Trailer Park Boys Live in Fuckin’ Dublin Review

I should confess a slight conflict (or confluence?) of interest when writing about Trailer Park Boys. Not only did I grow up in Nova Scotia, I hail from the exact community (Dartmouth/Cole Harbour) in which Trailer Park Boys is set. My old high school appears in the show, as do many other landmarks of my childhood. Robb Wells (Ricky) and I don’t know each other well, but our parents are friends. The “Phil Collins” character (aka the “mustard tiger”) is apparently played by a distant blood relative of mine. This is a show that’s very much set on “home turf” for me.

But oddly, when I first discovered the show in the middle of their third season in 2003, I hadn’t been back in some time and felt quite distant from those places and that culture. So, I was able to laugh at the show three times over: once at its genuinely funny moments, once at the regionally-specific references and once more at how universal the humour has become. Here in British Columbia, much of the humour translates quite effectively across the continent, as a lot of the satire comes from situations that are simply rural, others from drug culture, others still from Canada, but the show’s popularity internationally is a great demonstration of how the show transcends cultures and settings.

Trailer Park Boys is tightly scripted, but it is structured as a mockumentary, the device used by Rick Gervais’ first Office series and many TV comedies since. Created originally by director Mike Clattenberg, the show started life as a dark, twisted and strange two hour 1998 “documentary” titled “One Last Shot” focused around two small-time pot dealers, Ricky and Julian (John Paul Tremblay) who make extra money by hiring themselves out as “squirrel assassins” in their home, Sunnyvale Trailer Park. Shot in black and white, this first documentary does introduce all the other major characters, such as Ricky’s girlfriend Lucy (Lucy Decoutere), trailer park supervisor Jim Lahey (John Dunsworth) and his shirtless assistant, Randy (Pat Roach). Noticeably absent from this first incarnation was Bubbles (Mike Smith), the glasses-wearing supermarket shopping cart salvager who, though he appears to be a “simple” redneck, is actually the smartest and most morally centered person in the show.

Bubbles was introduced as a main character in the first season of the TV series for the cable network Showcase, which premiered in 2001 and ran over seven seasons until 2007, and also produced three full-length theatrical films, a Christmas Special, a TV movie and even a board game. It will soon return on Netflix for seasons 8 and 9, and has recently premiered a live stage version of the show, now available on Netflix as Trailer Park Boys Live in Fuckin’ Dublin.

What makes the show such a success? The plots revolve around season-long efforts on the part of the three key boys (Bubbles, Ricky and Julian) to make enough money to retire from growing and selling pot. In one season they call their scheme “Freedom 35”. But it never works out quite the way they expect it, and the seasons usually end with the boys back in prison (where they start each season). Their nemesis, Supervisor Jim Lahey, is an ex-cop and a hopeless alcoholic played hilariously by John Dunsworth, probably the best actor on the show and the only one of the regular cast whose stage training and experience allow him to give a complete, nuanced performance. Over the course of the first seven seasons, Lahey grows and changes the most, which was no doubt a deliberate decision on the part of the writers and producers to take advantage of their best actor. (In one unforgettable moment from season four, Lahey relaxes into a broken lawn chair with a full bottle of rum and ruminates about staring into the “shit abyss,” and Dunsworth plays the scene with as much commitment and conviction as any actor has ever given.)

Great acting and great characters like Lahey give the show its rewatch potential, but the actual success comes from, in a large part, how appealing the three central characters are. Not being trained actors, Wells, Tremblay and Smith still inhabit their roles with absolute commitment (they never break character) and refuse to see themselves as bad people or even criminals (despite their recidivism). In amidst all the hijinks of trying to grow and sell pot, fighting or deceiving the trailer park supervisor, or Ricky perennially trying to repair his relationship with Lucy, there’s a warm, family-friendly message in Trailer Park Boys. It means literally no harm to anyone (even the regularly occurring police characters are gently teased) and ends on sentimental moments more often than not. Sometimes the sentimentality can get out of hand but in episodes like season four’s “If You Love Something, Set It Free”, the show truly touches that sweet spot in between comedy and melodrama.

