What makes a perfect pilot episode?
An inciting incident that leaves the viewer longing for more.
A crafted group of characters that inhabit an enticing, atmospheric world of their own.
Story structures, themes and motifs that are engaging but also set the foundations for future season-long narratives.
The Overlook’s Perfect Pilots series will analyse perfect examples of pilot TV shows: examining how their creators combine all these aspects with their own artistic sensibilities to create beautiful, funny and unforgettable pieces of television.
The opening scene of Spaced drops us straight into the motivations of its protagonists through a cleverly edited scene that stands as an example of a visual gag trope that will later become a staple of the show:
Opening Scene of Spaced (1999). 0:00 – 1:19.
What we think we are seeing in this first 1 minute and 19 seconds is a messy break up between the two characters we do not know yet. Tim (Simon Pegg) appears to be pleading with Daisy (Jessica Hynes) to keep their relationship going.
The punchline at the end of the scene is that these two are not in fact talking to each other: Daisy is dismissing a homeless-looking gentleman that she may well have slept with from her flat by telling him that she has a boyfriend, and Tim is being quite brutally dumped by Sarah (his girlfriend of 5 years) who has found someone else.
The editing in this scene serves as a humorous introduction to the show’s main characters, but it also marries the two together in the viewer’s eye through circumstance and pathos. We are seeing Tim and Daisy at their lowest ebbs, and what follows, both in the episode and the series, will be them trying to find some sense of worth, structure and meaning in their lives.
Daisy and Tim have a chance meeting in a cafe and bond over their shared flat-hunting woes after some classic Daisy Steiner oversharing. Their burgeoning relationship over the coming days is portrayed through a montage scored by the on-the-nose tune “Getting to Know You”. The initial laughter and chat ebbs out to a vacant stare between the two whilst a double exposition of newspaper ads for unsuitable flats overlays the whole affair. The montage is punctuated by some hysterical, and comical, synchronised sobbing from Daisy and Tim. They’re both at the end of the tether.
But wait, Daisy spies an ad for a perfect flat! She still can’t catch a break though, it’s ‘professional couple only’. Tim suggests that she just pretend:
“Do you have any homeless male friends?”
Daisy replies, a revelatory smile beaming across her face:
“Well, I do have one homeless male friend.”
The protagonists have been paired. Their relationship has been established. Their once individual goals are now shared. Now to cement their backstories whilst they get their stories straight…
Daisy and Tim get their stories straight. 5:09 – 9:03.
Tim and Daisy need to know each other’s back stories in order for their plan to work. For the next 3 minutes or so, Daisy and Tim list descriptions of each other’s jobs, family, friends, fears, scars, allergies, memories (or lack thereof) and dreams. This scene serves as a deeper introduction to the histories and backgrounds of the characters, as well as a quick nod to the contributory players (Mike, a weapons expert; Twist, who works in fashion) that will pop up throughout the series. It is also, arguably, our first real introduction to Edgar Wright’s signature style.
Their descriptions are intercut with varying shots that illustrate what they are describing. All of these shots are integrated into the scene in spasmodically different ways. A selection of quick cuts, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, tracking shots, swipe-up-downs-and-all-arounds keep the scene moving and introduce further visual gags: an Edgar Wright staple.
The constantly moving camera, the constantly moving characters, and the constantly moving conversation that is peppered with witty dialogue, telling insights and funny tangents (e.g. Tim’s proclivity to masturbate over images of Gillian Anderson) transform what is in essence a Powerpoint presentation about each character into an effortlessly entertaining piece of exposition.
After taking a few pictures to supplement their story, like Andie Macdowell and Gerard Depardieu do in the film Green Card (Spaced’s second overt film reference after Tim’s confession that he cried at the end of Terminator 2), the “couple” head to their potential new dream flat, where the film and TV references and homages come thick and fast.
As they approach the building and walk up the path, the camera cranes backwards and reveals the building in its full glory whilst a wailing chorus announces its arrival (just like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Then inside, whilst they are touring the flat and awkwardly pretending they are a happy couple to landlady Marsha, Daisy opens a cupboard to find a set of twins who look and act suspiciously like the twins from The Shining. They are doing some jobs for Marsha that took “forever, and ever, and ever”. Marsha avoids their creepiness, explaining that it’s Bob-a-Job week.
Bob-a-Job week for the twins.
The two then sit down to be interviewed with their hands entwined and shaking. This slight interlude into the scene is another reference. The heightened sound effects of the clock ticking, the slapping of their hands to stop the shaking and the groan of the camera as it turns toward Marsha are obvious homages to the directorial style of Sam Raimi, especially in his film Evil Dead II.
Three movie allusions in quick succession illustrate that this flat is a place where cinephilic action can take place.
Cinematic homages now cemented into the world of Spaced, it’s time to get back to the central plot point of Tim and Daisy’s rouse. Can they be convincing enough as a couple to bag the flat?
Yes, it turns out.
When it comes to it, Marsha only wanted to know if they were working and how long they had been together. Tim and Daisy went over the top in their preparations to be a couple. They went full Green Card, if you will.
