Tale As Old As Time


You may have noticed that watching TV is an excellent way to stop yourself thinking. 

Last week, when I was holding my little dog as she was dying from a tumor on her liver, the second of my pugs to die within a three month period, for a distraction I Netflixed some Zack Snyder movies. 

I couldn’t tell you how I got there; I was curious about Rebel Moon?—how did the cast get so shredded? the extreme lack of body fat on some of them honestly looks like actor abuse—then I watched the first Superman till it got to be too boring, then bits and pieces of subsequent sequels. Ponderous and silly, forgettable as cottage cheese, they did the job: they let me sit and quietly hold her, numbing the time before I took her to the vet to end her life.

Then comes the aftermath, the coming home to a newly empty house: each mounting absence feeling new, each coming with unexpected benefits because, if I’m being honest, each loss comes with opportunities. But then there’s a period of decompression, like walking out of a dark room into sunlight, or vice versa, time needed for your eyes to adjust. 

Like it was a guilty secret, a friend had sometimes talked about a long-running TV show, saying the title almost as if he were warning me against it. My blank week seemed like a good time to give it a shot so I fired up S1: Ep1 of Trailer Park Boys, not at all expecting that I’d end up watching all the original seven seasons over the next four days. And not just watching but binge-watching—something I’d never done before—going along with that thing that normally makes me crazy, skipping the end credits and intro to the next episode, knocking them back without thought like popcorn.

Because it’s been an international success since the early 2000s, chances are good you’ve already seen it and my recent enthusiasm might not be news. If you haven’t, created by the director of the first seven seasons, Mike Clattenburg, the Canadian TV show is a mockumentary, improvised by the actors around a basic shooting script. Set in Sunnyvale, an imaginary trailer park in Nova Scotia, that is both a vision of heaven and hell, the overarching themes of the show involve the quest for home and family, sufficient money to buy vodka, hot dogs, and easy access to a plentiful supply of dope. To achieve these goals the three central characters, Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles, devise increasingly outlandish schemes and scams that more often than not involve the growing and selling of dope, or home-made liquor, converting a trailer to a car-repair shop, or massage parlor, or an illegal gas station, siphoning off gas from parked cars, schemes that are usually financed by robbing a convenience store for start-up cash. That such schemes go inevitably wrong, ending in shoot-outs and jail time, not only comes as no surprise but becomes part of the natural rhythm of their lives: what’s funny isn’t that they fail but that they try. 

Teetering right on the edge of what’s acceptable—the passage of time since production began in 2001 might make some of the show’s obsessions less palatable now—the director balances the central characters’ complete lack of morals, scruples, and decency (Ricky’s first action in the first episode of the first season on arriving back at the trailer park after a stint in jail is to attempt to rob a child), with a style detached from any naturalistic reality, floating in a dream-like place established in the credits, a place where no actual real-world harm could come to anyone involved. Sensibly it puts aside any thoughts of discussing the results of generational poverty on display, coupled with lack of education and opportunity, to focus instead on the characters’ drive to pull off the one big crime that’ll allow them to retire in comfort.

If everyone has favorite episodes, characters, incidents, it still doesn’t explain why it’s funny: shoot-outs aren’t funny; drinking gallons of rye, whisky, vodka, and beer isn’t funny, unless you know there won’t be any consequences; as is true with smoking that much marijuana or hash. The series was surely planned and written before the opioid epidemic was even named, and no drugs like heroin or meth are used that I remember. In run-ins with rival drug pushers if Ricky gets shot, we know he won’t be seriously hurt. We know he’ll pop right back up. The boys will take him to a vet who’s  just got out of jail and is trying to get his life back together, so instead of a cash payment he wants the boys to rob a neighbor who has a really sweet riding mower except when they get there the guy shows up with a shotgun. Ricky gets shot again!

I began to think there was something very old about it all. Not stale or derivative, but old as in reaching back centuries to a kind of comedy we don’t do so much any more. For example, Ricky played by Robb Wells as a loud-mouthed, impetuous, drunken lout, would be the perfect casting for Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The thought of ice princess Titania falling in love with such a festering pile of unwashed boorishness takes the breath away—just as it should, he’d hardly need the ass’s head. And the rest of the hapless layabouts who surround him would be the perfect crew to play the Mechanicals. Instead of your heart sinking when they appear, anticipating the displays of unfunny, coarse acting to come, with Ricky in charge they might just be able to unlock some of the old fun that must have hung about those scenes when the play was new, when Will Kempe, notorious for his improvs and interpolations, was the first Bottom. Shakespeare even wrote into the play some of a jig staged by and for Kempe—at least, it appears in the version that’s come down to us, whether Shakespeare wrote or approved it is a different matter. 

Having nothing to do with the nonsense around ‘OMG! Did the Earl of Essex write the plays?’ (No, of course he didn’t. Neither did Francis Bacon, or Harriet Beecher Stowe) I have a theory based on nothing much more than a knowledge of how plays actually get done (and how actors behave), that a greater or larger percentage of the prose in the comedies, and maybe the other plays, too, was in fact improvised then written down. Just as the actors worked on TPB itself. For Shakespeare, whose cast probably had a less than perfect command of the script, when the prompter had an essential role to play and was right there on the stage with them, when the whole experience of going to the playhouse had a different meaning from what it does now, the working-class world of Julian et al gives us a viable model for Cheapside, or ‘a Wood Outside Athens’, as a stage direction has it, when the men playing the Mechanicals would have been actual mechanicals themselves, tradesmen with day jobs, directly engaging the audience in a way that doesn't happen any more, at least, not authentically, it’s no longer part of our playgoing experience. Though I did once witness Mickey Rooney at the Westport Playhouse demolish a play, the cast, and almost the theater, with a bravura display of low comedy that, whatever the rest of the audience thought of it, left me aching from laughter. ‘The ousel cock…’ indeed.

