Dean DeFino's brilliant analysis of Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian mockumentary television series that focuses on the misadventures of a group of trailer park residents, some of whom are ex-convicts, living in the fictional Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Though little-known in the United States, Trailer Park Boys is one of the most popular programs in the history of Canadian television. Over seven seasons and two feature films, (1) the show has offered a mockumentary window into the lives of a group of petty criminals in a Nova Scotia trailer park. As one series character explains, the program is "kinda like COPS, but from a criminal's point of view" ("Fuck Community College, Let's Get Drunk and Eat Chicken Fingers," Season 1: Episode 2). But where COPS and similar reality shows hide their schadenfreude ethos behind a pose of verite objectivity, Trailer Park Boys clearly plays the absurd criminal schemes and quotidian adventures of Sunnyvale Trailer Park's loser heroes--Julian, Ricky, and Bubbles--for laughs. They subsist on a diet of cheap booze, pepperoni and chicken fingers and speak in a vernacular that is equal parts malapropism ("cubic zarcarbian," "supply and command," "get two birds stoned at once") and obscenity (in one episode, the word "fuck" is spoken 91 times), but while some critics of Trailer Park Boys deride the show for "laughing at the poor," its out-sized characters are drawn with remarkable affection. "The idea isn't to make trailer parks look bad or have fun at their expense," series creator and director, Mike Clattenberg claims. "It's about the people on the show playing the cards they're dealt." (2)
While Trailer Park Boys draws easy comparisons to other situation comedies having to do with socio-economic class, from The Honeymooners, to The Jeffersons, to My Name is Earl, it differs from them in two significant ways. The first is its mockumentary realism. Where the typical sitcom plays its thin plots and relentless gags on a state-of-the-art studio soundstage before a live audience, Trailer Park Boys was, until Season Six, shot entirely on location at three different Nova Scotia trailer parks, in a coarse documentary style that is partly a matter of budget, and partly a matter of design. The show looks and feels remarkably like what it is supposed to be: a cheap documentary of trailer park life compiled by amateur filmmakers, for reasons that are never made clear. The second difference between Trailer Park Boys and these other programs is the characters' tightly-circumscribed worldview. Where Ralph Cramden indulges fantasies of an upper-class existence funded by prize money from The $64,000 Question, and George Jefferson dreams of "moving on up" to the East Side, and Earl Hickey hopes to balance his cosmic books by righting all of the wrongs he has done, the boys of Sunnyvale want nothing more than to stay precisely where they are, and to have just enough money to "hang out and get drunk with friends."
Sunnyvale Trailer Park is a fully realized community with a clearly defined social hierarchy. Its owner, Barb Lahey, rules almost invisibly through cunning manipulation of her ex-husband and Park Supervisor, Jim Lahey, an ex-cop who was thrown off of the force for being drunk on duty, and thrown out of his trailer for taking up with a pot-bellied, cheeseburger-addicted male prostitute named Randy. As Assistant Trailer Park Supervisor, Randy shares not only Jim Lahey's bed, but also his draconian schemes to destroy Lahey's nemesis, Ricky. Randy's tragic affection for "Mr. Lahey," as he calls him, is the result of his having known the prelapsarian Jim, a man of kindness and genuine passion who saved the ever-shirtless, hirsute young hustler from a life on the street.
Barb, Jim and Randy represent the legitimate governing structure of the park, but the true seat of power is Julian's trailer. Julian, the gun-toting park stud in black t-shirt and jeans who continually sips rum-and-coke and plots early retirement around unlikely criminal schemes, is the patriarch of the community: arbiter of disputes, diffuser of tensions between Lahey and Ricky, benevolent despot and Robin Hood. The series begins with his and Ricky's return to Sunnyvale after eighteen months of incarceration, only to find Cyrus, a 9mm-wielding would-be thug, has taken over the Park and moved into Julian's trailer. Julian's first task is to eject the alien presence and restore his own de facto authority. His method is simple: He challenges Cyrus to shoot him in the head. When Cyrus turns tale and runs, Julian reconfirms his own Ubermensch status. But Julian is a benevolent leader: his criminal schemes are all about protecting the integrity of the park. In Season Four, he and Ricky parlay an enormous crop of marijuana into enough cash to buy, as Ricky suggests, "an island with a Ferris Wheel," but Julian has other plans: to buy the trailer park and end Jim Lahey's drunken reign of terror ("A Man's Gotta Eat," 4:2). Their plan is foiled when Barb tricks their brainless accomplices, Trevor and Cory, into signing a worthless contract, but Julian never abandons his mission. In Season Six, he uses money from yet another improbable drug deal to buy the trailers of several evicted residents, fixes them up and returns them to their rightful owners.
