Happy 20th Birthday, Trailer Park Boys

This year, the Canadian TV show Trailer Park Boys turns twenty. The program’s refusal to patronize its marginal, working-class characters was key to its comedic and popular success, and won it a special place in our hearts.

Trailer Park Boys is celebrating its twentieth year anniversary. (Rick Eglinton / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Trailer Park Boys, the Canadian mockumentary series about residents of the Sunnyvale Trailer Park, debuted in 2001. It would go on to become a cult classic in Canada and beyond.

In a scene from the first season, Julian, one of the lead characters, sits on his couch drinking rum and coke wearing the black T-shirt that would become his uniform throughout the show. He presses play on his answering machine and listens to a message from his friend:

Hey Julian, it’s Ricky. Just wanted to let you know that I’m single now. I could really use a friend, so if you want to stop by and get drunk, I’ll be sleeping in my car in my dad’s driveway.

At the time, moments like this made me laugh but also hit a nerve. I was single, living at home with my mom again after university, leaning on my old high-school friends to keep me sane. While featuring precariously employed and criminalized working-class characters, Trailer Park Boys also spoke to a form of middle-class disaffection that was common in the early 2000s.

For many young middle-class Canadians, facing our own failure to launch and downward mobility, Trailer Park Boys resonated for its transgressive treatment of class and its warmhearted depiction of community.

Denizens of Sunnyvale

Trailer Park Boys is the project of a longtime group of friends. Series creator and head writer Mike Clattenburg attended high school in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, with Robb Wells, who plays Ricky, and John-Paul Tremblay, who plays Julian. Wells, Tremblay, and Pat Roach, who plays Randy on the show, co-owned a pizzeria in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

The friends hung out and collaborated on film and video projects, including 1998’s One Last Shot, a wonderful black-and-white film that premiered at the Atlantic Canada Film Festival. The following year, they filmed the pilot for Trailer Park Boys. These real-life friendships shape the fiction of the show.

Ricky, with his mini pompadour and Adidas tear-away pants, can’t survive without his best friend, Julian. Mike Smith, who Clattenburg knew from the Halifax music scene, plays the cat-loving, shortsighted Bubbles, a secondary character when TPB debuted. In the first season, Smith did sound on set in addition to acting, but by season two Bubbles had become the third member of the show’s central trifecta. His orphan’s desire for family bonded him tightly to his pals. “Besides my kitties,” Bubbles confesses at one point, his head sticking out of a garbage can, “Ricky and Julian are all I really have.”

At the beginning of each season, the boys leave prison; at the end, they return. The get-rich-quick schemes they contrive punctuate this cycle. These plots are all part of a plan which the team call “Freedom 35.” “In order to stop breaking the law,” Ricky explains, “we’ve got to break the law for a couple of minutes. Then we’re done. Retired.”

In some form or another, Freedom 35 usually involves growing and selling marijuana. Well before the drug’s 2019 legalization in Canada, the TPB universe completely normalized its use. The show avoids the clichés of stoner culture by making marijuana part of the characters’ vision of the good life. “I’m trying to buy some weed today,” Ricky says planning to relaunch his grow-op, “I’m trying to get my life together.”

Standing in their way is trailer park supervisor and disgraced former cop Jim Lahey, played by John Dunsworth, a legend in Halifax arts and entertainment. His enmity toward the residents of Sunnyvale is the show’s go-to formula for conflict. However, Mr Lahey’s authority is ambiguous and limited. He usually ends up calling the police, who are the real outsiders.

Despite his contempt for the citizens of Sunnyvale, even Mr Lahey is an integral part of the community. In season two, Mr Lahey drunkenly makes a speech in his bid for reelection as trailer park supervisor:

Who in this world doesn’t have problems? Who doesn’t have a drink too many times once in a while, and even winds up passed out in their own driveway pissing themselves?

The camera pans across the faces of the Sunnyvale residents, who nod along, moved. Mr Lahey wins in a landslide.

Society produces stereotypes about the poor and the working class which pathologize poverty. Trailer Park Boys uses these stereotypes as the raw material for unique characters who we not only laugh at but identify with.

In Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles are in court again. “These boys don’t have any education,” their public defender argues “they’re addicted to drugs and alcohol, and they live in a trailer park.” But Ricky knows this is the wrong way to see things. “What does [sic] that supposed to mean!?” he yells before dismissing his counsel and victoriously representing himself and his friends.

Ricky’s celebrated malapropisms — “Rickyisms” as fans of the show dubbed them — constitute his irreverent idiolect. At one point, when facing the “worst case Ontario,” he passes with “flying fucking carpets.” Ricky’s trick is that he disregards not only the rules of grammar, but the authority of his supposed superiors. He speaks to the professional-class characters the same way he talks to everyone else, expecting to get one over on them. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a delight when it does, appealing to our own fantasies of resistance.

Take This Job and Shove It

The alienation and proletarianization of middle-class work was a consistent theme in the comedy of that era. 1999’s Office Space and the British series The Office, which debuted in 2001, mined the crushing monotony and subservience of cubicle life for comedy. Although its characters occupy a very different social position, Trailer Park Boys draws on the same critique of working life.

“Alternative culture” of the ’90s celebrated dropping out of middle-class life, dressing in old and torn clothes as if you were poor, rather like the actors in Trailer Park Boys. “We’re really an anti-TV show,” Mike Clattenburg once remarked. “It was always anti-TV, indie television — just some laughs, crazy characters, no production value.” The lack of professionalism — the fact that making this show supposedly wasn’t a job — gave TPB its dirtbag aesthetic.