Daisy and Tim interview for the flat. 10:19 – 11:30.
Flat secured. It’s time for Daisy and Tim to leave their old lives behind and see what this new flat holds for them. It is also time for Spaced to leave the exposition behind and introduce us to the central themes, relationships, tropes and plot points of the series, and, most importantly, some more references to pop culture.
Daisy moves out of the squat she was living in, bidding farewell to an indifferent set of smackheads (a fun cameo for Edgar Wright) who are laid out on the furniture. Tim picks up his stuff from his seemingly quite vindictive ex-girlfriend’s house with the help of weapons expert, Mike, and his van. We see once again that Tim is a heartbroken man, as he articulately professes his love when he is goaded into it by a manipulative Sarah who then shuts the door on him.
Meanwhile, Daisy is moving her stuff in. She revels in the new space, exploring and joking with a naked mannequin. She ventures into Tim’s room after hearing a noise; only to have his suit from Fantasy Bazaar fall on top of her whilst she screams hysterically. Tim arrives at this awkward juncture and asks her what she’s doing, obviously perplexed that she’s going through his stuff. Our first glimpse that our protagonists might have committed themselves to a situation they weren’t ready for.
Daisy brushes it off, muttering about cleaning, BT being connected and that she heard a noise. After offering a cup of tea, she admits that she was “just investigating”. Tim tries to help her save face by saying she was just playing Scooby Doo. Awkward moment over, they head down this conversational tangent by saying who they pretended to be from the cartoon when they were younger: Daisy was Daphne, and Tim was Freddie, obviously. But now look at them…
Another visual gag that alludes to pop culture, but this one has slight more significance. It is an example of dramatic irony that shows us telling aspects of Daisy and Tim’s personalities.
Tim identifies with the suave group leader Freddie, but he is really the stoner dog’s best friend, Shaggy. Likewise, Daisy sees herself as the glamorous Daphne, whereas she is more like the bookworm, Velma. These allusions tie in with the character’s drives to make themselves into creative successes whilst avoiding the fact that they are nowhere near. A struggle that will follow the characters’ journeys throughout the series.
Following this scene, Tim and Daisy settle down on the sofa and peruse Tim’s idea for a graphic novel. Daisy feigns as much interest as she can but her one question pokes at quite a major plot hole. Tim then decides to take the bins out before turning down a 12th cup of tea. That’s his limit.
On his trip, we are introduced to another creative who lives downstairs: Brian.
As you could probably guess from his cowboy hat, boots, and nothing else, he is quite avant-garde. He comes back upstairs with Tim to meet Daisy and have a drink. After an hour or so, he reveals that he is an artist:
What kind of thing do you do?
When asked what kind of thing he does, he replies: anger, pain, fear, aggression. Statements that are intercut, much like the exposition montage from earlier, with visual examples of Brian expressing these abstract concepts.
He is an extreme version of Tim and Daisy’s aspirations: a man who has immersed himself fully in a creative world that expresses his emotions. They have found an artistic confidant living downstairs, albeit a strangely intense one.
The night then turns into an impromptu party of sorts. The three sit around drinking wine and rolling spliffs. Marsha then joins the party following her teenage daughter’s storm out from the house. Brian warns his new neighbours not to ask her if she wants to talk about it, but they do.
Marsha’s arrival gives us an insight into her life (she told her husband to choose between her and the dog, and he chose the dog), as well as adding some tension to the scene. Tension that is exacerbated (what does that mean?) by a phone call from Daisy’s actual boyfriend, and Tim’s half-asleep yell for his ex-love Sarah. Tim and Daisy must manage the situation they thought they had so expertly avoided two days earlier.
Flustered, they stumble over questions from Brian and Marsha regarding their relationship, and almost let the cat out of the bag when they recite how long they’ve been together and Marsha points out that they said that two days ago. They wriggle out of it with some ludicrous excuse about having two anniversaries that, inevitably, everyone is too British to scrutinise further.
Brian is obviously still suspicious, but Marsha is obviously too drunk to give it a second thought. Crisis averted.
She takes herself off to bed, lingering at the door and saying goodnight to Brian whilst drunkenly eyeing him up. Brian waits till he hears Marsha enter her flat before leaving. It seems as if there is a history between the two: something that will be explored in future episodes.
Time for the new flatmates to go to bed; it’s the end to a long moving day. The two stop at their bedroom doors, much like Marsha did, with some misfit sexual tension lingering between them. Their desires are personified by the props either side of them: a naked mannequin and a green furry monster suit. They finally bid each other an awkward goodnight before time comes back out to grab a copy of FHM with Gillian Anderson on the cover.
Episode over with the final question that is at the heart of the series. Tim and Daisy: will they, or won’t they?
The pilot episode of Spaced has introduced us to the main players, plot points, relationships, themes and tropes of the show through Jessica Hynes’ and Simon Pegg’s particular brand of dry, witty humour and Edgar Wright’s signature directorial style.
With Beginnings, Hynes, Pegg and Wright have created a world in which their characters, and themselves, can strive for and find creative fulfillment whilst celebrating the pop cultural artefacts that inspired them to be creative in the first place.