CBC News
Trailer Park Boys returns
Dan Brown, CBC News Online | April 6, 2004

April may prove to be a decisive month in the life of Trailer Park Boys.

On April 11, the series about three Nova Scotia petty criminals shot in the style of a faux documentary returns for a fourth season on Showcase, the Canadian specialty channel on which it originated and developed a loyal audience.

A few days later, on April 15, the show will have the first cross-border test of its appeal. That's when it will debut on BBC America, a digital network available to viewers in the United States.

Bubbles (Mike Smith)
Courtesy: Alliance Atlantis
Will the hard-living characters - who have become Canadian icons in only a few short years on cable - strike a chord with people outside this country? "We're going to find out soon enough," says Mike Volpe, the show's executive producer.

Only one thing is certain: Trailer Park Boys will rise or fall based on the trio of foul-mouthed misfits at the heart of the program. As with many successful TV comedies, viewers aren't tuning in to see how the show's plots turn out; story is secondary to character.

"Look at Seinfeld. If recent TV history has taught us anything, it's that the premise really isn't that important," explains Sean Davidson, news editor for the trade paper Playback.

Ricky (Robb Wells), Bubbles (Mike Smith) and Julian (John Paul Tremblay) are the key to the program's success. The show has lasted this long for the same reason that every comedy lasts – because the audience enjoys spending time with the people who populate a particular imaginary world.

Julian (John Paul Tremblay)
Courtesy: Alliance Atlantis
"I think the characters are just really rich," says Volpe, adding that viewers tell him they like the program because they see elements of real people, people who they grew up with or family members, reflected in the denizens of Sunnyvale, the titular trailer park.

What's so interesting about Ricky and his friends is that they seem to represent a paradox. On the one hand, they're quintessentially Canadian; on the other, they embody universal qualities.

"They play road hockey, they're big hockey fans. Bubbles loves Wayne Gretzky and they love Rush. These are all undeniably Canadian things to do," says Volpe, before adding that he doesn't believe the characters are solely defined by their nationality.

Davidson agrees. "I don't mean this in a bad way, but I don't see anything uniquely Canadian about those characters," he says. "The show could be just as easily set in Arkansas or somewhere in the Ozarks or whatnot. You could watch it your whole life and never click into the fact that it's made in the Maritimes."

Ricky (Robb Wells)
Courtesy: Alliance Atlantis
Which doesn't mean it lacks little touches that are designed to resonate with Canadians. When the season opener begins, for instance, it finds Ricky and Bubbles playing table-top hockey - using a chunk of hashish for a puck. It would be foolish to assume such a hockey game has never taken place in this country.

"You can't invent that stuff," says Volpe. "That's real-life stuff."

Andrew Clark is the closest thing this country has to an expert on homegrown comedy. An instructor at Humber College's School of Comedy in Toronto, he is also the author of Stand and Deliver, a history of the humour business in Canada. He says that, more than being Canadian, what's important about the Sunnyvale residents is their standing in society.

"Good comedy characters are generally what you'd call 'low-status,'" he says. "Most people can relate much more easily to a guy who's on the low end trying to get by and make his way or her way, than they can with someone who has everything."

In other words, what matters is that the folks in the trailer park are underdogs. Clark sees them being in the same mold as Wayne Campbell, the goofus created by Mike Myers, or the lovable losers brought to life on the big screen by John Candy. They are part of a tradition that stretches all the way back to Greek comedy.

"You just want to root for these guys because, you know what? They're not trying to hurt anyone. And the folks that they are trying to hurt kind of deserve it: the government, insurance companies – the overdogs, as it were," notes Volpe. "So these guys are just trying to eke out a living. There's a little bit of a Robin Hood thing going on: they steal from the rich to give to the poor, which happens to be themselves."

Clark sees the boys as the latest in a long line of comic characters that started with the CBC Radio duo of Woodhouse and Hawkins, then was later embodied by Charlie Farquharson and Bob and Doug McKenzie "Rural works in Canada," he says. "We like the idea of the rural bumpkin who says the bad thing but is also being honest."

Volpe points out, however, that it was not the intention of Mike Clattenburg, the show's creator, to consciously mine Canadian comedy history. "It was never set out to be the new hosers, the new Bob and Doug," he says.

In Davidson's view, another important aspect of the show's appeal is the way the stories are presented. According to him, the documentary look of the program stops channel surfers from flipping because they don't know if they've stumbled across an episode of the reality show Cops, news footage or a genuine documentary.

The pseudo-documentary feel came about due to budgetary constraints. Volpe says it would be impossible to do a conventional program with the same amount of money as Trailer Park Boys. "You have to look for interesting ways of telling stories that you can do for a low budget," he says. "We say 'It's cheap by design,' which works for us."

Davidson believes the decision to eschew a laugh track was also a critical one – it forces viewers to be more engaged in what's going on. He compares Trailer Park Boys to Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom, saying that a "great hallmark of good Canadian programming right now" is the absence of a laugh track. This helps the characters come into the living rooms of viewers in all their raw glory.

But will it work south of the border? With episode titles like Fuck Community College, Let's Get Drunk And Eat Chicken Fingers, the series will be pushing the envelope in the States.

Volpe says only one change has been made to each episode to accommodate more sensitive U.S. viewers: the foul-mouthed characters will have their curse words bleeped out. In the post-Janet Jackson state of U.S. television, Volpe says, it was an inevitable concession.

"It's going to be a lot of bleeps."

�I think the show is quintessentially Canadian in many respects. We don�t try to hide where the show is set.�
– Executive producer Mike Volpe

�The production itself is done in such a way that they can hold on to their creative control. The way they shoot it, my guess is they�re not spending a fortune – which is probably wise in Canada �cause it�s a smaller economy.�
– Comedy expert Andrew Clark on how the show maintains its quality

�We see them as harmless oafs and really, if they�re a danger or threat, they�re only a danger or threat to each other. The destruction and chaos that they cause never leaves the confines of Sunnyvale.�
– Journalist Sean Davidson on the appeal of the show�s characters

Trailer Park Boys began as a short film, One Last Shot, which debuted at the Atlantic Film Festival in 1998. This spawned a limited release feature, which in turn spawned the series.

Season One debuted in 2001 with six episodes. This was followed by a seven-episode second season and eight episodes in the third.

Cost to produce Season Four�s eight episodes: $1.8 million.

Mike Smith, who plays Bubbles (the humble devotee of Ricky and Julian who sports Coke-bottle glasses), started out as the show�s sound man.


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