Half a Tank
I’m so not a fan of the sitcom method of storytelling — such as it is — that it’s always startling for me to come upon an example of the format that isn’t so outrageously stupid that it makes me want to throw things at the TV. To come across one that is as gently unassuming as Corner Gas… well, I had to go to Canada for that. Even when they’re being mean here — as is, apparently, de rigueur for sitcoms no matter whence they hail — they’re being nice. Or perhaps this is merely a brand of Canadian passive-aggression that’s more agreeable than the American stripe. Perhaps we should call it passive-agreeableness…
The characters here are stereotypes, as sitcom characters tend to be. Or so they appear to be, at first. In the remote rural town of Dog River, Saskatchewan, there’s one gas station for 60 kilometers around — this is Canada, after all; 60 klicks translates to about 37 miles, which is still pretty far — and it’s run by Brent Leroy (series creator and frequent writer Brent Butt). He’s what passes for snarkiness out here, where trees are as rare as petrol stops (with attendant convenience stores) at this crossroads of deserted prairie, and he’s not at all happy with the event that is the impetus for, ahem, the beginning of sitcom shenanigans: a new wellspring of coffee. See, the diner next door has been closed up for a well, but along comes pretty Torontonian Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller) to reopen it in honor of her aunt, the former proprietor. Cue jokes about overpriced lattes and whatever other nonsenses hip urbanites are into these days, and cue scoffing about how that’ll never fly in Dog River, where folk are down-to-earth and don’t go in for fancy citified brew.
It’s not quiet as simplistic as that, however, as Lacey almost instantly wins over almost everyone — though a minor tiff with the local police force, all two of them (Lorne Cardinal [Insomnia] and Tara Spencer-Nairn), over whether cops should ever have to pay for coffee threatens the ease of her arrival — and Brent finds himself unexpectedly drawn to this newcomer. Of course, it takes the full course of these 13 episodes for Brent to admit that even to himself. Because he’s busy teasing his elderly father, Oscar (Eric Peterson: Jasper, Texas), a stubborn old coot who can’t admit when he’s wrong about anything, especially when it comes to 1) coffin economizing, or 2) taking advantage of the new service Brent is offering at his store: VCR and videotape rental. (This first season dates from only 2004, so it’s part of the joke that VCRs are new to Dog River, or at least to some of its residents.) And he’s busy bantering, sort of, with his best friend, Hank Yarbo (Fred Ewanuick: The Core), who’s only about 80 percent the idiot he seems but is very serious about plaid shirts, prairie fashion, and fishing.
Yokel humor — from the specifically Canadian to the more ecumenical — abounds: hockey is vital; entertaining oneself in the boondocks is tough. But it’s all pulled off in a smarter, slyer way that I would have expected. Jokes about grammar? This I did not expect, and found deliciously, hilariously nerdy.
Still, like most sitcoms, it’s better taken in small doses, not in the kind of marathon viewing sessions DVD box sets inspire: like most sitcoms, it’s repetitious, and clearly intended for watching 22-minutes-per-week at a time, not 13 episodes in a weekend. Still, while the sitcom is never going to be my favorite format, with its reliance on plot over character and cheap laughs over more complex forms of humor, I like that the cheap humor here is wittier than it had to be, and nowhere near as cheap as it could be. I look forward to seeing subsequent seasons, and I’m surprised to find that I actually want to know more about these characters, as sketchily drawn as they are.