If Julian is the great stabilizer, Ricky is an erratic man-child with a pompadour to shame Elvis, who would have perished long ago were it not for Julian's vigilant care and his own ability to grow what everyone admits is "amazing dope." An idiot savant in track pants and a battered Martin Luther King t-shirt, he has lived off and on in Julian's grandmother's abandoned car--a doorless 1978 Chrysler New Yorker dubbed "the Shitmobile"--for the entire run of the series. Though his intellect barely exceeds Trevor's and Cory's (in "The Winds of Shit," 5:7, he boasts of being smarter than a plastic potted plant, but admits that a clock radio probably has him beat "cause it has a battery"), his love for family and friends is boundless. And though that love is almost always expressed in inappropriate ways--like teaching a group of Junior Achievers how to steal barbeque grills ("Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbeque?" 3:6) and fixing the brake hoses in the doorless Shitmobile before allowing his nine-year-old daughter, Trinity, to drive it ("Dressed All Over and Zesty Mordant," 5:8)--his desire to do right is unmistakable, if ill conceived. "I don't want her driving around in an unsafe car," he says in a facsimile of reason that is at once convincing, hilarious, and chilling. Having recently taught her to drive, his ultimate goal is to sell enough hashish that he can give her the car. But his benevolence goes beyond caring for Trinity. "I try to be a role model for kids around the park," he explains in "Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbeque?" (3:6). "If some kid wants to grow dope, they can come talk to me. Instead of growing dope six or seven times through denial and error [sic], they're going to get it right the first time and have some good dope."
Filling out the power trio, Bubbles is roundly considered "the sharpest guy in the park," though most outsiders take him for "retarded" because of his thick glasses, jutting lower lip, and Simian vocal inflections. Bubbles was abandoned by his parents at age four and forced to live (as he continues to do, now in his 30s) in Julian's tool shed. A frequent caution to Julian and Ricky, he dispenses baubles of moral wisdom from the proverbial ("If you love something, set it free.... and if it doesn't come back you're an arsehole") to the erudite (he convinces Julian to trick Ricky into asking his girlfriend to marrying him by discoursing on Plato's notion of the "Noble Lie"). But Bubbles is no mere Jiminy Cricket. Whatever the scheme, and with full knowledge of its inevitable outcome, he willingly ties his own destiny to that of the boys, even if it means going to prison, as he does at the end of Season Four.
As a comic arena, Sunnyvale Trailer Park might be lumped together with any number of impoverished comedic settings, from the Cramden's tenement building in The Honeymooners, to the Queens row houses of All in the Family, to the Evans' run-down apartment in the Chicago projects of Good Times: narrowly defined narrative spaces inhabited by broad comic types whose nebulous adventures give rise to the program's self-contained gags. Contrary to the claims of the creators of Seinfeld, there is nothing original about a sitcom where "nothing happens." The sitcom story is never more than the thinnest pretense for a series of jokes, anchored, not by the sweep of events, but by the invariable situation that gives the genre its name. For shows like Good Times and Trailer Park Boys, poverty is that situation, the foundation of the gags. Comedy writers since Chaucer have known that poverty breeds its own particular varieties of humor, from the humanist paeans of Charlie Chaplin to the thinly-veiled shit jokes and barroom double entendres of Archie Bunker's cronies. Most successful comedies attempt to strike a balance between these modes, if only to offset the potential offense of one and the saccharine tendency of the other. All in the Family, for example, inevitably follows the familiar "whoosh" of Archie's toilet with a speech by Gloria or Mike advertising their evolving social consciousness, or Edith confirming Archie's basic decency with a fond recollection of their younger days: all of this surgically undercut by an Archie one-liner as he descends the stairs adjusting his trousers.
