It could happen to anyone. Well, it could happen to anyone abandoned in a trailer park and raised on a diet of reality television.
Before he gets out of jail, Julian, the lead character in Trailer Park Boys, engages a film crew to follow his every move -- and to remind him to keep on the straight and narrow. Julian's reconciliation with his dim-witted accomplice Ricky, and his inevitable return to the trailer park's gritty underworld, is thus thoroughly captured on video, with the lurid eyewitness sensibilities of low-budget, reality-based TV.
Beginning its second season on Showcase this Sunday (at 9 p.m., ET), Trailer Park Boys is both wild mockumentary series and curious entrée into the seedier side of Halifax. "Basically, we're parodying Cops," says Mike Clattenburg, the show's 35-year-old creator, who is also its producer and director. " Cops from a criminal's point of view, that's the angle of Trailer Park Boys."
Clattenburg is sitting in a Dartmouth, N.S., restaurant with the show's stars, 31-year-old John Paul Tremblay (who plays Julian) and Robb Wells (who plays Ricky). They arrived together for a breakfast meeting, Clattenburg stuffed in the back seat of Tremblay's red sports car. Wearing similar black coats, the trio look like average, semi-employed white guys from anywhere in these parts. During the interview, Wells and Tremblay leave on their coats, looking ready to make a quick getaway, but more likely fighting the chill of an unseasonably cold day.
The three co-write the show, hatching plot lines for episodes such as season two's Freedom 35, in which Julian concocts a scheme to snag an early retirement by selling marijuana through the prison system. "Awkward comedy is probably our favourite thing," says Wells, 30. "Looking at the situations you might get into. . . . . Stealing car stereos at the mall and getting caught is a little awkward."
With the second season heading to the small screen, and new episodes for the third in the works, the world of the trailer-park boys has grown from a one-off, virtually no-budget film into what is quickly becoming a cult classic of Canadian TV.
Trailer Park Boys is descended from a movie of the same name (also directed by Clattenburg) which first secured Showcase's interest. That film, in turn, came on the heels of his 1998 film, One Last Shot, the group's first ensemble work.
Before that, Wells and Tremblay -- who knew Clattenburg from Dartmouth, where all three men had lived -- were pizzeria owners in Prince Edward Island, using their spare time to make up characters and videotape themselves. Clattenburg, meanwhile, was a promising figure on the Halifax film scene, who'd gotten his start with a sketch-comedy program on public-access TV. The friends stayed in contact and often talked filmmaking, Clattenburg dispensing advice on the phone or, on occasional visits to PEI, in person. "Then we'd have a real director," says Wells. "The skits were way better when he was there."
"They had some wonderful moments where they'd be present as characters for eight to 10 minutes, playing," recalls Clattenburg. "Truly, truly playing."
Having too much fun to stop, they made One Last Shot, Wells and Tremblay improvising every scene while Clattenburg got it onto film. Wells's character lived in a car, Clattenburg's massive American sedan. "We'd ram it with trucks -- carefully, so it would still pass inspection -- and used it as our movie prop car," Clattenburg says. The car has become an heirloom of sorts: Now missing the passenger-side door, it's the same one Julian lives in on Trailer Park Boys.
When One Last Shot was shown at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, the three were there to witness the audience laughing in the right places, applauding, enjoying the film.
"It's really special to think we could actually cheer people up," says Clattenburg. "We went right back out and improvised the Trailer Park Boys pilot."
Trailer Park Boys now has a distinctly loyal following, with hundreds of fans having posted messages on the accompanying Web site -- albeit sometime with praise that is distinctly, ironically faint. "Some of the finest in Canadian TV," writes Scott from Calgary, "although that's not saying much."
The show has sold for broadcast in Australia, and Clattenburg has been to New York to talk with MTV executives, who, he says, considered the series a complement to Jackass, the over-the-top tribute to bad-taste sketch comedy. "But it didn't happen," he says. "I think because of MTV's no-gun policy, which I understand. We have a lot of guns in the first six episodes." He gives a pause before the punchline. "And dope, and swearing, and drinking and driving."
