Sitcom characters, even those who are struggling to find their way in the world, tend to live in well-appointed homes that would tax the finances of a hedge-fund manager. Not so in "Spaced," the cult British sitcom that makes its belated premiere on DVD this week. A pair of aimless, fitfully employed Londoners in their mid-20s, Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Stevenson) inhabit a cramped, two-bedroom flat with beanbag furniture and movie posters tacked to the wall.
Originally aired in 1999 and 2001, the series' two seven-episode seasons were conceived in part as a response to shows like "Friends," with their impeccably styled actors living out airbrushed versions of post-collegiate crises.
Tim, an aspiring comic-book artist, and Daisy, a would-be writer, are thrown together by a mutual need for cheap lodging and the fact that the only suitable flat is labeled "professional couples only." But the high-concept ruse is quickly, and deliberately, forgotten, replaced by the absurd comedy of the everyday: long days on the couch and long nights in the pub, with the occasional job interview or abortive romance.
Although their day-to-day drone doesn't provide much stimulation, they live vivid lives through the prism of popular culture. When Daisy sits down at her typewriter to make up a roster of household chores, she imagines herself as a wild-haired composer in the throes of artistic abandon, accompanied by visions of rubber-gloved hands and spinning pots straight out of a Busby Berkeley montage.
For Tim, "Star Wars" is a sacred text, followed closely by the films in the "Evil Dead" trilogy and "Tomb Raider." For much of "Spaced's" second season, he is consumed by the traumatic letdown of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," but even in his disillusion, he cannot escape its pull. When Tim sets fire to his "Star Wars" collection, the scene echoes the funeral pyre from "Return of the Jedi."
The show's rapid-fire referentiality has made it beloved of the ComiCon set, who have been swapping bootleg copies and foreign DVDs for years. On the commentary tracks added to the American edition, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody wax euphoric about the show, bringing a message of welcome from Planet Geek. As Smith and Tarantino are, along with "The Simpsons," the show's most obvious forerunners, the love fest is decidedly mutual.
"Spaced" features supporting turns by British comedians who would later become stars in their own right: Ricky Gervais as an unctuous ad salesman; "Little Britain's" David Walliams as an egomaniacal performance artist; "Green Wing's" Mark Heap as a socially inept painter. But the standout performance is from Jessica Hynes, then billed under her maiden name, Stevenson, who delivers a virtuosic blend of self-deprecating humor and all-out slapstick.
Unable to type more than a few sentences without drifting off into daydream, Daisy is a mess, emotionally and physically. (Try to imagine a character on "Friends" waking up with drool on her chin.) But she has a hero's determination as well as a slacker's lassitude. In the fan-boy canon, women are either babes or scolds, but Daisy is something else: a woman defined by her ambitions, however vague and ill-formed, who's every bit as capable of losing herself in fantasy as the overgrown boys around her.
Credit goes to Pegg and Hynes, who co-wrote the show, and the third major architect of its sensibility, director Edgar Wright, who went on to make "Shaun of the Dead" with Pegg and his "Spaced" co-star Nick Frost, here playing a gun-loving military reject. The sharpness of Wright's direction allows the show to make quick-hit visual puns without dwelling on them unduly.
American viewers are bound to miss most of the nods to British TV shows, but it's not necessary to get every reference. You don't need to have seen a John Woo movie to marvel at the mock gun battle that closes one episode, with characters firing invisible submachine guns while emitting a steady stream of explosive sounds from their mouths.
"Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" are "Spaced" writ large, more elaborate homages crafted with more precision and focus. But the show has an emotional resonance that the movies, particularly the latter, lack. Tim and Daisy might use pop-culture references to explain their lives, or escape from them, but they always come back to the real world, and to each other, returning to a sublimely unconsummated romance that gives the series a poignant undertow.
Flights of fancy notwithstanding, "Spaced" captures a time in its characters' lives that most movies and TV shows seem incapable of getting right.