The show’s international success was something that probably took everyone by surprise, not the least of which is me, but that allowed the cast to spin off and take on other projects, such as appearing in an episode of Archer (“The Limited”) and producing a completely different and very strange TV series, The Drunk and on Drugs Happy Funtime Hour. But it was Trailer Park Boys that kept this group coming together over the years and they allowed the brand to grow in unexpected ways.

Some of the cast members have been touring around Canada and some of the US for a while with a nightclub act developed from the show. Sometimes Dunsworth and Roach take to the road as “Lahey and Randy”, and sometimes the three central boys appear under the “Trailer Park Boys Live” banner. They have been working this act for a few years, so it comes as no surprise that when they take the stage in Dublin in their new video, it’s with the confidence of seasoned comedic performers. Which is good, because for characters such as Ricky, any breaking of character or the appearance that he is something less than completely convinced of his own magnificence in that quintessentially redneck way would destroy the character. Smith and Tremblay deserve great credit for not breaking character in front of the friendly and sizeable Dublin audience, but Wells really goes the extra mile, playing Ricky in a theatre setting with all the forceful bravado that he brought to the TV series.

The Netflix special has “wraparound” scenes, shot in the old park, showing Bubbles announcing that they’ve won a trip to see Rush in Ireland. Following a video message from Alex Lifeson (one of the show’s biggest fans and frequent guest star), the boys board a “private plane” and fly to Dublin, smoking huge joints and pounding liquor in a luxury jet. Ricky, of course, misunderstands the term “private” and when they get to customs and immigration in Dublin, one of the officers cracks a joke about, “You wouldn’t happen to have brought any of that dope with you, Ricky?” Of course Ricky, in that situation, rather than keeping quiet and getting into the waiting car, offers the customs officer marijuana from his own stash, which lands the boys in an Irish jail.

The scene in which the boys are taken before an Irish judge is the gem of this special. Played, in another bit of Canadian stunt casting, by the legendary Canadian folk singer Denis Ryan, the judge chastises the boy in the friendliest Irish way possible. “You know, we have lots of drugs here in Ireland! You could have just bought those!” After enthusing about how much he enjoyed the last Rush show he saw in Dublin, the judge offers them a deal that if they’ll put on a show giving an anti-drug message, he’ll call it community service and let the boys walk.

This leads very logically into the show itself, which mixes Rat Pack-style on-stage hanging out and bantering with musical performances from Bubbles (he sings “Closer to the Heart” to close the show) a puppet show (fans will be happy to know that Conky makes an appearance) and even a hapless and hilarious “hypnotist” act from Ricky. Much of the show was clearly developed as a late-night club act, for intoxicated patrons in dimly-lit bars, so some of the bits don’t play quite as well for a theatre audience. The long sequence in which they invite three women up from the audience and make them roll joints, pick chocolate out of kitty litter and pound a can of beer would all be hilarious in a bar setting, but even in Dublin that’s a bit much for a theatre show. (Although don’t count those Irish ladies out: they get their joints rolled well enough to make any lonely Canadian’s eyes grow red with envy.)

The stage show really just demonstrates how well the creators of the show have managed to repurpose the characters in so many different environments. For a time, it appeared that Trailer Park Boys was headed into overkill territory, and destined to be one of those acts that briefly erupts and then fades away, like Bob and Doug McKenzie. But their skill at hitching their franchise to the latest media (their website was ahead of its time) and their seemingly indestructible characters have given the boys a real shot at a lasting brand.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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1 Comment

  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Ian, 100% right about John Dunsworth. His portmanteau words where half the word is always shit (ropes, hawks, just about anything) are always hilarious. And since this is one of the few recent articles that doesn’t mention X-Men: Days of Future Past; I’ll point out that a very young Ellen Page portrayed Jim Lahey’s daughter in Season 2. She was clearly already better than some of her fellow actors.

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