Doing it Wright

Spaced birthed one of today’s most celebrated comedy directors, writes Andrew Todd.//

Some shows come along as fully-formed works in the own rights. Others are flawed beasts that don’t quite hit it out of the park, but highlight the potential of their creators’ work to come. Channel 4’s 1999 comedy series Spaced, at first glance a humble show about flatmates in a London apartment, is that rare piece of television that manages to be both.

spacedLike 80s shows Not the Nine O’Clock News and The Comic Strip Presents in the United Kingdom, and Freaks & Geeks in the United States, Spaced was a crucible in which the next decade-plus’s comedy talent was forged and let loose upon the world. On screen, it features early work by actors like the now-ubiquitous Simon Pegg and Nick Frost; standup and Black Books star Bill Bailey; and quietly brilliant British comedy stalwarts Jessica Hynes, Peter Serafinowicz and Mark Heap. But the show’s secret weapon – a filmmaker who has since become known as one of the best working today – was its director: mop-haired then-25-year-old Edgar Wright.

Spaced wasn’t Wright’s first screen outing*, but it was where his distinctive style found its shape, setting the stage for his much-beloved features Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.** Wright shoots dialogue like it’s action, and action like it’s a dance number. If he was ever to make a musical, the resultant kinetic explosion would likely annihilate cinemas. There’s more genuine energy in Wright’s work than in a hundred Hollywood action blockbusters but, more importantly, it’s an energy bolstered by an anarchic attitude and focus on character. To illustrate just how balls-out that energy is, here’s a clip of two characters just deciding what to do with their evening:

While Spaced lacks the widescreen scale of his feature films, and sports a frequently cheap-looking shot-on-video look, Wright’s style is present in abundance. His editing is fast for TV, making frequent use of whip pans and blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cutaways. Wright understands how to create comedy through the visual and temporal tools unique to the screen – the timing of his edits is impeccable and his jokes meticulously crafted and layered. That’s true of the more action-packed scenes – see Spaced’s party sequences or its paintball episode, which predates Community by over a decade – but also of what would otherwise be quieter moments. Dialogue is punctuated by camera moves, sound effects and edits to turn even expository sequences into manic, sometimes hallucinatory audiovisual experiences. Combined with a strange and drug-fuelled cast of characters, it adds up to a one-of-a-kind fever dream of a show, whose narrative looseness is swept under the rug by stream-of-consciousness comic riffs. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea; even if you’re familiar with Wright’s movies, the intensity of the pace and slacker-class humour of Spaced can take some adjusting to. It’s a comparatively unrefined spray of comedy and filmmaking; the wild, untamed beast to the Cornetto Trilogy’s well-trained show dog.

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Like Wright’s features, Spaced was born and bred in the geek age. It doesn’t just make clever references to geek properties from The Evil Dead to Hawk the Slayer, though those sometimes come too frequently for the show’s own good. The point is that they’re not just lazy attempts to get geek audiences on side with cheap asides about 80s cartoons. Rather, as in reality, pop culture is a fundamental part of Spaced’s characters’ personalities and thus the show. It’s not just something they trade snarky banter about; it’s something that deeply affects how they live their lives. Pegg’s character Tim doesn’t just crack wise about how egregiously The Phantom Menace sucked***; his hatred of that film gets him fired and sparks a major change in his character, as he turns his back on the movies that once lit up his life. His ceremonial burning of his action figures is a reference to Return of the Jedi, sure, but it’s also a powerful character beat if you let it into your heart.

Geek culture, of course, would go on to fuel Wright’s feature career too. His three original movies draw heavily from zombie, buddy-cop and sci-fi movies respectively. But again, like in Spaced, they also tell stories about friendship, responsibility and humanity, using their more ostentatious plot elements as framework and metaphor. Compare Shaun (Of The Dead) and Ed (Eventually More Literally Of The Dead, Sorry Spoilers) bonding over video games to this clip from Spaced, wherein a game of Tomb Raider becomes a dark, disturbing reflection of Tim’s attitude towards his love life:

Ultimately, that’s what binds all of Wright’s work together: his love, respect and care for his characters. Spaced is a lightning-paced comedy with more than its share of bizarre characters, but ultimately it’s the story of two strangers – irritable nerd Tim and wannabe writer Daisy – who pose as a couple to get a flat and grow closer as the series wears on. Even the most absurd storylines in Spaced are rooted in believable, human motivations: jealousy, betrayal, loneliness, love. Tim and Daisy’s relationship is a believable one, and its honesty is echoed in the various friendships, rivalries and romances that dot Wright’s feature output.

It’s rare and exciting to see as clear a prototype of an artist as Spaced is of Edgar Wright. In fourteen episodes of hilarious, unconventional television, the groundwork is laid for a filmmaking career whose mighty success thus far is sure to pale to its success to come. It’s unsurprising he was recently compelled to drop out of Marvel’s Ant-Man thanks to an executive-driven script rewrite; his commitment to his directorial and storytelling vision is what makes his work so singular. Spaced is prophetic work, without a doubt, but most importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun in its own right.

* That would be his 1995 spaghetti western spoof A Fistful of Fingers, an independent film that – while it was made on a ridiculously low budget, and disappointed Wright personally – got him his first TV directing gig, Mash and Peas, starring Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams.

** The insufferably, abrasively over-the-top Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, the one film Wright has directed not based on a story of his own devising, is the one exception to the Beloved Edgar Wright Rule. It represents Wright’s style taken to maximum gaudiness without the loveable characters and relationships to back it up. It’s got its fans, but I’m not one of them.

*** Hilariously, the voice of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace was performed by Spaced guest actor Peter Serafinowicz, which must have provoked some amusing on-set discussions and/or fistfights..

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