Trailer Park Boys is particularly adept at achieving a balance between the higher and lower registers of humor, such as when Ricky's father, Ray--an alcoholic Calvinist who is working a disability scam by pretending to be crippled from the waist down--professes his love for Ricky while the two get sloppy drunk in a strip club ("Who the Hell Invited All These Idiots to My Wedding?" 1:6), or when Ricky, recently busted for siphoning and re-selling gas at a makeshift gas station, asks the judge that he be allowed to use profanities in order effectively defend himself, citing the "People's Freedom of Choices and Voices Act" ("If I Can't Smoke and Swear I'm Fucked," 3:3). The humor in these scenes is evident, but no more so than the pathos we feel when the characters acknowledge the gap between their desires and their personal limitations.
Perhaps the best example of striking a balance between profane and ennobling humor is a scene from "A Man's Gotta Eat" (4:2), where Randy bathes in a makeshift outdoor shower he has constructed from a garden hose, shredded plastic bags, and the remnants of an old lawn chair. Thrown out of their trailer by Ricky, who has risen to the rank of Trailer Park Supervisor, Randy and Jim Lahey are forced to live in their own car and plot their revenge. In the meantime, they adapt to circumstance: Lahey fries bacon and eggs on the engine block, and Randy makes his morning ablution. When Ricky arrives to take the car from them (as it technically belongs to whomever holds the title of park supervisor), he spots Randy showering and protests: "Randy, I can see you through all those goddamn liquor bags and lawn chair strapping, fucksakes!" To which Randy responds simply, "Well, stop friggin' looking, Rick!" Ricky is so disgusted by the scene that all he can do is drive away, taking Randy and Lahey's breakfast, half of their belongings, and the cord holding up Randy's ersatz shower with him, leaving Randy and Lahey completely exposed. Conspicuously absent from this hilarious scene is any malicious laughter. Though Ricky literally strips them of their dignity and privacy, he takes little pleasure in doing so. Despite the deep well of hatred between the three men, and Lahey's oft-sworn pledge to kill Ricky, their battles are, for them, tragic and of great consequence.
At the end of Season Four, Lahey tries to murder Ricky in a shoot-out that will eventually land both in jail, but he is too drunk to shoot straight. When the two are paroled at the beginning Season Five, Ricky plots Lahey's murder, but his plan is spoiled when Lahey offers him what seems a sincere apology and a sobriety pledge. The truce is broken when Ray reveals that Jim has been secretly drinking, and Lahey responds by exposing Ray's disability fraud, then tipping off a gang of gun-crazy drug dealers that Ricky and Julian stole their stash ("Jim Lahey is a Fucking Drunk and He Always Will Be," 5:5). The characters' exaggerated sense of scale--their typically disproportionate response to threats, implied and real--fuels the humor in each of these scenes, but it also speaks to the charm and purpose of the show's realism. If Sunnyvale Trailer Park seems at first a remarkably banal narrative arena, the petty dramas that play out there make what I think is a profound social statement about the objectification of poverty. Poverty is not a crucible to try men's souls, nor a social problem to be corrected by ambition and government funding, nor merely a world of liquor-bag-thin walls, where the private lives--and private functions--of ones neighbors become the stuff of crass humor. It is a state of being and belonging, with its own unique set of social pressures and problems, and a narrative arena as viable as any other. For Dickens and Horatio Alger, poverty is a smithy of the soul, but for the trailer park boys, it is simply where their stories begin and end, more or less peaceably and to good effect.
In an elaborate sequence from the series' second episode, "Fuck Community College, Let's Get Drunk and Eat Chicken Fingers," Ricky acclimates himself to his new home--the derelict car in Julian's side yard--by tricking it out with domestic comforts: Julian's stolen toaster oven on the roof, a dish rack on the trunk, various cutlery spread out on the hood, and a garden hose lashed to the window pillar with lengths of duct tape, in lieu of indoor plumbing. Over time, the collection will grow to include a television, a hot plate, a microwave oven, a clothesline, a lazy Susan, an elaborate pantry and--after he gets the car running again--a hockey stick to "clear all that shit off" when he needs to go somewhere. Swelling with home pride, he invites Ray and Julian over for a meal, but while the promise of free booze and blues music blasting from the car stereo is enough to entice Ray to roll by in his stolen wheelchair, Julian will have none of it. At the first whiff of chicken fingers, he storms out of his trailer, tosses the contents of the toaster oven on the ground, serves Ricky a hand-written eviction notice and threatens to leave the park and enroll in community college to become "an electrician, a meat cutter, or a television and radio broadcaster." As Julian huffs off, Ricky turns to the camera and launches into a monologue about Julian's ingratitude and lack of perspective. Gesturing toward Julian's trailer, which Ricky describes as a "fuckin' palace," Ricky notes that he is happy simply to live in a car, where he is provided with "everything I need."
Though the scene is certainly humorous, it avoids absurdity, partly due to the sincerity of the characters, and partly due to the matter-of-fact manner of its presentation. In their seminal study of mock documentary, Faking It, Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight argue that the genre frequently uses the documentary camera as a sort of straight man to amplify the comedic affect of absurd material by pretending to take it seriously. (3) We see this especially in the films of Christopher Guest: Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003), which at once ridicule and celebrate the petty dramas and victories of their community theater actors, washed up musicians, and dog fanciers by using the camera as an earnest and sympathetic observer, bridging the ironic distance between the audience and the subject. But the mockumentary format also opens up a unique critical dialogue between the viewer, the "straight" camera and the subject that becomes apparent at moments of circumspection like the one described above. Though Ricky's Panglossian response to his and Julian's living situation suggests a witless optimism, his interpretation of the events--his narration--forces us to consider potential gaps in our own perception. Sure, it is funny, but doesn't Ricky have a point? Moreover, because the documentarians themselves do not explicitly contribute to that narration, the characters are at times able to commandeer the narrative and make of it a diary of their thoughts, opinions, and unashamed self-reflection.
Like Guest's films and the two television versions of The Office, Trailer Park Boys eschews the narrator/interviewer convention of mockumentaries like Take the Money and Run (1969), This is Spinal Tap (1984), and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of the America (2004), for a seeming-monologic form not unlike what we find in the documentaries of Errol Morris. Morris' Interrotron device, which compels his subjects to look directly into the camera while answering questions the audience does not hear--nor in most cases might guess--creates an experience both immediate and uncanny, where the audience becomes keenly aware of any cracks in the subject's facade. The effect is not unlike that of Kurosawa's clever device for framing the testimonies in Rashomon (1950). Absent any sensible avatar of the questioner, subjects' remarks seem far less structured, more associational, immediate, and contingent. But the willful subject can use this exposure to advantage by appropriating the camera's gaze, leaving the viewer to wonder who exactly is the straight man after all. Sasha Baron Cohen's mockumentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) offers a brilliant variation on this narrative strategy, where Borat Sagdiyev--an extraordinary amalgam of hateful stereotypes unconcealed by his gray serge suit and exuberant gestures of affection--plays straight man and stooge by way of revealing the true butt of the joke, the audience. For we cannot laugh at Borat's monstrous prejudices and those of the people he meets on his journey through America without reflecting upon our own. Of course, the film is also self-reflexive. As a mockumentary that is also a documentary--a film that uses the devices of documentary for comic effect, but also documents that effect--Borat blurs the line between text and metatext. Clearly Cohen is the one driving the ice cream truck--in costume--through the American South, and clearly the resolution of that journey--Pamela Anderson in a 'wedding sack'--is pre-scripted. But each time "Borat" introduces himself to another citizen of his documentary version of America, we ask ourselves, "Who is walking into whose frame?"
Similar, though less ontologically complicated, questions arise in Trailer Park Boys when the fake documentary crew intrudes upon the narrative space. Two examples come to mind from the Season One, because they are the first times we catch a glimpse of the people behind the camera. In Episode 4, "Mrs. Peterson's Dog Gets Fucked Up," Ricky grabs the boom mike and drags the soundman into the frame because he and Julian are having difficulty moving a lawn tractor they intend to steal from a farmer's barn. "I don't mind you guys following us around," he demurs, "but you could at least give us a hand here." Later in the scene, the soundman is wounded in a shoot-out between Ricky, Julian and the farmer, and Ricky and Julian drop him at the curb in front of a hospital emergency room before fleeing, to have their own wounds tended by a veterinarian. Later that evening, the sound man leaves a message on Julian's answering machine, thanking him for saving his life and explaining the situation to his employers, helping him to keep his job, which the soundman claims is "the best one I've ever had." The second instance occurs in the final episode of Season One, "Who the Hell Invited All These Idiots to My Wedding?" when the same soundman and his partner with the digital video camera unwittingly walk in front of a supermarket surveillance camera as they document the boys' holding up the store. Later, footage of this and other of the boys' crimes is used to throw them back in jail, but what we see is very telling: a tiny crew of eager young filmmakers so earnest in their desire to accurately document their subjects that they unwittingly conspire not only in their crimes but their conviction. Significantly, we witness this scene not through the probing, investigative lens of the dedicated straight man, but through the passive, clinical eye of the security camera: one more view of the complex relationship between subject and object.
More important than the earnest tone of such scenes is the remarkably realistic backdrop against which they are played. While Christopher Guest's dramas culminate in theaters, dog show arenas, and sound stages--"play" spaces that intentionally undercut the emotional impact of the action--the diegesis of Trailer Park Boys is presented using a comic facsimile of the observational, direct cinema approach of Frederick Wiseman, where characters are observed in situ, their dramas organic outgrowths of their environment. In Wiseman's films, the dramatic space is also tightly circumscribed: the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater in Titicut Follies (1967); Philadelphia's Northeast High in High School (1968); the ICU at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital in Near Death (1989); The Spring, a Tampa battered women's shelter in Domestic Violence (2001). This specificity not only establishes an authenticity of place, but also amplifies the cathartic force of their dramas and tragedies, because they happen to these people in--and largely because of--these environments. While most fiction and non-fiction film narratives lend themselves to universal application--we identify with the stories because the characters and settings seem generically familiar--Wiseman's documentaries are not about shared experience, so they require a far more detailed rendering of narrative space in order to produce the empathy required for catharsis. The viewer must get to know the place before entering it.
Many dramatic television programs make claims to a documentary realism, particularly crime dramas like NYPD Blue and Law and Order. But in most cases this is merely a debased style, having about as much to do with the empathetic ontology of Wiseman as the fast-paced cutting of the so-called "MTV style" has to do with the Romantic sensibilities of the avant garde filmmakers who invented that style in the 30s, 40s and 50s. The rare exception is HBO's The Wire, a show that splits its crime-and-corruption narrative cleanly in half along the thin blue line and takes the viewer--with equal intimacy and attention to detail--from the Mayor's office, to the precinct house, to the crack house and, perhaps most importantly, to the street corners where Baltimore's drug trade lives and dies. In a recent interview with novelist, Nick Hornby, the show's creator and principle writer, David Simon, addresses the show's remarkable authenticity:
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader.... I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world.... I would consider [the show] a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect. (4)
More than the hope of gaining himself "street cred" among drug dealers and corrupt cops, Simon needs that authenticity to give real substance to his story. In the same interview, he compares the two models of tragedy: the classical, where the hero is confronted by unknowable external forces and, though he strikes back valiantly, is finally crushed by them without knowing why (Oedipus, for example), and the modern, where the hero is confronted with a problem that challenges his sense of identity and forces him to undergo an internal transformation (Hamlet, for example). Though most contemporary narratives follow the second model, The Wire clearly follows the first, where the inscrutable external forces are not gods or fates, but the endlessly labyrinthine social codes of contemporary America, which are all but hidden from the racially and economically marginalized--hence, the insistent realism of the show. Like Wiseman's films, whose subjects are also at the mercy of the unknowable gods and monsters, The Wire demands authenticity in order to create dramatic empathy.
