FEY APPEAL Pegg’s may be the famous name, but the real discovery here is Jessica Hynes.
Simon Pegg is funny. Anyone who’s seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz knows that. So why has it taken us so long to find out about Jessica Hynes? Known by her maiden name, Stevenson, back when she created the BBC series Spaced with Pegg and director Edgar Wright in 1999, Hynes is a comedy dynamo: pratfalling, deadpanning, and decked out in thrift-store chic, she’s a little like a North London Tina Fey.
It’s a mystery why Spaced: The Complete Series (BBC) has taken this long to be released stateside on DVD. As Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader says, in an effusive packet of press blurbage from high-profile fans (Patton Oswalt, Diablo Cody, Eddie Izzard, Judd Apatow), Spaced is “the show we American comedians watch and say, ‘How the hell did they get away with this?!’ ”
For Spaced novices: Pegg plays Tim Bisley, a comic-book artist who works in a comic-book shop (with a boss whose name is Bilbo Bagshot). Hynes is Daisy Steiner, a writer who doesn’t do a whole lot of writing — she’s far too busy being bubbly and babbling, doting over her miniature schnauzer, Colin.
Tim and Daisy, platonic friends, decide to pose as a “professional couple” so they can apply for an exclusive apartment. Not that their landlady, Marsha (played to pickled perfection by Julia Deakin), who’s never without a bottle of wine in one hand and a lit fag in the other, is all that picky. They get the flat and soon find themselves neighbors with Brian Topp (Mark Heap), a conceptual artist who deals in “anger, pain, fear, and aggression.” (“Watercolours?” Daisy asks. No, he says. “It’s a bit more complex than that.”) Tim’s best mate, Mike Watt (Nick Frost), a militaristic geek with detached retinas, and Daisy’s fashionista friend Twist (“my parents were hippies”), played by Katy Carmichael, round out the cast.
Over Spaced’s two too-short seasons, we follow the quotidian existences of these six characters, who co-exist, as one promotional blurb puts it, “in a world perched precariously on the edge of normality.” But though these humdrum lives may lack a certain élan, they’re related to us with a cartoonish joie de vivre: flashbacks and flash-forwards, jump cuts, rapid-fire edits. Tim is a video-game addict and a movie geek, and the funniest thing about Spaced is how these banal lives — clumsy romantic entanglements, joblessness, procrastination — are presented using the language of silver-screen epics, sci-fi movies, and horror flicks.
Spaced is jam-packed with winking references to Hollywood blockbusters: Pulp Fiction, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and especially Star Wars. But they’re name-dropped with a decidedly dorky twist. Tim and Mike take part in an underground guild in which homemade robots do battle. (“The first rule of Robot Club is that you don’t talk about Robot Club.”) It’s the brokering of these hackneyed cinematic tropes — the kung-fu movies, the big-budget popcorn romances — that makes the show such a success.
In one fantasy sequence, writer’s-blocked Daisy imagines herself to be a jet-setting journo: she’s due in Fiji to interview the Fugees, then on to Maui for some face time with Bowie, thence to Málaga to talk to the Gallaghers. But in another episode (after she’s been detained by some shady government operatives thanks to an international mix-up), she’s a bit more realistic about her prospects. “Don’t even think of leaving the country,” she’s told. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t. I can’t afford it.”
Lucky for us, Spaced, at least, was finally able to make the transatlantic leap.