“We’re filmin’ a little documentary here for the life network. It’s uh, kinda’ like Cops, but from the criminal’s point of view.” – ‘Ricky’, 2002.
For those who have not guiltily experienced the crass, cuss-laden, and Canadian comedic television phenomenon that is Trailer Park Boys (Mike Clattenburg), the above descriptor is apt –envision a character built like a brick, who believes this statement wholeheartedly as he speaks it between drags from a cigarette, sporting a perfectly coifed pompadour, a torn, grease-stained black shirt and track pants. The Nova Scotia-based series featuring Ricky (Robb Wells), Julian (Jean Paul Tremblay) and Bubbles (Mike Smith) is indisputably the most outrageous spectacle to be televised in the short history of the medium; certainly the most significant in a long line of ‘hosers, boozers and losers’ to originate from north of the 49th parallel.
Their archetypes are not new; however the current Canadian and international success of TPB –now generating sizeable debate among media scholars, critics and fans alike– warrants comparatively sober consideration from various angles. First, we shall examine the show itself, its history, and some of the cultural conditions which set the stage for its flourish, considering the formal influences that may have shaped it. Canadian national cinema and television has historically been beset on both production and content sides, by a looming sense of inadequacy; hence the value in surrounding the show by its proverbial ‘family tree.’ In doing so, we shall illuminate the series within the context of national production, and better recognize the outcome of existing cultural policies and practices. Finally, the condition of Canadian cultural identity must be inspected through debate of its definition, construction and reinforcement by means of paradigmatic self-representation. In short: What legacy have the boys from the park inherited from Canada and/or abroad, and what, –other than ‘empties’– will they leave for the future?
By way of introduction, let us briefly examine the show, its creators, its characters and their function. As previously mentioned, Trailer Park Boys, (airing Sunday evenings on Canada’s Showcase network), follows duo Ricky and Julian, and their comrade Bubbles on a weekly 22-minute Cinéma Vérité excursion through the everyday trials of life in Sunnyvale, a fictional Nova Scotia trailer park. Ricky is aggressive, undereducated and inarticulate, having finally succeeded after several attempts at Grade 10. Habitually under the influence of marijuana and/or liquor, he lives in a car with no doors, dubbed ‘the s**t-mobile.’ Julian is ‘the brain’ of the duo, hatching oft-illegal get-rich-quick schemes –the plan is eventually named “Freedom 35”– while perpetually nursing a rum and coke. Bubbles is the genial glue that holds the pair together; sporting now-iconic coke-bottle specs, he rescues orphaned felines, fixes and resells broken shopping carts, and resides in a shed.
This unit comprises the protagonists, though every gang of anti-heroes requires a nemesis: Jim Lahey (John Dunsworth), alcoholic ex-cop and park supervisor, flanked by his shirtless, cheeseburger-addicted assistant/lover, Randy (Patrick Roach). Other cast fixtures include Cory (Cory Bowles) and Trevor (Michael Jackson), the series’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or “Ricky and Julian-lite”; Sarah (Sarah Dunsworth) and Lucy (Lucy DeCoutere), the later being Ricky’s on/off love interest with whom he has a daughter, Trinity (Jeanna Harrison); and J-Roc (Jonathan Torrens), the park’s resident gangster rapper.
The seed for Trailer Park Boys sprouted in 1998 with a short film entitled One Last Shot, directed by series creator and native Nova-Scotian Mike Clattenburg. The film is based upon exterminators Ricky and Julian, characters created for Clattenburg’s previous short entitled The Cart Boy (1995). One Last Shot was tremendously successful at the Atlantic Film festival, which led Clattenburg, Wells and Tremblay to shoot a largely improvised feature film in 1999. Premiering at the 19th annual AFF, and produced for under $10,000, Trailer Park Boys (1999) was a rough, black-and-white approximation (which suffered the absence of Bubbles), but generated more than enough discussion, eventually capturing attention from the Showcase network which aired the feature, and commissioned an additional 13 episodes, comprising seasons 1 and 2 of the series.
Since then, TPB has been nominated twice –and won once– for best comedy series at Canada’s Gemini awards. Mike Smith also received the Viewer’s Choice award in 2003 for favourite comedian. The trio appeared along side rockers Our Lady Peace on a national tour, and in The Tragically Hip’s video for The Darkest One (In Violet Light, 2002). Guest appearances on the series include Rita MacNeil, and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, in a silent nod to Geddy Lee’s cameo on SCTV 25 years previous. Episodes which cost $100,000 generate approximately 300,000 viewers per week, and international DVD sales for seasons 1 and 2 have exceeded 30,000 units. In response to Internet circulation, BBC America is now airing an edited version of the series, as are broadcasters in Britain and Australia. The show is currently airing its fifth season, and principle photography is now underway on another feature film slated for wide release in 2006, under advisement from Canadian heavyweight producer Ivan Reitman.