Much of what David Simon says could easily be applied to Trailer Park Boys (or Balzac, for that matter), and the two programs share much in common: both are about poverty, crime and drugs; both develop elaborate plots around complex criminal schemes using a large ensemble cast; and both feature a character named Bubbles (in The Wire, he is a homeless heroin addict who sells information to cops, in Trailer Park Boys, he is a cat lover who lives in a tool shed and gives advice to thieves). But, as any comedy writer will tell you, realism is much more difficult to sustain in a genre that is nearly always about exaggerated perceptions. The more realistic the diegesis, the more mean-spirited the humor appears: it simply cuts too close to the bone. This can, of course, be used to brilliant effect. Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, adopts the mockumentary pose to amplify the level of existential discomfort in Larry David's escalating scenarios of miscommunication and social ostracism. The pleasure of the show owes mostly to the exquisite pain of watching the events unfold in a "real" narrative space. But if this cruel humor is acceptable in a show about ultra-rich celebrities in that simulacrum of reality known as Hollywood (Curb is a fish-out-of-water story, but the fish is worth $500 million and surrounds himself with celebrity friends), nearly all comedies about the poor avoid documentary realism, perhaps because layers of aesthetic artifice shield the audience from the charge of "laughing at the poor," or because realistic depictions of poverty awaken antipathies that spoil our delusions of humanistic concern for the less fortunate. Yet Trailer Park Boys offers a remarkably rich diegesis that rings far truer to life than the fantasies of yuppie prosperity that have so long been the staple of American television comedy in shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City, with their hermetically-sealed worlds photographed like mail-order catalogs, where the twin consumer aspirations of security and plenty are implicitly met. The nearest parallel to Trailer Park Boys" aesthetic in contemporary television is The Office, which renders the all-too-familiar environment of corporate park culture in loving detail. But shows explicitly about class like The Beverly Hillbillies, Roseanne, Married ... With Children and The King of Queens play their comic versions of social commentary on stage sets, and even those that occasionally leave the studio sound stage create alternative universes: the postcard Manhattan of Sex and the City, the Martha Stewart fantasia of Desperate Housewives. This is equally true of the opposite end of the social scale. My Name is Earl, for example, combines the visual crassness of John Waters and the jocular pacing of the Coen Brothers to create a cartoon backdrop for its running commentary on commonality and karma. But the denizens of Sunnyvale Trailer Park live among the foot-high grass, old tires and engine blocks, raccoon-ravaged trashcans, and stolen shopping carts familiar to anyone who has spent time in a trailer park. Where dramatic series like The Wire might use this authenticity to serve the sociopolitical ends of neorealism, Trailer Park Boys presents poverty, not as ennobling or degrading, nor as a metaphor for the shared human condition, but merely as a precondition of its characters' lives.
Mockumentary is by definition ironic, yet the combination of authenticity and specificity in Trailer Park Boys produces a level of empathy for characters equivalent to that in The Wire and Wiseman's films. The only difference is the manner of catharsis each seeks, tears or laughter. One cannot help but feel compassion for the absurd causes and trials of Sunnyvale's residents, nor resist embracing their ethos, best expressed in the title of the second episode of the series, "Fuck Community College, Let's Get Drunk and Eat Chicken Fingers": to cast off ambition for the nobler virtue of friendship. Far from mocking them, we soon see that they are, in the words of Robb Wells, who plays Ricky and co-writes the show, "better than most people in the real world. They'd do anything for their family ... and friends." Sunnyvale's resident white rapper, J-Roc, has a more poetic way of expressing the same sentiment: "In this park it's one mafucka for all and all mafuckas for all mafuckas." And he does mean all mafuckas, including the villains. In "Jim Lahey is a Drunken Bastard" (2:2), Lahey caps his campaign for Trailer Park Supervisor against interloper, Sam Losco, with a drunken speech that borders on Chaplinesque humanism:
Who in this park, or even in the whole world, doesn't have problems? Who doesn't have a drink too many times once in a while and maybe even winds up passed out in their own driveway, pissing themselves? Who doesn't drink too much sometimes or who doesn't have a puff from time to time? And who doesn't have problems with the people they love? This is our home. This is our community.
The notion of the community built upon mutual fallibility and boorishness is the cornerstone of many successful comedies, not least of which the greatest of all class-based American sitcoms, The Simpsons. This acceptance--this inclusive spirit--owes much to the classical fatalism that undergirds the humor in each show. While Homer Simpson may be oblivious--and so strangely immune--to his terrible parental and environmental legacy, we and Marge and Lisa and Karl and Lenny must all admit to ourselves, in moments of sober contemplation, that the apocalyptic meltdown is inevitable. Our affectionate laughter is ever tinged with perverse irony. And Ricky knows it, too. "I'm like a frog running along the highway," he tells Julian as the police start closing in at the end of Season One: "Eventually some car is gonna hit you, and this is the fuckin' car" ("Who the Hell Invited All These Idiots to My Wedding?" 1:6). Or, as his Calvinist father, Ray, explains after he blows all of the boys' savings on video lottery games, "That's the way she goes, boys. Sometimes she goes, sometimes she doesn't. Cause that's the fuckin' way she goes" ("The Fuckin' Way She Goes," 5:3). Few--if any--of Springfield's or Sunnyvale's residents could claim to be among Calvin's elect, but at very lest they can laugh at the cosmic joke.
