by Andy Scott
Part II: An Examination of Spaced and Paul
If Benji Dunn was the first of Simon Pegg’s characters to inhabit my consciousness, then Tim Bisley is perhaps the closest of all Pegg’s characters to a personification of my own repressed and pseudo-nerd psyche. Tim is the slacker comic book artist from the short-lived TV series Spaced, Pegg’s first foray into mainstream British culture and his gateway into future work with various Hollywood projects. It is the character of Tim, as well as Graeme Willy of Paul that are the closest manifestations to Pegg’s own true geek, and these characters allow Pegg to publicly explore the various social influences that have been so strong in his formation. Most prominent in both projects are references to Star Wars, comic book enthusiasm and an interest in the paranormal.
It may seem odd to combine and review the two seemingly unrelated projects within Pegg’s film career, especially given the close ties Spaced holds with other of Pegg’s films. However, I find in Spaced and Paul the two characters Pegg represents that are the most consistent, and make them worth investigating at length. Also, this is not a proper review of either the show or film because I’m not entirely sure how to review a show or film. Therefore, I will call it an examination. Perhaps the imaginary reader in my mind will ask, “but why not include Spaced in a review of Pegg’s work with director Edgar Wright?” Ah, but I’ve already anticipated this question. It is true that Edgar Wright developed much of his style in Spaced, but there is a different social connection between the sort of nerd Pegg plays as Tim and as Graeme. Also, the argument that Spaced is just the first permutation of the Wright/Frost/Pegg trifecta takes away from the enormous contributions that Jessica Stevenson poured into the show. It is as much about Stevenson as it is about Pegg, and so it deserves its own consideration apart from Wright’s movies. This is not to say there is no significant connections between Spaced and Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, but we’ll get to that in due time.
The show itself is very funny, but not brilliant. Pegg and Stevenson excel in both writing and acting Tim and Daisy’s exploits, but somehow it falls short of being truly memorable. Most of the episodes of Spaced feel a bit like hearing an older sibling or cousin’s favorite joke and not being entirely in on the punch line. It’s funny, but certain aspects of what made the series so enjoyable are certainly lost to a decade of time and my relative youth. Perhaps the subtleties are lost simply because the show is very British. The filming takes place in London, and the story lines are concerned with the lives of young semi-professionals who try to get by with as little work as possible. The most enjoyable moments are when characters find themselves arguing and dissecting pop culture. Pegg spends nearly an entire episode arguing against The Phantom Menace, and Nick Frost’s militant has-been character Mike fantasizes scenes from Apocalypse Now in his bedroom. Like an episode of Friends on speed, Spaced takes the close-quarters tension of tenant living and introduces borderline manic personalities that all desperately want to be liked and accepted.
Perhaps this desire for understanding and inclusion is what drives the heart of Pegg’s chracters in both Spaced and Paul. Tim Bisley is in many ways an exaggerated and inflated version of Pegg, a comic book enthusiast who worships Star Wars and finds himself often immersed in fantasy sequences that show surreal figments from his subconscious or replay scenes from movies like Pulp Fiction. It is the simple joy of exploring comics and space opera folklore that connect Pegg’s Tim Bisley with Pegg’s Graeme Willy across space, time and medium. The fundamental difference and evolution in the character comes from the influence of Hollywood. Paul feels in many ways like Pegg and Frost’s other movies, full of dry humor and Ewok jokes. Their interactions are what one would expect of two nerdy best friends traveling across Southwestern America in search of aliens, comic books and Area 51. Yet the whole movie seems very packaged, tidy, and not nearly as raw or unique as Spaced.
One of the more surprising aspects in Paul is the veracity in which Pegg and Frost attack Fundamentalist Christianity. Using the presence of an alien as the fly in the ointment of literal seven-day creation theory, characters are constantly reprimanded for belief in a very shallow and hollow representation of the faith. This is not to say that the dialogue isn’t funny, but that the attacks seem to be more of Pegg’s intellectual exasperation against belief in the face of evolutionary facts, vis a vis, the presence of Paul. While it’s not surprising that Pegg and Frost, both avowed atheists, would relish a chance to rip on conservative Christian beliefs, its presence in a big-budget Hollywood film is unexpected.
Overall what the movie accomplishes is to bring characteristics of Tim Bisley to fruition. A struggling comic book artist and his writer friend meet with success after a chance encounter with a pot-smoking alien. It’s a scenario that would be welcome and at home in Spaced. While the ending of Paul is predictable, the rest of the film is an enjoyable reminder of why Pegg is so good at playing the nerd. It seems to be part of his ontology. Both Spaced and Paul achieve is a level of fantasy that brings the comic book enthusiast into a position of prominence, and remind viewers that we are all slightly neurotic, fairly awkward, and deeply in need of good friends.