Clattenburg confesses: “Early on […] the reaction was not good. Most industry people couldn’t get past the antiproduction-value look and ribald humour.” TPB also sparked debate over the exploitative representation of stereotypical ‘white trash’ on television. In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, University of Calgary communications and culture professor Bart Beaty lambasted the show as making fun of an underprivileged and marginalized segment of society. “That sort of thing used to be centred around racial issues. Now we get around this by making it about white populations rather than about native or black populations. But it’s still about laughing at the poor.” Mike Smith retorts by defending the show’s ultimate morality: “[Ricky] doesn’t make the best decisions, but he’s trying to do the right thing […] There’s a lot of humanity in Trailer Park Boys. It’s not just a bunch of crazies running around swearing and firing guns at each other.” Wells adds: “People say we’re making fun of trailer parks, but it’s the exact opposite […] In many ways [Ricky and Julian] are better than most people in the real world. They’d do anything for their family, do anything for their friends.” In essence, Ricky acts as a microcosm of the show itself: Not always making the most intelligent choices, but remaining true to albeit an upturned, but nonetheless existent set of principles.
The equation of TPB is similar to that typified by episodic television conventions: the characters possess and exhibit obvious, definable –often mono-dimensional– traits which viewers grow to identify and anticipate. A space (the park) is defined, within which these characters will interact; as elements are added into this space, the characters respond according to their previously defined characteristics. For example, when Mr. Lahey has Ricky’s father arrested for disability fraud, the question for an audience is not whether Ricky will be angry, but how angry, and indeed, and what various articles will be damaged –and expletives employed in consequence.
But for this investigation, the veritable question remains: why are the characters –particularly Ricky and Julian– programmed with these specific characteristics in the first place? And why, though the pair is implanted with a handful of redeemable qualities, are they destined for perennial failure; each season ending with their return to prison? These questions can be answered by taking quick stock of the ‘Hoser’ archetype in English Canadian cinema, thus tracing how the historical tenets of the male protagonist have crept into this contemporary incarnation.
Not since SCTV’s Bob and Doug McKenzie, pioneered by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, (dis)graced our dusty convex screens did such a fervent, cultish following for television personalities ensue, and conversely, raise such a debate over accepted ideas of national identity. The original hosers were among the most recognizable Canadian icons of 1980’s television, spawning an album, and feature length film entitled Strange Brew (Moranis, Thomas, 1983). Their references to Canadian culture, and low-budget satirical aesthetic were instrumental in defining the model upon which Ricky and Julian are based. Dave Thomas has said of his duo: “One thought is that I think people like [Bob & Doug] because they were accessible […] they’re also pretty good-hearted, innocent lumps […] they weren’t ever dark or menacing or frightening.” Although their antics were largely harmless, they served to reinforce –both to the domestic and growing international audience– a generally negative stereotype of Canadians as beer-guzzling, toque-wearing buffoons with limited linguistic capacity (for evidence of this, see Wayne and Garth of Saturday Night Live; Terrance and Phillip of South Park). Bob and Doug typify the culturally challenged and ambitionless archetype of the Canadian male protagonist, but is this pair indicative of our collective self-image, and if so, where did this image stem from?
Pete and Joey of Goin’ Down the Road (Don Shebib, 1970), serve as classical cinematic prototypes for the doomed Canadian duo. The film centres on the pair who migrate from Nova Scotia to Toronto in search of a better standard of living, only to slack, drink, and coast from job to job, eventually fleeing further to Vancouver, (and still further from responsibility). Far less light-hearted and harmless than the comedic depiction of Bob & Doug, the lives of Pete and Joey do involve real consequences. The film is a detailed sociological representation of the so-called lower class, and the perceived remoteness, if not hopelessness of upward social mobility. Shebib’s sardonic treatment acts as aversion therapy for aspiration both to his characters, as well as future producers of Canadian culture, ultimately signaling a more disturbing trend that becomes all too clear by the arrival of Ricky and Julian.
The characterizations of the Canadian male protagonists in question rest in stark distinction to their American cinematic contemporaries –imagine Pete and Joey analogous to Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum; Bob and Doug vis-à-vis, for example, Starsky & Hutch. In contrast, by the 1970’s, Hollywood had developed a lexicon of heroic models of masculinity –including those on either side of the law– for consumption by American (as well as Canadian) audiences. If American cultural producers could sell positive representations of themselves to themselves, why could Canadian image-based media not generate successful, intelligent, or redeeming characters that would appear authentic to a domestic audience? If our national cinema –the library of mythic Canadian image– is an indication of our collective desire, fear and fantasy, what can be said for the narrative recurrence of male protagonists whose only consistent successes are in failure?
