One night, Tim (Simon Pegg), Daisy (Jessica Stevenson) and Brian (Mark Heap) spend the evening watching the Star Wars Trilogy. As the credits roll on Return of the Jedi (1983), Tim, moved to tears by the films, explains to Brian that the events of the entire trilogy can be attributed to the actions of one minor character: the gunner on the Star Destroyer in the first film. Inspired by this new information, Brian then expounds on Chaos Theory, “the notion that reality as we know it—past, present, future—is in fact a mathematically predictable preordained system,” connecting it to the idea of fate in the Star Wars films. Tim, Daisy, and Brian pause to reflect on the heady concept before Tim, wide-eyed and excited, realizes that he has some “fuckin Jaffa Cakes1 in [his] coat pocket!” They exclaim in joy and then debate who has to get up from the couch to go retrieve them.
It’s a scene that feels so eerily familiar to my life even though it’s from the late-90s UK show Spaced, created by Pegg and Stevenson and directed by Edgar Wright. Spaced features wannabe comic book artist Tim Beasley and wannabe writer Daisy Steiner, two London twentysomethings who pose as a professional couple to meet the requirements to rent a cheap apartment in Tufnell Park. In the building lives their alcoholic landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin) and Brian, the quirky conceptual artist who lives on the floor below Tim and Daisy. Tim and Daisy’s best friends, Mike (Nick Frost), a self-described weapons/Army expert, and Twist, a ditsy fashionista, are frequent visitors as well.
Spaced is concerned with many things—arrested adolescence, living a creative life, freeing yourself from a seemingly idyllic past in favor of an uncertain future, and forming a makeshift family—but the common thread that runs through the entire series and connects all the characters together is pop culture—not just as a centerpiece, but as a lens to understand the world. Tim and Daisy see their lives as a confluence of film imagery, video game conventions, and televisual archetypes: both as an escape from daily drudgery and as a perpetual coping mechanism. Spaced was uniquely adept at using pop culture as a visual and referential language to quickly explain characters, environment, and emotional situations. In the series’ first episode, Tim and Daisy claim that when they played Scooby-Doo as children, they were Freddy and Daphne respectively, only for the camera to pull back to reveal that Tim is dressed like Shaggy and Daisy is dressed like Velma. It’s a simple way of expressing that both Tim and Daisy are two geeky characters that believe they’re much cooler and more heroic than in reality, and that Spaced will primarily shine a spotlight on normal-looking “sidekick” types instead of their glitzy, charismatic counterparts.
Pegg, Stevenson, and Wright were of a generation raised on the glut of film and television that came from the advent of home video and cable, which directly affected the tone and look of Spaced. Wright uses the camera as another character in the show, packing it full of allusions and homages to sci-fi and horror iconography. When Daisy gets paranoid after smoking pot before her job interview, the camera aggressively zooms back and forth on a picture of a bird from her perspective just like in Psycho (1960). Multiple camera shots are recreated from Evil Dead (1981) when Tim hallucinates a zombie attack after staying up all night playing Resident Evil 2 on speed. After Daisy expresses caution about who’s listening to their conversations, Tim snidely tells her, “Nobody’s listening,” just before the camera pans across to a close-up of a Gene Hackman look-a-like listening to their conversation from behind the wall a la The Conversation (1974). And those are just examples I can remember from the series’ third episode. In fact, on the American DVD release of the series, Wright included an “Homage-O-Meter” that runs alongside all the episodes which displays all of the nods he made to previous works.
