Director Edgar Wright, in the U.S. a few years ago to promote the British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, heard the same question everywhere he went: “Is Spaced ever going to come out on DVD here?”
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“I know of quite a few people who ruined their laptops from switching the region codes too many times, watching [the British DVD of] Spaced,” Wright says on the phone from England, of the series he helped to shape. “So it’s been a long time coming.”
The stateside wait for the cult Channel 4 series, which aired for two seasons, from 1999 to 2001, and stars co-creators Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson, as she was credited then) as young pop-culture obsessives, comes with some rewards — fans here will be getting the most comprehensive version of Spaced yet. (Which, let’s face it, feels good, considering it’s one of the rare Britcoms to actively embrace American entertainment in its cultural quotes.) What’s being released here next Tuesday is essentially the three-disc collectors’ edition available in the U.K. but with an extra, newly recorded set of commentaries, featuring Yank guest stars who are Spaced geeks themselves: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Diablo Cody, Patton Oswalt and Bill Hader. “In the case of Kevin and Quentin, both of them had an influence on the show,” Wright says, noting the strange circularity of artistic respect their participation brought. Tarantino’s commentary track is even for the episode that features the pastiche of Pulp Fiction, which nearly sent Hynes into a gushing tailspin.
“It was brilliant that he did it, and I didn’t fawn in an inappropriate way,” she says, admitting that, at one point, she vocalized how their faithful-but-silly re-creation of the tense Butch-shoots-Vincent buildup was missing a shot.
“He was, like, ‘No, that’s in another part.’ I was, like, ‘Of course, of course! Well ... you know, I mean.’ It was a total honor.”
The mutual-admiration-society nature of the commentaries — which for the most part are loopy off-topic conversations — is certainly appropriate for a show like Spaced. “One of the reasons it appeals so much to that particular strand of culture is because it’s made by fans for fans,” Pegg says. “When you feel you’re being spoken to personally, you get very attached. Spaced was just a very honest show.”
The series grew out of a realization from Hynes and Pegg — who had met as utility writer-performers bouncing around the British comedy scene in the mid-’90s — that the sitcom landscape wasn’t reflecting their 20-something sensibilities. “The equivalent show at the time was Coupling,” Pegg says, referring to the popular Friends knockoff. “It didn’t say anything to us about ourselves. I don’t get these good-looking people hanging out in a wine bar. I don’t speak like that. I don’t know anybody like that.”
From an initial treatment by Hynes, she and Pegg crafted Spaced into a tricky, dimension-altering combo of slacker verisimilitude — drab suburban digs, professional and romantic malaise, lots of sitting around watching TV — and flights of pop culture–influenced freneticism, which director Wright stamped with quick-draw cinematic flourishes. There was little money, but, everyone agrees, that didn’t make much difference.
“Simon and Jess wrote ambitious scripts, and I made them twice as ambitious,” says Wright, who had directed Pegg and Hynes before and was attached to Spaced early in its development. “The shows are quite pure in that way of nobody telling us not only what we couldn’t do, but what we could do.”
The charm of each episode is how platonic flatmates Tim (Pegg), a comic book artist, and aspiring writer Daisy (Hynes) find themselves at the nexus of storylines in which the day’s events might suddenly, surreally play out, like moments from their favorite TV shows and movies. A paintball excursion turns into a macho-heroic Vietnam tragedy. Daisy’s job in a restaurant kitchen is more than just restrictive and demeaning: It morphs into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (They even got the son of that film’s broom-pushing chief, Will Sampson, to play their version’s large Indian.) Says Pegg, “Spaced is almost like the visual representation of how they would tell the story of their lives.”
Packing the 14 episodes with pop-culture homages sparks a chicken-and-egg question though: Which came first, the story point or the reference?
“They were never in there for the sake of it,” says Pegg of their affectionately satirical nods, which can be distinct (love of Star Wars and distaste for the recent Lucas flicks is practically one of the series’ overriding alternate-universe themes), sly (a throwaway gag in which a surveillance expert in the walls looks like Gene Hackman in The Conversation) or willfully obscure (Tim joking that a crocodile ate Daisy’s kidnapped dog, a reference to an X Files episode in which Scully’s canine suffers that very fate). “All the references were intrinsic to the narrative. It was about people who had grown up on a diet of popular culture and now exude it in their daily lives,” Pegg notes. (For those worried that they won’t notice everything, the DVD’s Homage-o-meter feature will peg every allusion for you.)
For Hynes, there was a gender imperative: giving viewers a sitcom female lead equal in quirky independence to the man. “I get so sick of seeing the age-old dynamic of a central male character, and the female being the foil or his object of lust, or his sad friend, at best.” Which is why she fashioned Daisy after herself. “My intention was to just keep inventing and reinventing Daisy, and never have to justify her motives, and not have her [be] seen through the prism of the man’s imagination.”
Hynes jokes that nobody noticed this feminist mission of hers: “I think if I had told Simon, I never would have got away with it,” she says gleefully. But in the cultural-shout-out department, she couldn’t convince Pegg and Wright to include a Spaced-ification of a defining movie moment from her childhood: fat kid Chunk’s blubbery confessional under threat of his hand in a blender, from the Spielberg-produced ’80s adventure romp The Goonies. “I see myself as Chunk,” Hynes admits. “We all see ourselves as Chunk, don’t we?” A beat. “Not all of us, maybe. Simon and Edgar said I should get over it.”
One thing Spaced fans should get over is a third season. Not that the trio don’t treasure and miss the show; they all look to their DVD tour in America with relish. (They’ll be at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash on Wednesday for a signing, then at the ArcLight that night for a screening of episodes and a Q&A with Kevin Smith.) Wright, who admits it was a creatively and physically exhausting show to make, likes that they quit while they were ahead. “They call it the curse of Fawlty Towers,” he says. “It set that bar where you do two seasons and stop.”
A movie version doesn’t sit well with the gang either. “The idea of it as a film would be strange,” says Pegg, who notes that its little-people-with-big-ideas concept works best on TV. “Part of the dynamic of the show was that you were seeing grand gestures in a small space. The minute you put that on the big screen, it would lose that effect.”
Besides, all three are quite busy. Hynes is currently working on a new U.K.-based series with acclaimed comic performer Julia Davis (Nighty Night). Wright is setting up a handful of films, from comic book adaptations to a third-genre shakedown comedy with Pegg. And Pegg has made the transition to movie actor, thanks to Shaun,and his and Wright’s action comedy, Hot Fuzz.
Although in a Spaced-like twist of life-imitates-imitative-art fate, he’s tackling the sci-fi-iconic role of Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Trek reimagining, due out next year.
Needless to say, a Trekkie joke from Pegg’s own series could potentially haunt him. “There’s a line in Spaced when I say, ‘As sure as eggs is eggs, sure as day follows night, as sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit,” this eternal geek says, laughing ruefully. “And I’m in Star Trek XI. But it’s great!”
SPACED: THE COMPLETE SERIES | BBC Warner | $59.98 | Release date: July 22
Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and “token American” Kevin Smith appear Wed., July 23, at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, 10587 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (310) 475-4788, 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. At 7 p.m. that same night, the four appear at a three-episode screening of Spaced immediately followed by a Q&A moderated by Smith at the ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 464-4226.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes