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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Red Green Show: The Infantile Years 1991-1993 (review)

Do-It-Yourself TV

I’ve been wanting to delve into more Canadian film and — especially — TV ever since it struck me suddenly recently that I know shockingly little about the visual-storytelling output of my neighbors to the north. Surely, they don’t all fly south to Hollywood and hide in plain sight among the Americans. (Remember the MTV game show Remote Control and its category “Dead or Canadian?” in which the joke usually ended up being, “Wait, that dude is Canadian?”) Why don’t we see more any Canadian TV on the American tube? (Well, there was that one Toronto cop show that I can’t even remember the name of — Flashpoint? — that aired here a couple years ago, but that’s about it.) But since DVD and the Internet mean we are no longer at the mercy of television programmers, I figured it was high time to get started on this little project.
I chose the tag “10% Canadian content” for my forays into north-of-the-border entertainment for a couple of reasons. One is that the population of Canada is about 10 percent of the combined population of English-speaking North America (box office numbers for the U.S. and Canada get jumbled together like that, after all), and that seems like a lot of potential readers for me to be ignoring… not to mention a lot of material that I could be enjoying that some of my readers already know about. The other is that my first exposure to Canadian TV was the brilliant SCTV, way back in the early 1980s, and the most Canadian material there was the “Bob and Doug McKenzie” stuff, which I thought was hilarious — and I found it even funnier when I learned that Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis created the characters as a reaction to an official CBC request that the show have some precise percentage of Canadian content. Moranis and Thomas said, “You want ‘Canadian content’? Here ya go.”

And that brings me to The Red Green Show, which was surely inspired, at least in part, by Bob and Doug McKenzie. And this new set collecting the first three seasons of the long-running show — it only just wrapped up recently, in 2006 — is worth seeing for anyone interested in looking at what was happening with television in the early 1990s as a matter of cultural influence and impact, as a matter of TV history.

For sheer entertainment value… well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Just as Bob and Doug were sendups of both stereotypes of Canadians and cable access programs, so is Red Green, which apes homemade TV of both the DIY and outdoorsmanship stripes. Red Green (Steve Smith, who cocreated the show with Rick Green), head of the men-only Possum Lodge in the rural Ontario town of Possum Lake, hosts from within his workshop, with the help of his nerdy teenage nephew Harold (Patrick McKenna, who was actually in his 30s) and Harold’s handy-dandy “fancy” computer “FX.” Plaid shirts are proudly worn; fishing is discussed; the unceasing buzz of chainsaws just outside serenades the viewer constantly — you are in Canada. And cheap is the (intentional) order of the day: though many of these episodes sport exciting titles such as “The Party Boat Sank,” “Possum Lake Monster,” and “Jet-Ski,” all the exciting events occur offscreen, and are related to us by Red, with such guileless deadpan as to render even a suspected sighting of Elvis matter-of-fact. The unflappability of Canadian niceness is reinforced.

There are moments outdoors, such as “Adventures with Bill” — the 1930s-style slapstick misadventures of Lodge member Bill (cocreator Green) — or the baffled odes to the inconveniences and annoyances of outdoors life in recurring segments such as “The Winter of Our Discount Tent.” Mostly, though, it’s all Red gently poking fun at Harold… and Smith gently poking fun at Red, as with his “Handyman Corner.” Red’s motto may be “If women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy,” but his handyman advice is not to be heeded: turning an old washing machine into a sauna is generally not recommended by the manufacturer. The “Corner” is quite reminiscent, in fact, of the “Invention Exchange” the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 were doing at the same time over the border in Minneapolis — and MST3K was originally actually produced on cable access. Throw in the cable-access-y “Wayne’s World” sketches on Saturday Night Live and Tim Allen’s sitcom Home Improvement, also dating from almost precisely the same moment, and it’s clear that there was something in the water inspiring a whole bunch of satirists both of and on TV in similar directions. And it may well have gotten there thanks to some misbegotten plumbing project of Red’s.

Alas that another property of this just-before-DVD era is also inherent here: these early Red Green episodes really are not suitable for DVD consumption. TV on DVD works either for shows that reward re-viewing or for novelistic series that have such powerfully demanding narratives that you simply don’t want to stop (that’s when you lose a weekend to nonstop intake of an entire season of something like The Sopranos). Red Green simply isn’t that kind of show. In little batches of silliness doled out on a weekly basis, I’m sure it was quite diverting. Watch more than two episodes back to back, however, and the redunancy of the show, however innocuously charming it is in 23 minute lots, becomes obvious. (Even Smith, in a new introduction recorded for this set, admits that the show was rough at this point.) I’m sure that Acorn Media, which just released the “Infantile Years” set, will be offering sets of later seasons; if that’s the case, I’ll check ’em out and see if the DVD-worthiness of the show increases.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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posted in:
comedy | mockumentary | tv on dvd
  • Claudia

    I believe the Torronto cop show you are referring to was called Forever Knight. Which you should remember, since you reviewed the third and final season. Although given the sheer volume of movies and TV shows you review, it is perhaps understandable.

