“I can’t even remember what I was going to say, fuck it, two tequila slammers please”
“YES!” – Tim and Daisy, “Gone”
Often, when I see a movie or television show that really resonates with me I develop a fleeting obsession with it. I’ll get really involved with the creators’ biographies, delve deep into story arcs and character motivations, eat up auxiliary titles, read wiki pages, consider buying artwork and just generally act like a totally obnoxious geek. It happened with anime when I was in high school, it happened with Friday Night Lights last year, right now it’s the hydra-headed Scott Pilgrim game/comic/movie/song--four versions that are all equally great for different reasons. Usually these obsessions die down to a kind of passive simmer and are eventually carted off to the pop culture storage unit in my mind that I suspect is starting to look like Donald Duck’s disheveled mess of a psyche in Donald in MathMagic Land.
When glancing through the movies and television shows that I watch most often, I noticed a thread that runs through many of them: most of the titles involve shiftless, 20-something losers. Not really of the embittered Gen-X slacker variety like in, say, Reality Bites or Kicking and Screaming, but a more modern variety, like the sad-sack main characters in Adventureland or Freaks and Geeks (a show about proto sad-sack 20-somethings). If a movie or show has anything to do with a bunch of underemployed people living together and talking about Star Wars or video games all day, it’s safe to say that I will be there with a bib on waiting to eat up all of that pensive existential angst with a gigantic fucking spoon.
So, understanding that, it really shouldn’t be surprising that I could watch Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright’s English-20-something-losers-live-together-in-an-apartment-building sitcom Spaced pretty much on loop for the rest of my life--or at least until I get tired of it. Whichever comes first.
The show follows Tim and Daisy (Pegg and Hynes), two budding creative types (Tim, a comic book artist, Daisy, a magazine journalist) who have spent the bulk of their early adulthood wasting away in poisonous relationships and go-nowhere jobs. When their respective relationships both end suddenly and they’re left functionally homeless, the two adopt a phony relationship with one-another in order to qualify for a couples-only flat in gloomy North London.
It’s an unspectacular sitcom set-up that twists its way out of mediocrity by folding in a unique blend of junk-culture ephemera and zany magical realism. Tim is a character who’s taken in so much geek culture that he regularly tries to live out his fantasies through childlike games—like when a game of paintball devolves into the kind of slow motion splatter and tearful lamentations one would usually find in a bloated Oliver Stone movie.
Daisy acts similarly. Fancying herself a well-travelled intellectual, she tries to hide her tendency to be a bit of a bumbling dope and does things like make a special chicken stew with oregano she claims to have purchased from an ancient herb merchant while abroad, when really she bought it from a Middle Eastern guy down the street. While not as explicitly fantastic as Edgar Wright’s latest film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where the main character’s cultural obsessions bleed into his everyday perception, Spaced still deals heavily in the personal fantasies that make our dull, unrewarding lives tolerable.
The season two episode “Gone” hinges on these fleeting flights of fancy. Early in the episode Tim and his best friend Mike (Nick Frost) explain to their slightly cracked artist neighbor Brian (Mark Heap in a role originally envisioned for Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh) that all men share a certain unspoken bond with each other. To illustrate their point, Tim and Mike break into faux-slow motion finger gun battle, complete with misfired pistols, tossed grenades and throwing knives to the head. Brian, unwittingly, jumps right in. Taken on its own, the scene is undoubtedly fun, but it’s not until later when Wright takes this joke and pushes it into something brilliant.
After spending a night of drinking and drugging in Camden, Tim and Daisy find themselves cornered by a group of rapacious teenagers. Under the threat of very real violence, Tim and Daisy share a glance and draw their finger-guns. Without pause, the teens strike their best Matrix poses and draw their own imaginary weapons. Mowing each other down in a volley of pretend bullets, the boys fall to the ground, clutching at their non-existent wounds and using their hands to illustrate the blood pumping from their necks. When the action stops, Tim and Daisy simply get up and run home safe and sound.
The reason Tim and Daisy’s escape via elaborate fantasy resonates so well is the same reason why things like flash mobs or Glee are so popular today: it’s an un-cynical celebration of our culture-wide obsession with stupid shit. Everyone has had enough Jerry Bruckheimer movies crammed into their eyes to know what goes into a slow-motion gun-fight, and deep down it’s something we all want to take part in, pretty much at all times. Try pulling a slow motion finger-pistol on someone, and I guarantee they’ll play along 90% of the time.
Unlike a lot of comedies that sprang up over the last decade like The Office, Peep Show, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, Spaced doesn’t rely on cynical sneering or painfully awkward moments. It embraces the junk culture most of us go to by default: horror movies, popcorn flicks and video games. If anything, the one thing that Spaced does mock is serious art, an institution it rips on regularly. Take, for example, Vulva, Brian’s ridiculous former performance art partner and “non-gender-specific-ex-chaste-heterosexual-lover.” Boasting a high falsetto and green face-paint, Vuvla’s cartoonish bafoonery in the name of art makes Tim taking a bunch of speed and then playing Resident Evil 2 all night look downright intellectual in comparison.
This conflict between highfalutin art and simple-minded pop culture comes up again in “Gone.” When Daisy and Tim argue over how to spend their evening, Daisy pushes for a hip night out involving gay bars, a play with a swear word in the title and discussing the meaning of life over elaborate xylophone music. Disgusted, Tim counters with his idea of smoking a blunt and then drinking until they puke, pass out, or both. They decide over a coin toss, and it’s immediately clear as to whose idea wins:
For as often as Spaced pokes fun at the preposterous extremes that art can sometimes take people, the show never discounts serious artistic creativity. Had it continued past the second season, it seems a given that Tim and Daisy would both make it in their respective creative fields. But it’s the junk culture that triumphs in “Gone.” It helps bring Brian out of his shell, entices Daisy away from her night of dull pontificating, and saves her and Tim from a bunch of thugs in a darkened alley. It’s telling that the episode ends with Daisy accidentally spiking her beloved chicken stew with a bag of pot. At this stage in their lives, it’s the dumb stuff that makes these characters happy, and as Daisy, Tim and company stare bleary-eyed at the television at some ungodly hour in the morning, the group seems perfectly content in their stupor.