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.

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