Hands up who remembers Episode 8, Season 4 on Trailer Park Boys? Well, I do. On the episode, the Boys had a large crop of marijuana plants that needed harvesting, fast. They needed help. So, being the Boys, they stopped a passing bus and ordered the occupants to help with the work.
The bus happened to be the touring vehicle used by Rita MacNeil and her band. Rita got out, started harvesting and then broke into, “It’s a working man I am…” and she and her crew toiled away. It was mad. It was insanely funny and weird in a very Canadian way.
There is one particular strain of Canadian culture that thrives on TV. We don’t make a lot of truly notable TV here, but much of what is memorable falls into the category of offbeat, manic humour anchored in what you might call the decent-hoser part of what we are. This strange time of anxiety about a pandemic, the jolt to our day-to-day lives and being stuck at home is the ideal occasion to savour that offbeat humour that is ours.
There are multiple seasons of Trailer Park Boys on Netflix. Often, to some people, at first glance it’s about guys who like their booze and dope, swear a blue streak and generally appear to be as stupid as mud. They’re not stupid, actually. But acting that way comes naturally.
The formal structure to the series is immensely clever and classical – the boys come out of the hoosegow at the start of the season, embark on a get-rich scheme, fail at it through many zany adventures and go back to jail. But in texture and tone, that trailer park is Canada. People take care of each other no matter the nutty shenanigans. The Park is us. We are the Park.
Letterkenny (multiple seasons on Crave) is an inspired variation on the genre. Unapologetically Canadian, rural and often raw, it delights in the vernacular of ordinary people and celebrates the comedy of guys chewing the fat, goofing off and taking a dim view of pretension. When the series made its debut on Hulu in the United States, it got some ecstatic coverage – literally, the kind of dream reviews that very few shows generate.
In Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall devoted acres of space to it. He described the show’s weirdness accurately: set in rural Ontario and anchored in wonderfully florid dialogue. How often do you see that? Then he writes, “This is a strange, simple, delightful show that kept surprising me.” Of course it did: It’s an emanation of the authentic Canadian culture that we often keep to ourselves.
Sepinwall was astute in spotting the deft TV-parody aspects of Letterkenny. The show dips lightly into outright parody of TV formats and other absurdities. One brilliant episode – in the second season, I think – had an uproarious parody of those Conservative ads aimed at Justin Trudeau, the ones about him being “just not ready” for the job.
Letterkenny is basically a buncha guys talking. About hockey, women, food, farm animals and drinking. Oddly static in style and miles away from slick, the series is about Wayne (Jared Keeso, who created it) and his buds not doing much in their small Ontario town. The town is divided into groups – the Hicks, the Skids and the Hockey Players. There are also the Christians but nobody pays them much mind. Wayne, his sidekick Daryl (Nathan Dales), and Wayne’s fancy-free younger sister Katy (Michelle Mylett) are all Hicks. It’s not long before you realize that Katy is the wisest character on the show. And never has the flavourful, salty Canadian vernacular been used with such aplomb and abandon.
What Would Sal Do? (now on CBC Gem) can be added to the list. It’s darn funny without having quite the precision of Letterkenny or the intricately mad harmony of Trailer Park Boys, but it has a comic cultural specificity that is a delight to see.
Set in Sudbury, it stars Dylan Taylor as slacker-hoser Sal, still living with his mom, Maria (Jennifer Dale), at 30. To mark his 30th birthday, mom informs him that he is, in fact, the second coming of Jesus Christ. Hers was a virgin birth, she asserts. Therefore, he’s the new Messiah. She has the backing of local priest Father Luke (Scott Thompson), who has an uncommon, intense interest in Sal’s welfare. As it happens, though, Sal is an idiot and an oaf and not much impressed by the news.
Then stuff happens. Miracles, you might say. And Sal feels this pressure to do good deeds and be decent. But Sal is a bully and an ass, very much the Sudbury numbskull not much interested in doing good, except to keep his obviously deranged mom off his back.
What these series share is what we share: A sense of warmth and decency, a habit of mocking macho aggression and not taking seriousness very seriously at all. Beneath the hair-raising comic antics on these shows is the bedrock of the national psychology of Canada.
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