    Anyway, I am a fine one to talk considering that I have, on more than one occasion, bought books I already own.

  • Claudia

    Oops…wrong Torronto Cop show.

    Don’t mind me, I’m going home now.

  • Dylan

    First of all, thrilled by your project. There are some great gems of Canadian TV and I’m glad you’re going to get the chance to seek ’em out.

    I grew up in rural Prince Edward Island with two channels so I didn’t see much of them first-run; when I was first able to see Red Green I was well into my late teens (cause that’s when we got the satellite dish). I think your analysis was spot-on. It’s amusing in small doses but it isn’t something you can glut on.

    Some of the other sketch-based comedy shows might be better for DVD watching, although I’d suspect a few episodes of a half-hour sketch show would be enough for one sitting. “The Kids in the Hall” was great (if gross at times, but again – I was a teen when it came on so that’s what we were looking for.). “This Hour Has 22 Minutes”, in its earlier years, was also savagely funny, though being a send-up of news, it’s pretty tied to topical events of the mid 90s. If you can find it – and it would be very hard to do as I don’t think DVDs have been released, but some stuff has come out on VHS years ago – “Codco”, from Newfoundland, was one of the best comedy shows ever to air, very, very sharp and very, very funny.

    If you ever want any other Canadian tips on shows from back then that you might like, let me know; I’ll see what I can dredge up. There was a brilliant kids sci-fi show called “The Odyssey” back around ’91, ’92, that I very much think you’d enjoy, but again, might be very difficult to find. I’ll think on it a bit and see if I can come up with other suggestions that might be easier to get your hands on.

  • Having seen plenty of “Red Green” myself, I find myself wondering, was it you or they who came up with the title “Infantile Years”? It is the sort of thing they would think of. And yes, I enjoy their show (in small doses).

  • MaryAnn

    I believe the Torronto cop show you are referring to was called Forever Knight.

    I do know that show, and I like it quite a lot. I’ll add that to my list of Canuck TV to review (in more depth than that one short review you mentioned). And *Flashpoint* (which I have not seen) is indeed available on DVD, too, so I’ll add that, too.

    “The Kids in the Hall” was great

    Agreed. That was probably the second Canadian TV show I show. I’ll review that at some point, too. And thanks for the other suggestions.

    Having seen plenty of “Red Green” myself, I find myself wondering, was it you or they who came up with the title “Infantile Years”?

    Oh no, that’s what the set is actually called. When a post here is labeled “(review)” that’s always what the item under review is actually called.

  • i was a big fan of the Red Green show when it was on my local PBS station — usually late at night on saturday. but i did only catch it starting in the late 90s and only once a week. the charm of the characters wasone of the big draws on the show: Hap Thorogood (the liar) and the cheap store owner guy, Graham Greene (one of my “boyfriends”) as the fire expert who was always smoldering slightly (literally–smoke rose up from him forever); the crazy american ex-pat pilot Winston Rothschild and his Sewer Sucking Service; and Ranger Gord… it was great visiting with them every week. i even joined the possum lodge! (online, of course).

    i do admit however that the “infantile years” which i watched with MaryAnn do seem like the rough sketch of the more polished work, and watching two or three in a row is not really as funny.

    still, if the more mature Red Green Show came back on pbs every week, i’d probably start watching it again.

  • Brian

    This used to air on our local PBS station, too. My dad loved it; I always thought it was pretty hit-and-miss. But I am surprised at how much of it sticks with me. Every time I (attempt to) fix something around the house, I hear his words echoing in my head. “If women don’t find ya handsome . . .”

  • Ren

    : P One of my presents on my 16th (? somewhere in there) birthday was a Possum Lodge membership, with accompanying badge and membership card. The card is still on my bulletin board, and the badge has a place of honour on my camp blanket, to the amusement of all the other Guide leaders I work with.

    Are they not airing Flashpoint in the states anymore? Because it’s still airing up here, and I seem to remember the reason the city was never explicitly stated to be Toronto was to appease the American viewers.

  • Ah, Ren, we all like Red Green, we just don’t want to watch it for hours on end. And my Dad watched it loyally on PBS, too.

  • Rosalyn

    I watched Red Green from time to time but not regularly. I’ll never forget my shock when I saw my own brother on the show winding the possum caller or whatever it was. Apparently he went to a taping wearing a plaid shirt and got chosen to be a lodge member in the studio.

    The handsome/handy thing has become a totally common expression here. I often say to my boyfriend, “Good thing yer handsome!” The implication of course being that is he is not handy.

  • About 5 or 6 years ago, when my brother-in-law, who lives in Alaska, visited us in Southern California, he raved about the Red Green show. Out of curiosity I watched the show and thought it was just for males, not for me. Then a while later I decided to watch it again. I was hooked! I’ve tried my best not to miss another Red Green Show since, and was saddened to see it end.

  • I was in high school when this show was on. And out of all my friends I was the only one who liked it. Thanks for the reminder. Great show!

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