Eventually, our discussion must lead to the Canada-U.S. cultural dichotomy. Robert Fothergill, in his 1973 article; “Coward, Bully, or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother” asserts that “[…] a screenplay to be located and produced in this country is modified by a more or less conscious sense of what kinds of people and actions will look characteristically, or even credibly, Canadian […]. Authenticity –largely through the documentary form– plays a paramount role in Canadian film history, and is a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying typically Canadian representations. Fothergill describes the condition of debased self-representation as the symptom of a national inferiority complex manifest from Canada’s political and social relationship to the U.S. In his article, he implicates Canada’s role as younger brother, remaining subservient to our colonial patriarch in the face of American assertions of independence. According to Fothergill, this political indecision has tainted Canadians’ ability to be culturally self-assured in a marketplace dominated by the vast American media empire.
Moreover, a functioning government policy to actively stimulate Canadian production, or to ensure a percentage of screens for domestic films has been markedly absent from the legislative landscape since the Canadian Co-operation Project ensured Canada’s inclusion in the American domestic market in the 1940’s. Any attempt to alter U.S. dominance of Canadian screens has resulted in charges of cultural protectionism and destructive discrimination from American producers and legislators. As recently as 2002, less than 3% of Canadian screens were showing Canadian features (the averages appearing slightly higher in Québec).
The frustration of making successful feature films in Canada has become part of the Canadian condition, and the experience of cultural producers is invariably reflected in the characters they create. Put another way, Pete and Joey slowly became Bob and Doug, devolving into Joe and Billie (Hard Core Logo, Bruce McDonald, 1998); spawning Dean and Terry (Fubar, Michael Dowse, 2002), et cetera. The lack of funding –and interested audiences– historically forced producers to work within smaller budgets, translating into characteristically low production values, which would eventually be embraced as a distinct feature of the Canadian aesthetic. And whether willfully, or through medial osmosis, Ricky and Julian are undoubtedly products of the canon of English Canadian cinema and its cheaply rendered drift toward negative characterizations of the masculine protagonist.
This discourse of cinematic representations of the male Canuck may appear to be no more than a bitter cup of Tim Horton’s coffee, but if we roll up the rim, there may be a silver lining. This incarnation of characters can not easily be reduced to a product of our film industry’s inadequacy in the face of the big American brother and its culture machine; there is something more important at work. The paradoxically engendering nature of the series lies in its militant opposition to the standards of American film and television production. Coupled with the influence of the depressing duos of historical hoserdom, is the desire to take possession of something rightfully belonging to the Canadian experience, negative or not.
The anti-social, indeed violent nature of TPB and its characters may be interpreted as a typically Canadian reaction to American cultural hegemony. It is not active, but rather, an indirect attempt to assert a unique cultural manifestation into the marketplace historically dominated by American corporatists and their generic products. Recently, Canada has given the undiplomatic finger to our American cousins through our relaxed marijuana laws, and the legalization of same-sex unions, despite repeated political pressure from Conservative government representatives. Let us observe that the themes of the show include habitual criminality, addiction and homosexuality, garnished with a vernacular of profanity; themes that brashly oppose all that are traditionally deemed appropriate for American audiences. It may be argued that the popularity of TPB both domestically and internationally negates the failure of the characters themselves. In essence, our industry has emerged triumphant in the marketplace while resting on the shoulders of hosers.
In addition to its inverted family value system, TPB has comparatively far less interest in the subversion of cinematic representation by corporate interests. All of the commodities consumed on-screen are deliberately obscured, signaling the show’s non-alignment with a policy of product placement exercised by many of its American contemporaries. There is a growing disparity between the lifestyle portrayed on television (i.e. Friends, The Sopranos, Sex and the City) and the lifestyle affordable to the average viewer. But TPB resists this trend; although the characters are consumers, their products of choice are chiefly illegal, or at least condemnable by U.S. production standards. In terms of the representation of bodily features, Ricky, Julian and Bubbles truly personify a more realistic physicality than the flawless skin, freshly cut hair and chiseled abdominal sections of Joey and Ross. TPB represents a departure from the culture of commodity fetish endorsed by mainstream television series, making it virtually the only counter-commodity on the dial. And it is clear that critical audiences are exhibiting their anti-brand loyalty.