Almost as interesting is the treatment of the trailer park’s resident supervisor, face of authority, and almost-villain, Mr Lahey. As played by the late John Dunsworth, he becomes Malvolio, the pompous major domo from Twelfth Night, threatening the boys with tsunamis of shit, his inevitable humiliation and degradation growing out of his wild schemes to trap them, expose their crimes and drive them from the park. His drunken brawls are funny in a way that Malvolio, locked up and taunted by the low-lifes and hangers-on surrounding Sir Toby almost never are. If we are squeamish about taunting those who might be in the middle of a breakdown, the boys of the trailer park take to it with a stinging relish, connecting effortlessly with that older, crueler comedy we no longer accept. Not because we‘re better or necessarily kinder, but because that’s not how we like to see ourselves. To be in a theater laughing at such stuff the way Shakespeare’s audience would have done, the way I did at TPB, means that your cruelty is being witnessed. Stand-ups can better get away with violations of taste because that’s what the audience goes to see. For instance, when I went to see the late Joan Rivers, I went fully expecting, hoping, to see the foul-mouthed, outrageous comic I knew from TV (people who knew her in  life all attest to her warmth, generosity, and kindness) making jokes about sex that a younger woman might balk at. 

Dragging Old Man Only To Threshold: As a man drags his father to the door of his house, intending to put him out, the old man bids his son not to drag him past the threshold, since he dragged his own father only that far when he had in mind to put him out of his house.

I came across The Old Man story in Ariadne’s Thread, William Hansen’s catalogue of traditional European folktales, some of which go back to versions from Rome, Greece, Egypt, and beyond: eg. the Homecoming Husband category of stories appears as the constellation of older tales that make up the Odysseus legend. The Old Man story he links back at least as far as Aristotle who used it to describe the actions of anger, citing the story as having been a real court case in which a son was accused of beating his father. Since the son’s father had done the same to his father, who had done the same in turn to his, the court found that the son’s rage was customary, his anger justified, and acquitted him. The same is true for Trailer Park Boys: Ricky protecting his daughter while fending off the depredations of his father; characters knowing each other from childhood; Julian living in his deceased grandmother’s trailer; the boys veneration of tradition, the show’s mad logic, ‘It was done to me so I can do it to you’. If the boys’ world is limited, it’s the world they inherited, and since it’s the only world they know it’s the world they’ll hand on.

Defining yourself by what you watch/read/listen to is something we all do. ‘I’m not the sort of person who watches superhero movies’, or ‘I’m the sort of person who reads the New Yorker (or NY Times). One of the uses of the theater is to do exactly that, to make clear to ourselves and others who we are by what we attend: ‘I don’t like musicals’, 'I love British plays! Why can’t we do dramas as well as the Brits?’ It’s traditional for Broadway to have one snob hit a year, something widely praised by The Times and often the recipient of Tony awards; Amadeus, Equus, the plays of Athol Fugard, till he put a stop to New York productions; not that they’re necessarily bad but the snob hit’s primary purpose is as a cultural indicator. Today, when far fewer people attend the theater and the genre play has disappeared, when we no longer go once a month to see the latest thriller or whodunit, when sit-coms have vanished leaving behind the issue play, people talk about what they’re streaming, what series they’ve binged, what actors they’re following from red carpet to new season drop.

The time and place that we watch something does, of course, contribute to our response: I’m thinking of my reaction to the MCU (flu induced semi-delirium) and TPB (grief); how would I have responded had I first seen them as it were cold? Many of the movies we loved back in the day now look inexplicably terrible, others we didn’t think much of seem to have improved in the can. Certainly I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for the original seven seasons, when TPB was a small-scale, cheap-to-produce TV series. The later spin-offs, including seasons 8-10 aren’t so appealing, more often falling into gross-out humor or recycling what earlier had been fresh. Plus, the actors had already aged out of their roles even as they were shooting season 7. The final episode concludes in a satisfyingly quasi-Shakespearean glow, with lovers re-united, families restored, homes reclaimed, cars fixed, and money and weed abundant—everything, in fact, they’d wished for in S1: Ep1. Beyond the urge to cash in there is no reason to add one minute more. I relished the ribald, world-turned-upside-down, Lords of Misrule aspect of TPB, and even if I never watch it again now that the need for temporary forgetfulness has passed, I still think with admiration of the iron-clad logic that dooms any efforts the boys might make to break out of Sunnyvale into the larger world, inevitably ending with them back in jail. Where they belong? They sort-of think so.  Outside time can almost seem like an interruption to the more comfortable, secure, jail time where food is abundant, vodka free-flowing, dope plentiful, and life is easy. Its draw-back being lack of contact with loved ones and loved places where they were boys together. And what new mischief Mr Lahey might be brewing that needs to be set right.

Like Daffy Duck with Bugs, or Wile E. Coyote with the Road Runner, the temptation to go one more round will inevitably prove too strong, and if it all ends in chaos and disaster isn’t that what it means to be alive? 

In honor of the boys I’ve begun to record a yarn of another three scapegraces up to no good, but this is from the height of empire and I think makes an interesting comparison/contrast: three young men, office workers and each the model of propriety, presenting a week of boating on the Thames as an epic to rival the Odyssey; Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. A bestseller in its day that has never been out of print. I’ll be posting chapters here.

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