In case I’m making Spaced sound like a bunch of cardboard cutouts throwing out references as a means to an end, there’s a reason they almost exclusively used American films as a source of pop culture. While Spaced episodes do have plots—Tim and Daisy host a terrible housewarming party, Tim and Daisy apply for unemployment benefits, Tim and Daisy go out for drinks to avoid their emotional problems—episodes largely consist of the gang wasting time drinking, smoking pot, playing video games, and trying to live out their various fantasies. As a result, Tim and Daisy often imagine their aimless days as larger-than-life through the lens of Hollywood: an episode where Daisy works a crappy job in a kitchen becomes an extended One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975) parody; when Tim and Mike go paintballing and meet Tim’s nemesis, Duane Benzy, it becomes a mash-up of action and war films, such as First Blood (1982), Platoon (1986), and Hard Boiled (1992); and when Wright needed to employ some necessary exposition at the beginning of the second season, he parodies the intros to Manhattan (1979) and Goodfellas (1990). The characters in Spaced never take the glamour of Hollywood for granted and view Hollywood films as a spectacle unto themselves, while British film and television, which are also referenced in the show albeit less frequently, as commonplace. Wright himself claimed that, besides the frequent casual drug use and Mike’s obsession with guns, this is the main reason why an American remake of Spaced would never make sense: the series was as much about American pop culture from a foreigner’s perspective as it was about the characters.2
But it’s clear that the ambition of Spaced was more suitable on a larger scale. The series paved the way for Pegg and Wright to collaborate on multiple films, many of which have become popular in both England and the United States. The duo’s famed Cornetto Trilogy—Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and most recently The World’s End (2013)—are a series of long-form homages to American genre films, almost like big-budget versions of the show they cut their teeth on. Their films are all tales of maturation and delayed adulthood, but they also utilized a crucial lesson that what Spaced took to heart: a comedically-heightened environment and epic-level stakes work only if the characters and their conflicts are kept strictly grounded in reality. Amidst the genre parodies in Spaced were two characters bound by circumstance desperately holding onto their adolescence to avoid confronting the present. Pegg, Stevenson, and Wright never let their homages serve their own ends, they’re used to augment or underscore mostly mundane situations. They look up to their source material and subsequently use it to provide dignity to characters that pop culture normally disdains. It’s the reason why the true victories in the series are small and usually just out of reach, like Daisy finally sitting down to write an article on winter skin care and Tim moving on from his ex-girlfriend.
Despite avid praise from such figures as Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow, Spaced has remained mostly a cult series because of its lo-fi sensibility. It was shot on a very small budget and part of the fun of watching the series is seeing Pegg, Stevenson, and Wright wring so much out of so little. Its charms stem from the series’ unique tone, which comfortably shifts from fast-paced and frenetic to hazy and ambling.3 But I’d also count Spaced as one of the few series of the last couple decades to accurately reflect certain people’s relationship with pop culture, i.e., how it can be both a blessing and a curse. Spaced understood that media obsession is as much a Rosetta Stone as it is an escape pod, allowing you to stand tall as well as to run away, and how that tension can often result in bitterness. The scene that epitomizes this is when Daisy meets Tim for a drink after he finally called it quits with his ex, and, in his most dispirited moment, gives the closest thing to Spaced’s thesis:
“Life just isn’t like the movies, is it? We’re constantly led to believe in resolution, in the re-establishment of the ideal status quo, and it’s just not true. Happy endings are a myth designed to make us feel better about the fact that life is a thankless struggle.”
It’s a familiar notion that people who’ve spent their entire lives watching movies eventually come to internalize, but instead of wallowing in its self-pity, Spaced does something so special and inspired: it gives itself a happy ending. After Tim’s resentful monologue, a blues musician starts playing at the pub and Tim asks Daisy to dance on the empty dance floor. It’s not resolution, it’s not a “re-establishment of the ideal status quo,” and it’s not the Happy Ending that films have tried to posit as real, but it’s the closest thing that Tim and Daisy will get. Spaced preaches that sharing in the company of kind friends is the only real happy ending most people get, a lesson that pop culture doesn’t preach enough, especially to those whose expectations are skewed by it.
1 Packaged sponge cake is the American equivalent.
2 For what it’s worth, Community might as well be the American Spaced because they share much of the same heart, brain, and perspective.
3 The episode “Gone” begins with Tim and Daisy in a tense, tightly-shot showdown with a group of teenagers on a dark London street and ends with Tim, Daisy, Mike, and Brian blissfully stoned in front of the television.
Vikram Murthi is a junior at Swarthmore College where he studies English Literature and Film Studies because he goes to bed at night dreaming of unemployment. Vikram is an aspiring writer, but is using his skills of self-deprecation as a fallback. In the meantime, he spends most of his days on Twitter, watching films and television, or arguing with his friends about who will disappoint their parents more.