Imagine an alternate universe where, in Donald Shebib's acclaimed 1970 film Goin' Down the Road, leading man Joey's suspicious Toronto relatives open their doors to the pair of bumbling Maritimers. With food in their bellies and a roof over their heads, Joey and Pete's story would surely lose its tragic edge, its constant air of existential dread. It would probably be a comedy.
"You could have had Goin' Down the Road: The Sitcom at that point," says Prince Edward Island filmmaker Jeremy Larter. In 2013, the 36-year-old and a handful of friends debuted Just Passing Through, a Web series based on exactly that premise that's earned more than half a million YouTube views. The seven-episode first season chronicles the lives of a pair of Islanders stuck in Toronto on their way to the oil sands, gradually unravelling the peaceful life of the big-city cousin they move in with.
The show, which launched its second season at the end of January, is a remarkable portrait of Canadian regionalism, deftly contrasting exaggerated stereotypes of fun-loving, affable Maritimers with prissy Torontonians. But beneath its vulgar script and crude humour lies a deep reverence for east coast culture and Canadian stories that you'd be hard-pressed to find on conventional television.
That Just Passing Through has a second season is something of a miracle. Director Larter and his co-creators had to crowdfund a third of its shoestring $150,000 budget. But they hope it will become a calling card for future projects – if not an opportunity to port the show to real TV sets – as well as a beacon for this kind of regionalist storytelling in Canada.
"To make 12 episodes of our own show, about our own home, is a less-than-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Geoff Read, who co-created the show alongside Larter and his brother Jason Larter.
The show tends to attract comparisons to Trailer Park Boys, but it really only shares its region of origin and delight in vulgarity. Just Passing Through follows cousins Terry and Parnell Gallant, played by Island actors Dennis Trainor and Robbie Moses, as they explore the vast Toronto ecosystem with wide eyes and cuss-laden voices. They meet locals, fall in love, collect pogey – unemployment insurance – and crack wise. But each profane and sexually explicit joke, it seems, is matched with a reverent reference to east coast pop culture.
A mysterious Kensington market cartel, for instances, is revealed to be the "Maritime Mafia," a decades-old reference to both east coast tycoons and the business team Anne Murray assembled when she first descended on Upper Canada. An oft-referenced homemade PEI porn movie is titled Goin' Down the Red Dirt Road, tipping its skeezy hat to Shebib's film.
Homages are tucked in every corner: In split-second shots of a trivia night score sheet, Sloan's Chris Murphy and east coast TV personality Jonathan Torrens both show up as answers.
The show even nails the little things new Torontonians see and hear when they move to the city. When Terry and Parnell show up to crash their cousin Owen's apartment, they marvel at how small it is. "For this neighbourhood," says Owen, played by Toronto actor Tyler Seguin, "it is a gem."
Larter and Read are familiar with adjusting to Toronto's social dynamics. Read, another Islander, came in 2006 to study law. Larter has gone down the road, too – twice. He first moved there in 2003 to study film at Sheridan College, heading back home when he finished, only to return in 2010 feeling he'd accomplished as much as he could in PEI.
The pair connected upon Larter's return to Toronto, though he's hesitant to apply permanence to the move. "I still haven't really left – I'm back there all the time," Larter says. "Maybe that's why so many Islanders stick together. When you finally leave the Island, you stay in a pack."
By then, he'd twice applied unsuccessfully for Web-series funding from the Independent Production Fund (IPF), and was trying to come up with a new idea. He and Read soon found themselves in a YouTube vortex watching old SCTV clips, and finally came across "Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice," the show's 1982 Goin' Down the Road parody. The seeds for Just Passing Through were planted.
For better or worse, moving away is part of the Maritime experience. Maybe it was time, they realized, for a modern twist on Goin' Down the Road – one that turned out more like the sitcom Perfect Strangers than typical CanCon tragedy.
They got $150,000 from the IPF and Innovation PEI and began shooting. While the first season is set in Toronto, most filming was actually done on the Island, save for a few outdoor shots. The first season launched in November, 2013, earning quiet acclaim, though it didn't exactly go viral since the only marketing was word of mouth.
After landing some conversations with several Canadian broadcasters, the co-creators say, they started developing a second Toronto-based season. But the conversations "didn't go anywhere," Larter says, so they tried something new: What if Terry and Parnell's cousin Owen got stuck on PEI? The flipped fish-out-of-water second season takes viewers everywhere from the dunes of "Pogey Beach" to a rally against unifying the Maritime provinces. The filming was also extensive, compared with the first season: more outdoor scenes, more extras and more action.
Innovation PEI couldn't help for a second season, but with the IPF and the help of a Kickstarter campaign, they managed to get a roughly $150,000 budget. Larter and company filmed the season last summer on PEI and, like last time, they're hoping it will receive broadcaster attention – if not for a TV-friendly version of Just Passing Through, then an opportunity to make something else original. Maybe even another Maritime story.
They might not be imitating the Trailer Park Boys, but they certainly admire what the series did. "Seeing that show being made was one of the first times where I thought, 'You can be guys from the Maritimes and come up with a show idea about people like people you know, get it on TV, and people in the U.S. and elsewhere will like it,'" Read says.
The creative team also ran into some controversy with a down-home twist. A few days after briefly erecting a "Toronto" sign along a road for a quick scene, Larter was filming another scene nearby with a sign for the protagonists' fictional hometown: Bumblef–k, PEI. As Trainor and Moses raced down the street in motorized La-Z-Boys, a man pulled up in his truck and emerged, fists cocked. He demanded the filmmakers take the insulting sign down.
"He thought we were the same Toronto assholes who had been shooting a Toronto thing," Larter says. It being PEI, Larter recognized the man from the wharf he'd worked at years earlier.
How did Larter talk the man down? "I told him I grew up five minutes down the road."