As Ricky once says to Julian: “A job? You know us, we don’t work.” In the moral economy of the show, taking a real job is not just a failure — it also pits you against your friends. When Ricky becomes a mall cop, he tries to stop Bubbles from making off with the shopping carts. In a later season, when Ricky has ended up taking Mr Lahey’s job, Julian gives him some friendly advice: “Why don’t you focus more on the weed, less on being trailer park supervisor?”

Although Trailer Park Boys depicts the wish for a life free of alienated labor, it also acknowledges that someone has to do the dirty work. At the heart of the Sunnyvale economy is the exploitation and abuse of the eternal whipping boys, Cory and Trevor. Their misfortunes are one of the show’s central running gags. The other trailer park boys call upon the duo to labor, to take risks (and blame), and to give Ricky cigarettes whenever he asks.

They do this because they want to belong. “I don’t want to be all sentimental and stuff,” says Cory, “but I love them guys, and I think they sincerely love us too.” Cory and Trevor are pathetic, partly because they believe that work will actually provide them with anything of value.

TPB’s Nova Scotia

The Nova Scotia setting of the show situates its characters within the context of Canadian economic decline. Atlantic Canada underwent deindustrialization early, experiencing a decades-long decline in its coal-mining sector which started in the 1960s, and the degradation of fisheries in the late 1980s.

In his book The Quest of the Folk, historian Ian McKay argues that Nova Scotia has had its industrial history and class conflict erased through state-sponsored and popular depictions of the province as rural, traditional, and quaint: “A tourism-oriented politics of commemoration entailed the willful eradication of a challenging past.” Urban cultural producers, McKay suggests, constructed the Nova Scotian countryside “as the romantic antithesis to everything they disliked about modern urban and industrial life.”

TPB works within but also against this folk tradition. The show’s unforgettable opening sequence, with a slow chiming theme song over black-and-white footage of the park, signals Sunnyvale as a pastoral place welcoming the audience. The scenery is often beautiful. Ricky gives interviews against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset. In one episode, we get a glimpse of the ocean foregrounded by Mr Lahey and Randy, who are tied onto the top of the trailer by the show’s other protagonists.

The residents of Sunnyvale are urban, not rural types, existing on the city’s economic and social peripheries. Industrial Nova Scotia always looms in the background of the seemingly rural Sunnyvale. Many of the criminal activities of the show’s characters feed off this relationship between rural and urban: Bubbles takes shopping carts from the mall, while Ricky and Julian head downtown to steal change from parking meters. This juxtaposition shows that Sunnyvale is the product of, rather than an escape from, the class conflict and poverty of contemporary urban places.

Sunset on Sunnyvale

The show’s original seven-season run on the Canadian Showcase Network ended in 2007, but the original creative team continued to pump out television specials, films, and live performances over the years that followed. The show also won an international fandom. First broadcast in the United States on BBC America (edited for profanity, which is hard to believe), by 2009 it had found a more suitable home on Direct TV.

In 2013, Wells, Tremblay, and Smith bought control of the franchise from Mike Clattenburg and the other producers. Soon afterward, Netflix picked up TPB, producing five more seasons from 2014 to 2020, plus an animated version, a spin off called Out of the Park, and several live specials. This was when Trailer Park Boys found its greatest mainstream success, with celebrity guests such as Snoop Dogg visiting Sunnyvale. Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles even appeared as guests on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Over the course of this second act, the Sunnyvale community, which was so integral to the show, dwindled. Jonathan Torrens, who portrayed rapper J-Roc, quit in 2016, perhaps because he found it untenable to continue acting as a white man who believes himself to be black. In the same year, police arrested Mike Smith for domestic abuse; his costar Lucy DeCoutere quit in response to these charges, which were subsequently dropped. Finally, John Dunsworth, who had played Mr Lahey with tremendous aplomb, passed away in 2017.

Quite apart from the show’s organic decline, its tone does not play well in today’s overtly politicized culture. In the hipster heyday of the 2000s, the largely white TPB could mine topics such as poverty, addiction, crime, and policing for humor, with a transgressive spirit that seemed apolitical and racially innocent. This is no longer possible. Whatever else we might say about the turn to identity politics, the need for popular culture to reckon properly with the racial aspects of such questions is surely a positive development.

Later seasons of the show shy away from social problems. Rather than surfing the currents of change, the writing became less confident, leaning heavily on prop comedy and swearing, with genuine laughs harder to come by. What now seems to sustain the show is the audience’s parasocial connection (myself included) to the three remaining stars.

The remaining cast launched a video podcast on their subscription-only SwearNet. Sitting in Ricky’s kitchen in Halifax, they improvise about weird news items, eating chips, getting drunk and stoned for real, occasionally slipping out of character. This might be the best way to enjoy Trailer Park Boys now, with the fiction stripped away.

Luckily for fans, Ricky, Bubbles, and Julian don’t plan to stop. “It would be funny to do a Coronation Street thing,” says Mike Smith, referring to the British soap opera that has been on the air since 1960:

I would love to see Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles in twenty years . . . that would be funny.

I’m not sure how funny it would be, but I still hope it happens. Like old friends you don’t see that much anymore, it’ll be nice to know that they’re still doing well.