"It's outrageous, outrageous stuff," he readily admits. "That's what you have to do nowadays to catch an audience. There are bikes flying through windows, dope, drinking and driving, and guns." But, he adds, when you get past all the fireworks, "all that's left is love: That's the subtext of everything we do."
"People say we're making fun of trailer parks, but it's the exact opposite," says Wells, who, like Clattenburg and Tremblay, has actually lived in one. "As big scumbags as Ricky and Julian are, in many ways they're better than most people in the real world. They'd do anything for their family, do anything for their friends."
Playing with reality is a tricky business. A successful sendup of reality TV, after all, has to resemble the genre. "With Cops, Watch What Happens Next, When Animals Attack, I think mass audiences are conditioned to Handicam footage," says Clattenburg. "That's why Trailer Park Boys is shot on Handicam. We want it to appear as if each scene only happened once and it was documented. So, our actors never have to hit marks. If a car drives through the shot with someone who stops and looks at the camera, we keep going."
Not all viewers get the joke. "I was in line to pay for my food at the grocery store," Tremblay says. "An old lady about 75 came up, put her hand on my shoulder and said 'Julian, I watch your show every weekend with my grandchildren. We love it.' "
"I've talked to inmates from at least four different prisons who watch us all the time in jail," says Wells. "Some of them ask us when we got out."
Over the years, Clattenburg has attracted a core of willing amateurs and supportive professionals to partake in his work, and he has stayed loyal to them now that Trailer Park Boys has the stability of being low-budget rather than no-budget. (It costs about $100,000 an episode).
He is conscientious and genuine with praise. Producer Barrie Dunn, he says, "spearheaded the campaign to get us on television." Jonathan Torrens (who also starred on the teen show Jonovision, and who here plays hip-hop caricature, J-Roc) is "without a doubt one of the most brilliant actors in Canada."
Mike Smith, whose character, Bubbles, constantly steals the show, merits extra attention. "If you write a character who has big glasses and lives in a shed and swears, until you see the character it's hard to get," says Clattenburg. "Bubbles is Piggy, he's Forrest Gump, he's a pretty established staple in literature. But Mike's take on him is totally original."
Other elements of the show could arguably be improved by bringing in more experienced actors -- or a more specialized crew. But part of the attraction to Clattenburg (if not all TV critics) comes from his team doing things their own way. During a tour of the tidy trailer park where the show is filmed (a "secret" location in metropolitan Halifax), Clattenburg points to a bare strip of road in front of a trailer that is flying a Canadian flag.
"That's where we had the burning car flipped over for the start of season two, and you wouldn't believe the garbage and broken bottles we had all over the place," he says enthusiastically. "That whole stunt realistically cost $70. The thing that was difficult was explaining to the people in the trailer park what we were doing. They let us flip cars on their roofs, throw TVs around, and we cleaned all that mess up in 25 minutes. Everyone on the crew stopped what they were doing and cleaned it all up. They saw that that's how we were operating, and they were cool."
And however utterly original their show, 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 in the big-money universe of American TV, where viewers can't seem to get enough of ostensible non-fiction, the more outrageous the better. Hence Fear Factor, in which contestants eat bugs and climb precarious obstacles for not very much cash; and the wildly popular The Osbournes, MTV's fly-on-the-wall look at Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne's chaotic family life.
At the same time, audiences seem to prefer their scripted productions to have a patina of realism. Witness wrestling that is as choreographed as ballet, or alternately, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the new sitcom of Seinfeld creator Larry David, which is shot in almost documentary style, and follows the daily life of a paranoid character named Larry David.
In a world where such things are the stuff of success, it seems only fitting that a bunch of trailer-park boys should be taking the world by storm, all from the outskirts of Halifax.