I have not spent the last three days writing a column about the British sitcom Spaced. Nor have I researched its ties to the new film Shaun of the Dead or compared the two for readers’ edification and amusement. Instead, I’ve stared comalike at my computer screen, assembled playlists in iTunes and reacquainted myself with Grant Morrison’s brilliant Doom Patrol comics. I’ve also had, on average, one pot of coffee per day and finished reading the entire Internet.
My procrastination, however, has been appropriate—only now do I feel fully qualified to tell you about Spaced. It is a show written by Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg, it’s set in London and it focuses on the romantic tension between two of the most oblivious characters on television. Tim (Pegg), a youngish man in his twenties with peroxide-blond hair and a messy goatee, is an aspiring graphic artist who works at a comic shop called Fantasy Bazaar; Daisy (Stevenson) is a writer-journalist who sporadically places articles in women’s magazines. They meet at a café while pouring over apartment listings. Tim’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend, and Daisy is carrying on a long-distance relationship that will soon fall apart. After seeing each other at the café regularly and realizing that they are both in a similar housing predicament, Tim and Daisy take a flat that’s advertised as perfect for a professional couple. The two soon settle into the new place under the watchful eye of their landlord, Marsha, who is never seen without a cigarette dangling from her lips and is capable of consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Brian, a painter, lives below them, and they become grudgingly good friends in spite of Brian’s awkwardness (which is in fact intense shyness in disguise, of course). The show ran on the UK’s Channel 4 for two seasons (1999 and 2001) and has appeared only periodically on Canadian and American programming schedules—most recently in the 10 PM and 10:30 PM time slots on the cable channel Trio. This is where I first encountered Spaced.
I have a very short attention span for most television shows. I will decry a program as shit within the first five seconds and then skim around the dial, settling on something only until the next commercial break, and then I’m off like a prom dress. But Spaced is different. At first, what kept me watching was Tim’s relationship with his best friend, Mike (played by Nick Frost, who is Pegg’s best friend in real life). Mike is a portly man with a handlebar moustache and yellow-tinted sunglasses who was kicked out of the army for stealing a tank and trying to invade Paris. Mike and Tim are the kind of close friends that one instantly trusts. They stand up for each other and push one another to do better in life. Whenever their bond is mentioned, they look toward the sky while they have a flashback to their youth—sitting in a tree waiting for some cataclysmic childhood event to happen. It’s dizzyingly good stuff.
Most of the Spaced cast appears in the new feature film Shaun of the Dead. It’s a self-described “zom rom com,” or zombie romantic comedy, which Pegg co-wrote with Edgar Wright, the director of Spaced. The film and the TV show share many of the same concepts: Shaun of the Dead begins with a failed relationship, all the main players are twentysomethings wandering through life, and Shaun (played by Pegg) has an indelible bond with his best friend, Ed (played by Frost). What Shaun of the Dead lacks, though, is the batty Jessica Stevenson, despite a welcome cameo. It was her portrayal of Daisy that gives Spaced its real heart. The combination of Pegg and Stevenson created a dynamic, creative and emotional tension. While Tim is a great character full of immense geekery—in the second season, Tim is fired from his job at the comic shop for refusing to let go of his hatred for Star Wars: Episode I—it’s Daisy’s lackadaisical attempts at a writing career that speak directly to anyone in his or her twenties who has the drive to do something, but has no idea what.
The slacker lifestyle is fairly appealing to us twentysomethings, particularly in our dramas (and you have to realize how rarely a sitcom can also be classified as a drama). This is largely because, if a drama works correctly, we’re guaranteed two things: absurd comedy balanced with the foibles of everyday existence and a mirror of our own lives. It should be noted that, as I type this, I feel like one of those twats who’s always labelling things as Gen X, but “slacker” is a term we’re all familiar with, and while both faulty and insulting, it does put us on the same page. Derision toward slackerdom has always overlooked the possibility that some young people are just working on things that require a bit more introspection and time. Of course, there are those who just like to get high and play video games in their parents’ basements.
It’s reductive to label anyone a slacker. And the term is a bit dated, isn’t it? Yesterday’s slackers are today’s hipsters. There’s a lot of hatred toward these creatures. Beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers and hipsters tend to be disliked not only by their peers, but by everyone else as well. This is why I find it tricky to throw around terms like Generation X or Y—they are too broad and imply too much. As I see it, these terms no longer function as the definition of an entire generation, but rather of a select group inside the generation. Not everyone born in the sixties and seventies was clothed in flannel, had numerous body piercings, did poorly in school because, like, whatever, man, I mean, never mind and shit. Some people did and some people didn’t. Why lump everyone together? As it says on Wikipedia, “The term Generation X is a cultural idea, rather than a demographic term, and as such describes a cultural period, or a select group of people, rather than a generation of people, spanning all classes, races, or nations, born in a certain period of time.”
The point is, these terms represent an overarching perception of oneself and of the world. A slacker is a fairly relative concept, and had Spaced been based solely around the adventures of Tim, it would have eventually begun to feel stilted and weird. His character is a type we’re familiar with. That isn’t to say that Simon Pegg’s portrayal of Tim is flawed. Far from it. His perspective on that type is valuable and uncompromising, but bouncing Tim off of Daisy is what gave the show its heart. Both of the characters are trying to break into their field, but where Tim can fuck around at a comic shop and then go home and draw, Daisy has cleared her schedule such that she has to write or do nothing at all. They might appear to be slackers on the surface, with their casual drug use, love of video games and pop-culture ramblings, but these are merely things we’re all familiar with and can relate to. Spaced understood that; it didn’t need the terms.
In one episode, Daisy has the flat to herself and has decided that she should spend the time writing. So she puts on her horn-rimmed glasses, gets out her clunky typewriter and begins plucking away at it while sitting on her bed. Once the inspiration hits her, the theme song to Murder, She Wrote begins to play, setting the tone perfectly. Later, Daisy goes to rub her eyes and sticks her fingers through the frames to do so—this whole time there’ve been no lenses in there! It’s a brief detail that isn’t played up for anything, it just is, but it made me laugh out loud at the pretense one has to create in order to sit down at the goddamn typewriter (or computer: see above) and get work done.
In Shaun of the Dead, the main joke is how the main characters are so self-involved and hungover that they hardly notice that London is overrun with zombies. And what’s the real difference between some lazy sod playing video games all day and a zombie anyway? Not much. But the metaphor needs to end there. In real life, there are infinite consequences to being a slacker, whereas a zombie film can only end in one of two ways: The characters get eaten or they succeed in escaping to freedom—or, in the case of Shaun of the Dead, resolving the romantic muddle that was set up in the first act.
The romantic muddle in Spaced is more difficult to resolve, which makes it closer to what I consider reality. Part of the enjoyment in watching Tim and Daisy’s interactions is knowing that it doesn’t really matter if they get together in the end. When they first move into the professional-couple apartment, the tension between them arises from their general dislike of one another and their reluctance to get back into a relationship so soon after having been dumped. In the second season, Daisy returns to the flat after having spent the summer touring through Asia. The romantic tension between her and Tim has all but evaporated. As the season progresses, Daisy starts falling for him again, but by then it’s too late. He’s come to see her as his best friend and perhaps his first true adult friend, unlike Mike, whom Tim can count on to help him shoot rivals with paintballs. As in our lives, timing is everything, and just because two people are meant to be together doesn’t mean they will be. Then again, that’s up to them to figure out.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.