser-focused on the lives of the geek population, and you end up with an utterly brilliant show. This set, which delivers the show in solid quality and packed with a ton of deep, informative and entertaining bonus features, is everything "Spaced" you need (for now) and is a perfect little package for fans of quirky, creative sitcoms, the fanboy lifestyle or especially Shaun of the Dead fans.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.