We all know that we Brits love a good deal – you only have to look at our seemingly unquenchable love for all things Groupon or our addiction to a TV show where a bearded millionaire conducts imaginary conversations about empty boxes to realise that. So what if I told you you could buy yourself six full seasons of the greatest sitcom ever made for under eighteen quid? I think I already know the answer when I ask (with a respectful tip of the cap to Entourage’s Bob Ryan) – is that something you might be interested in?
Trailer Park Boys is set, as the name suggests, in a run-down trailer park in Halifax, Canada. Shot in a faux-documentary style (this was before The Office made it ubiquitous) the show follows the exploits of the inhabitants of Sunnyvale Trailer Park and their various misadventures.
The show is centred around two ex-cons, Ricky and Julian, and their best friend Bubbles as they plot various criminal schemes in order to get rich and get high. Standing in the way of the boys’ success are Sunnyvale Trailer Park’s supervisors: ex-cop and full-blown alcoholic Jim Lahey and his inexplicably shirtless assistant (and lover) Randy. The supporting cast of miscreants, idiots and vagabonds who make up the rest of Sunnyvale’s residents, such as wannabe rapper J-Roc and his gang ‘The Roc-Pile’, Ricky’s father Ray and Trailer Park Girls Lucy and Sarah, aid and abet the Boys in their missions.
The endless conflicts between The Trailer Park Boys and Mr Lahey run like episodes of Tom and Jerry written by Hunter Thompson, with each side constantly trying to outwit the other but failing (largely due to their own limited brain power). Liquor and marijuana play as large a part in each episode as the characters do, and they are frequently responsible for The Boys screwing up their capers, or for Lahey failing to outwit his nemeses (John Dunsworth’s drunk acting is truly magnificent).
Forgive me if I’m about to sound like a Bieber-obsessed schoolgirl, but there is just so much that is phenomenal about Trailer Park Boys: the characters are realistic, have just the right levels of pathos and are so well drawn that you accept even the more bizarre aspects of their behaviour – Julian’s inability to ever put down his glass of rum and coke, white-boy J-Roc’s belief that he’s black, or Bubbles’s obsession with a ventriloquist’s doll named Conky – unquestioningly.
The dialogue is hilarious, a fact that’s even more impressive when you discover that large amounts of it are improvised, and the show has a love of language that results in levels of quotable dialogue that far surpass your Lebowskis and Withnails. From Ricky’s countless malapropisms (“I hate to say Atoadaso”), through Mr Lahey’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of shit-analogies (“Captain Shittacular is raising shit”), to J-Roc’s oft-impenetrable rap vernacular (“knowwhati’msayin?”), the show is a goldmine for fans of comic wordplay. Yet fans of slapstick will find plenty to satisfy them too, from violent gunfights that break out at a drop of a hat to some of the best, and most realistic, pratfalls ever seen on screen (try typing ‘Lahey drunk’ into YouTube). But whatever your comedic preferences, you never lose the sense that the comedy you are watching is original and unique, nor the feeling that the next laugh is only a sentence away.
There is also a wonderful vein of surrealist humour running though the heart of the writing: from the gang’s theft of Patrick Swayze’s model train to a perma-stoned pet cougar named Steve French, it frequently provides some of the show’s funniest moments yet it also manages to avoid compromising the sense of realism needed to sustain the humour in the first place – an achievement that takes real comedic skill.
Indeed, one of the show’s greatest successes is its ability to strike exactly the right balance in terms of the tone of its comedy – yes, we’re invited to laugh at the characters but, unlike in something like Shameless, the characters are never patronised. Life on the trailer park is rarely romanticised – it’s constantly made clear that it’s a pretty shitty place to live, and many of the plot lines focus on the characters attempts to simply get enough money to buy their next meal or pay their rent. Yet the affection and reverence the show’s actors and creators have for their subjects in evident in almost every scene – these aren’t the greedy, devious chancers of the Chatsfield estate, they’re good people living in poverty, something that the show never forgets despite all the laughter.