One could, of course, find a valuable class commentary at the center of Trailer Park Boys, where the damned state of these characters affects something between marginalization and rebellion. In his essay, "From Back Bacon to Chicken Fingers: Recontextualizing the 'Hoser' Archetype," Ryan Diduck highlights the program's "counter-commodity culture." (5) Sunnyvale residents aspire, but merely to better trailers and more liberty to hang out and get drunk with friends. They trade, but only in illegal goods: hydroponic marijuana, pirated rap CDs, amateur porn, bootleg vodka, and stolen groceries, barbeque grills, Christmas trees, cable television, and propane. For Diduck, they are outlaws of capitalism, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of corporate culture. Perhaps the most glaring statement of the show's critique of this culture is the fact that all brand names--be they cola logos on cans, raised white letters on tires, or insignias on t-shirts--all branding is blurred out in post-production. This commentary is less the biting Marxist wit of a Bunuel or Godard film than the feckless tag of a drunken graffiti artist--a smudge on the ordinary barely noticed by any but intimates of the program--but, by denying the hegemony of the brand, the objects per se are restored to their original position of primacy. Almost invisibly, they are transformed from emblems of consumer culture into precisely what they always were: the detritus of modern life, the trash and the soon-to-be trash. In place of the rows of General Mills cereals on Jerry Seinfeld's kitchen shelf and the carefully-posed hand of Elaine holding (albeit with winking acknowledgment) a pristine bottle of Snapple with its logo turned to the camera, Trailer Park Boys gives us a shredded bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and a soda can stuffed with cigarette butts.
No doubt, the boys are outlaws, but unlike corporate raiders and gangsters, whose grand ambitions elevate them to the level of anti-heroes, the narrow circumscription that constitutes the boys' worldview renders their schemes ridiculous. Where Gordon Gekko builds an empire from insider trading and his "Greed is good" mantra (Wall Street, 1987) and Tony Soprano lords over the New Jersey crime syndicate with a Machiavellian will and a business paradigm that includes web fraud and bogus HUD loans (The Sopranos), Julian and Ricky's plans are not only ludicrous, but doomed to fail: smuggling marijuana across the US/Canadian border using a model railroad and hashish in the handles of stolen shopping carts; operating a night club out of J-Roc's Mom's trailer and a "Convenients Store" of stolen goods from Cory's Mom's shed. The central narrative structure of the show varies little from season to season: the boys leave jail set a criminal scheme of idiotic complexity into motion, get caught and go back to jail. Each season is prefaced by a short interview with Ricky and Julian--just before or after their release--where Julian discourses on lessons learned during their incarceration. But as soon as the boys leave the prison grounds, it is back to business. Season Two, for example, begins with Julian laying out the plans for "Freedom 35," an early retirement program that requires them to grow enough marijuana for twenty pounds of hashish. In order to grow the hash, they need money for plants and hydroponic equipment, which they hope to raise by a bit of petty larceny. "I picked you up at jail ten minutes ago," Bubbles protests after Julian lays out the plan, "and now you're telling me we're going to steal car stereos" ("What the Fuck Happened to Our Trailer Park?" 2:1). The season ends with a police chase: a helicopter and a half-dozen squad cars in hot pursuit of the boys hauling their Airstream trailer grow house through Nova Scotia farmland. Season Three begins with a plan to supplement their illegal income with "semi-legit" businesses until they can raise enough money to take a cruise, and ends with Julian taking the fall for a stolen ATM machine while Bubbles, Trevor and Cory quaff umbrella drinks on the high seas.
