Spaced was the last great British sitcom of the Nineties, debuting in 1999 and straddling the millennium to finish its second and final series just months before the September 11 attacks brought to an end one era and began another.
Its short run over the cusp of the millennium seems appropriate in hindsight, because Spaced was a watershed in TV’s development. It was the point at which it became not just a medium that knew its place within the pop culture canon, but one that wore that knowledge on its sleeve. It was the first show to repeatedly, lovingly and explicitly acknowledge the debt it owed to everything that came before, and turn it into a virtue. It was, basically, the first truly meta-sitcom.
Not that you’d get that from a description of the bog-standard premise underlying it all. Two almost-strangers – geeky graphic artist Tim (Simon Pegg) and lazy wannabe journalist Daisy (Jessica Hynes, née Stevenson) – pretend to be a couple so they can rent a flat from live-upstairs-landlord Marsha (Julia Deakin). An oddball neighbour Brian (Mark Heap) and the “couple’s” equally odd friends Mike (Nick Frost) and Twist (Katy Carmichael) round out the main cast, with the likes of Bill Bailey and Peter Serafinowicz dropping in as recurring characters.
Tim and Daisy’s daily lives in North London had plenty for my then-teenage self to relate to. I went to sixth form around the corner from their Tufnell Park flat, drank in the Camden bar which forms the backdrop for the show’s sublime finger-gun slow-mo shoot-out, and played frisbee on the same Hampstead Heath fields where Gramsci the Marxist German Shepherd roamed after eating his owner, Minty.
The mix of jobs, parties, video games and pubs was also familiar, even if the clubbing was, in the words of a quite clearly-still-buzzing Mike, “only for the, only for the, only for the hardcore UK raver”.
But while the mundane aspects of Tim and Daisy’s lives in many ways matched my own, the stories Spaced wove for them were suffused with something far more universal – the film and TV of the second half of the 20th century.
Not an episode goes by without a slew of references to, or riffs on, some other show or piece of cinema. Lines of dialogue out of Jurassic Park. Opening shots from Manhattan and Goodfellas. An in-fridge camera angle from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A whole plot line from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And, of course, lots and lots of Star Wars.
Pegg and Hynes, who wrote Spaced, as well as director Edgar Wright, were pretty much exactly the right age to be Star Wars-obsessed when the original three films in that franchise came out, but the allure hadn’t exactly worn off for kids like me almost a quarter of a century later. The flashback in which the utter crapness of prequel The Phantom Menace causes Tim to burn his Star Wars memorabilia on a pyre (itself a reference to Return of the Jedi) was spot on for a generation disappointed with George Lucas’s attempts to give us our own trilogy.
Of course not everyone would get all the references, but that didn’t matter. I remember finding out that a girlfriend who shared my love of Spaced had never seen Star Wars. Having convinced her she was missing out on a far deeper understanding of one of her favourite shows, I insisted we sit down to watch the original films. It was, I think, at the end of Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are wishing Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca good luck in their mission to find a Carbonite-encased Han Solo, that she exclaimed “oh, that’s a Spaced reference”.
That muddled timeline gets to the heart of one of the strange and wonderful things about pop culture in the 21st century. You’re just as likely to see a reference to a piece of TV or film in another work as you are to have seen the original.
The culture of borrowing did not stop with Spaced. Pegg and the director Wright applied their approach to the “Cornetto” film trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the World’s End (perhaps not so coincidentally the name of another pub in Camden). Wright has also made other films heavy with references to video games (Scott Pilgrim) and music (Baby Driver). Meanwhile in a nice twist, Pegg has managed to appear in new film versions of both Star Wars and Star Trek, another source of early inspiration for him. There’s even speculation that a line said by Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk in one of the new Star Trek films, “skip to the end”, is a reference to the phrase’s regular appearance in Spaced. Inception-style levels of meta there.
But while Spaced’s creators deserve credit for being ahead of the curve, this evolution was inevitable. Pop culture has been delivered at mass scale for long enough now that most of us don’t remember a time before TV and film were a constant. They have become part of the fabric of our lives, affecting how we see the world and how we talk about it.
And that’s what those who decry the referential nature of modern pop culture as lazy are missing. All culture is ultimately meant to have something to say about lived experience, and in the 21st century a huge part of that experience is the culture we’ve previously consumed. We are what we have watched, and Spaced was the first show to really get that.