For any comedy to be successful you have to care about the characters you are watching, and on this level Trailer Park Boys leaves its rivals in the dust – I can’t think of a single other sitcom that brings the viewer as close to as many characters as TPB. Unlike most other comedies the show doesn’t rely on archetypes – each character is well rounded and has a backstory that perfectly explains their behaviour. After just a few episodes you’ll find the characters seem far more like your friends than any of the cast of Friends ever did. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the broad-stroke characterisation in comedies like Friends or Seinfeld, but in Trailer Park Boys you find yourself actually believing these are real people, indeed, the characters have become so real to many fans that the actors who play them never appear in public out of character for fear of breaking the illusion.
Part of the reason for this unique depth of character is due to the show’s origins – most North American sitcoms are developed with some form of mass market appeal at the forefront of the producer’s minds, hence the reliance on instantly identifiable characters, whereas the entire first season of Trailer Park Boys was produced for less than the cost of a Joey one-liner. This lack of market pressure gave TPB’s Canadian creators the freedom to make exactly the kind of show that they wanted, and gave them time to build and develop characters organically rather than just slap their cards down on the table in episode one: “Ok, this is the angry guy, this is the dumb guy etc etc…”. This organic growth is one of the shows strongest suits, and its a pity that due to today’s cut-throat commissioning culture more comedies don’t get the opportunity to let their audience grow into the characters.*
Of course comedy is nothing without performance: Gordon Brown performing a Chris Rock set would not be funny – actually, bad example, that would be hilarious. Ok, think George Osborne doing Michael McIntyre material (although like me you may argue that that isn’t funny even when Michael McIntyre performs it) – anyway, my point is that you can have the funniest lines in the world but if they aren’t delivered right you won’t get a laugh. In many sitcoms you can very often can see, if you pay attention to these sort of things, a slight change in the actors when they are delivering a joke or punchline – just a flicker in the eyes and a hint of hamminess as they prepare to get their laugh (Curb – j’accuse). The reason for this is that most actors and comedians have huge egos, and there’s nothing a big ego likes more than to wallow in the glory of a ‘look at me, I’m being funny‘ moment – if you want a examples check out Robert De Niro’s spectacularly ill-advised turn in Analyse This, or Brad Pitt’s smirking cameo on Friends. With TPB however, there’s no hamminess, no telegraphing of the jokes, indeed there’s no indication that the actors are aware anything they’re saying is funny, you never doubt the fact that all they are is real people talking – an added joy is that on repeat viewings you find yourself noticing countless jokes that flew right by you the first time. Many comedies depend on the viewer suspending their disbelief in order to get their laughs, but Trailer Park Boys doesn’t need to rely on this lazy trick – instead it ensures everything we see, no matter how bizarre, is so authentic that we never doubt its veracity, and of course we all know the truth is the funniest joke of all (hey, are you going to argue with Muhammed Ali?).
Yes, the show isn’t perfect – in my opinion the first few episodes move a little too slowly and certainly the spin off feature films aren’t for everyone: the attempts to shoehorn the characters into a standard cinematic three act stories are as successful as they were in the Simpsons movie (i.e. not very). But there comes a moment midway through season one when you realise that you are experiencing one of those rare pleasures that television occasionally provides – a show that understands exactly what it is trying to do and does it so perfectly that it seems effortless. You can sense that not only have the creators realised the full comic potential of both the subject matter and the characters, but that they also have the skill and judgement to draw out the maximum amount of laughs without compromising the essence of the show. This mastery of the medium lasts for at least the next four seasons: each season is funnier than the last up until season six, and then, it has to be said, the level does drop a bit – but even a bad episode of Trailer Park Boys is better than 95% of the comedy out there.
Of course all comedy is subjective, and largely pointless to deconstruct – if you have to explain a joke it’s usually because it hasn’t got a laugh. It may well turn out that you totally disagree with everything I’ve just written and, if you find you’ve watched the whole of the first series and you haven’t laughed once, then I apologise: the show’s clearly not for you. But hey, look on the bright side, you’re only down eighteen quid, you’ll survive.
If on the other hand you do have a sense of humour, all you need to do now is open a new window on your computer, go to a shopping website named after a big river and place your order. Then, when those DVD’s arrive, simply crack open a bottle of swish, get some chicken fingers on the grill, and press play – when you find yourself rolling on the floor, pissing yourself with laughter, forgive me if I take just a little pleasure in saying ‘Atoadaso’.
* Except, bizarrely, in the case of Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show – how did that pile of dross escape the axe? I’ve seen funnier autopsies.