Key to their relentless optimism, as well as their invariable pattern of behavior, is the notion that bleak circumstances can be transformed through "the power of positive thinking." But theirs is at best a gross misreading of Norman Vincent Peale, and at worst a hallucination. Ricky's version is clearly the latter: "You can either pretend you're in jail, or right now I'm pretending I'm in university." ("Who the Hell Invited All of These Idiots to My Wedding?" 1:6). With Julian, the matter is a bit more remote. Though he claims to be an avid reader in prison, the only time we actually see him with a book is in "Give Peace a Chance" (5:1). His pre-release interview takes place in his prison cell, and in the foreground we see an unopened tome entitled Triumph of the Salmon. A pure invention of the show, the title of the text nonetheless offers a pretty clear notion of Julian's life philosophy: his poetics, if you will. As a symbol of eternal determination, the salmon is an ideal role model for Julian. The "triumph" of the salmon isn't that it reaches the spawning ground upstream, but that it does so year after year, relentlessly pursuing the path of greatest resistance. Like Julian, it swims against the current of conventional wisdom, out of instinct, not principled rebellion.
Of course, rebellion is a necessary mark of the hero, classical or modem. Achilles is merely the best of the Greek warriors until Agamemnon's insult compels him to do something truly willful: he refuses to fight. Satan is God's minion until he leads a rebellion against His tyranny and is cast into chaos. Each may be playing a part divinely ordained for him, but his actions run counter to everything that once defined him. The soldier uses his sword, not passive resistance, and angels of God obey Divine Will, they don't question it. While it is true that Ricky, Julian and Bubbles rebel against the law, the petty tyrannies of Jim and Barb Lahey, and common sense, their actions are as predictable as if written in their DNA or, in Ray's Calvinistic view, simply preordained. In Sunnyvale Trailer Park, you are who you are, and nothing can change that. Or, as Ricky explains to Julian after he suggests Ricky give up growing marijuana in "The Bare Pimp Project," "It's like telling NWA to stop being black" (2:7). He will not stop, cannot stop. Nor will Julian leave Sunnyvale, nor Bubbles move out of his shed, nor Jim Lahey stop pursuing his revenge upon Ricky because, as Jim says of Ricky, "A shit-leopard can't change his spots" ("A Shit Leopard Can't Change His Spots," 3:8). Perhaps this is what Mike Clattenberg means when he says that the show is about the characters playing the cards they are dealt. If the cards do not change, the hand plays out the same. That is, unless one of them learns to bluff.
This endlessly repeating narrative of instinctual resistance combines with the ontological instability of the show's mockumentary format to create the sort of giddy anxiety one feels when watching a drunken pal list toward the bathroom. We know that he will get there eventually, and we laugh as he stumbles and bumps into the coffee table, but we also cross our fingers and hope he doesn't get too badly hurt or make too much of a mess along the way. In place of symbols and social commentary, cheap laughter at the expense of those who can afford it, or the somewhat illogical notion that nothing of merit happens in a culturally devalued landscape, Trailer Park Boys offers the willing viewer more than just a comic glance into its rusted-rivet counterculture. It offers us a sort of temporary membership. Like the soundman who has to beg for his job back even after having taken a bullet for the boys, we are happy to be invited into their generous company, if only watch them list through our living room week after week, stumbling over the coffee table and stopping to urinate in the fichus, for it is in this teetering world of the absurd and the all-too-real that we come to know the true meaning of empathy.
Written by Dean DeFino on 22nd June, 2009.
Diduck, Ryan. "From Back Bacon to Chicken Fingers: Recontextualizing the 'Hoser' Archetype." Offscreen 10.1 (31 January 2006). See here.
Durbin, Jonathan. "Canadian Crude." Macleans 116.47 (24 November 2003): 60.
Hornby, Nick. "David Simon" (interview). The Believer 5.6 (August 2007). 70-78.
Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight. Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Sibiga, Matthew and Don Winninger. The Complete Trailer Park Boys. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2007.
(1) The series was developed from a feature-length film, Trailer Park Boys (1999), and has run on Canada's Showtime Network since 2001. A second feature film, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (a.k.a Trailer Park Boys: The Big Dirty) was released in 2006, and quickly became the highest-grossing English-language Canadian film. Following the recent first run of Season film. Following the recent the show announced an indefinite hiatus.
(2) Durbin, Jonathan. "Canadian Crude." Macleans, 116.47 (24 November 2003): 60.
(3) Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight. Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
(4) Nick Hornby. "David Simon" (interview). The Believer 5.6 (August 2007): 72.
(5) Diduck, Ryan. "From Back Bacon to Chicken Fingers: Recontextualizing the 'Hoser' Archetype." Offscreen 10.1 (31 January 2006). See here.