Naturally, the show draws comparisons to MTV’s roster of reality-based comedy (à la Jackass, Osbournes), and other unscripted fare such as Cops and Fear Factor. As Kyle Shaw explains, “The success of Trailer Park Boys is clearly part of a larger TV wave. The lines between fact and fiction, and good taste and bad, are increasingly blurring […] viewers can’t seem to get enough of ostensible non-fiction, the more outrageous the better.” Clattenburg agrees: “That’s what you have to do nowadays to catch an audience,” however, he adds that beneath the gruff veneer of the characters, “all that’s left is love: That’s the subtext of everything we do.” On the most rudimentary level, the underlying theme of the show is a genuine concern for friends, family and community, a virtue that cannot be claimed by any one of the above-mentioned examples.
Perhaps due to its newly-acquired ‘cool quotient,’ TPB appears to be the sweetheart of television reviewers in most national publications. The intelligentsia is now taking note, superficially enjoying a harmless laugh, but meanwhile paying close attention to a potential legend in the making. Russell Smith accurately notes that the series “[…] plays to a contemporary mentality that has no trouble assimilating, simultaneously, the differing aims of satire, parody and farce.” John Doyle identifies the show’s low-brow narrative as “[…] an anti-bourgeois soap opera, a cheerful and loving celebration of foul-mouthed, lazy lowlifes […] you know when you’re watching it that you’re lucky to see a TV classic unfold in front of you, and in Canada too.” In a reflection on the parallel sub-society inhabited by these outsiders, Canadian novelist Lynn Coady confesses her desire “[…] for TPB to stay exactly as it is, frozen in time, forever: for Ricky to never educate himself past Grade 10; for Randy to never cease fortifying his great gut with cheeseburgers; for Mr. Lahey to never, even for a moment, stop being a ‘drunk bastard.’” There is a mounting fear that because Trailer Park Boys has garnered such critical attention and acclaim, the show will somehow loose its ability to remain fresh, and funny, in the face of mounting pressure for new characters, plot developments, or censorship. John Doyle warns us to “[…] treasure it before some goof in a suit in Ottawa tries to make it go away.”
In the course of my investigation into this subject, the most pleasant research I undertook was speaking with some of my colleagues about their knowledge and opinion of the show. What struck me was that each person I spoke with had a strong emotional response, either to some aspect of the narrative, or to specific characters. Surprisingly to me, some of the students I spoke with found particular characters physically attractive. And nearly all have known someone like Ricky or Julian over the course of a lifetime living in Canada. In every instance, the topic generated discussion over the state of Canadian film and television, the role of private broadcasters in the production of national culture, and the characterization of a gamut of society largely underrepresented in North American media. Overwhelmingly, I found that film scholars are big fans of the boys from the park, and those that are not have little experience with them. Ricky provides a safe point of departure from the often sterile world of analysis, while allowing us to keep one wandering eye on the irony-meter. Therein exists the critical balance between post-everything culture and pure idiocy that spells the show’s appeal to our media academics.
I was regrettably unable to attain an interview with the show’s creators –they are presently filming at an undisclosed trailer park– and my requests were met with polite but irrelevant letters from Showcase bulk email response systems. Auspiciously, I did have the fortune of sharing an aisle with Ricky, Julian and Bubbles (they are never really out of character) on a recent Westjet flight to Calgary. When I asked where they were headed, they responded in unison: “Game 6.” They were most gracious to oblige my conversation; when I mentioned that I was a fellow film scholar, they wished me luck and signed my copy of the National Post, which happened to have a picture of Bubbles printed over his plea for Government-funded healthcare for kitties.
It is a simple solution to pass Trailer Park Boys off as trashy, juvenile humour –characters that lack culture, rather than cultural characters. But under further investigation, it becomes clear that they are not only the descendents of the historical hosers of Canadian cinema, but are also following in a great tradition of Cinéma Vérité, maximizing a low-budget aesthetic pioneered from necessity in the Great White North. The series lies directly in the path of the dominant American model of episodic television; an inverted hybrid of the reality and sit-com genres. It seems the new paradigm for Canadian cultural producers is to embrace our stereotypical image and position in the global community: If we are hosers, then let us be the funniest, most outrageous hosers that we can be. Undoubtedly, future generations of Canadian writers and directors will be influenced by the aesthetic, narrative and formal characteristics of the show, and look to TPB as pillars of Canadian culture. Ricky, Julian and Bubbles symbolize the contradictory Canadian condition of achieving success through portraying failure. But as Canadian hipster Gord Downey once wrote: ‘We live to survive our paradoxes.’