You know that things have taken a nasty turn in the world of United States sitcom writers when the best hope for comedy gold is mined from the fecund landscape of British television. “The Office,” which premiered last month to much attention, had its origins in the brain of Ricky Gervais and aired for British audiences in 2001. Later, it was broadcast on cable’s BBC America and there developed a large cult following among American viewers. It is not surprising considering the brilliant writing and acting of Gervais, whose character, David Brent, can make you squirm uncomfortably on the sofa one moment before making you cry with laughter all within the confines of one episode. The BBC’s “Office” held all of the subversive creativity and genius that American programs (besides the ubiquitous “Simpsons”) don’t even come close to reaching. By comparison, the American version of “The Office” simply seems overplayed and in bad taste. This is generally the fate of any British program that crosses the pond. Either way, American audiences are getting screwed.
The ardent situation comedy fan has several options: Give up watching television, subscribe to BBC America on your local cable conglomerate or search the video stores and back alleys for programs on DVD. For most, giving up TV is not an option and the suggestion is nearly sacrilege, for others, cable seems only a wasteland of bad ideas that proves too costly, but for the searchers there are often wonders to be found.
A perfect example of the BBC dominance is the program “Spaced.” Found on the dusty bottom shelf at a local cult video store, this British series was created by the folks who brought you “Shaun of the Dead.” Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson write and star in this comedy about a pair of young Londoners, one a comic book artist and the other a writer, who are forced to pretend they are a young professional couple in order to score a trendy apartment. Sure, the premise is a well-worn sitcom standard, but Pegg and Stevenson simply use it as a launching pad for some of the most scathing humor since “Absolutely Fabulous.”
Like “Ab Fab,” Spaced features copious amounts of drug use and drunkenness while skewering modern culture with a dangerous wit and razor-sharp comic timing. In the 14 episodes available only on what appear to be bootlegged DVDs, Pegg and Stevenson drop so many science fiction and pop culture references that it would take multiple viewings to catch them all.
Similarly, anyone familiar with “Shaun of the Dead” will notice its Quentin Tarantino-style editing as the two roommates, Daisy and Tim, stumble through their lives, each moment rendered in kung-fu jump cuts and bizarre dreamy flashbacks. It’s Monty Python combined with “Nightmare on Elm Street” and a healthy dash of “The Matrix.”
There is one warning, however. If you should find “Spaced,” have the remote handy. Once you begin to watch you may look up to see it’s five hours later than when you started and your sides ache tremendously. But you can be guaranteed that’s something American sitcoms will never be able to do for you.