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John Doyle: What Would Sal Do? Be crude, dumb and very funny

There is one particular strain of Canadian culture that thrives on TV. We don't make a lot of truly notable TV here, but much of what is memorable falls into this category – guys who like their beer and dope, swear a blue streak and generally appear to be as stupid as mud. They're not stupid, actually. But acting that way comes naturally.

The reigning champ in the genre is Trailer Park Boys, a little show that took off into the stratosphere, to the great bafflement of many of the bourgeois mediocrities in the Canadian-TV racket. Letterkenny is part of the genre, too – unapologetically Canadian, rural and often raw. It delights in the vernacular of ordinary people and celebrates the comedy of guys chewing the fat, goofing off and taking a dim view of pretension.

What Would Sal Do? (now streaming on CraveTV) is the latest entry in the arena and it's darn funny without having quite the precision of Letterkenny or the intricately mad harmony of Trailer Park Boys, but it has a comic cultural specificity that is a delight to see.

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First, though, it's a show about miracles and it is miraculous that it we're seeing it at all. The series, created by Andrew De Angelis, was made specifically for Super Channel in 2015. Last year, Super Channel went into bankruptcy protection, and the show only existed in a kind of limbo. Then Bell Media decided, rightly, it was good for CraveTV. It was already made and on the shelf, which is how they like it in Canadian TV.

Set in Sudbury, it stars Dylan Taylor as slacker-hoser Sal, still living with his mom, Maria (Jennifer Dale), at 30. To mark his 30th birthday, mom informs him that he is, in fact, the second coming of Jesus Christ. Hers was a virgin birth, she asserts. Therefore, he's the new Messiah. In this matter she has the backing of local priest Father Luke (Scott Thompson), who has an uncommon, intense interest in Sal's welfare. As it happens, though, Sal is an idiot and an oaf and not much impressed by the news.

Then stuff happens. Miracles, you might say. And Sal feels this pressure to do good deeds and be decent. For instance, in the opening episode he decides to help a local panhandler by buying him a meal and taking him to the local rub 'n' tug joint. Throughout, Sal's main sidekick, the weasel Vince (Ryan McDonald) sticks around for the ride. This involves swearing, fighting and avoiding work of any kind. Vince assures Sal that he will not be his Judas figure, which makes Sal worry.

There is a touch of the great NBC sitcom My Name Is Earl in What Would Sal Do? In that show, Earl (Jason Lee) makes a list of every bad thing he has done and every person he has wronged, and tries to fix them all. Sal is rougher than Earl, who was merely a ne'er-do-well. Sal is a bully and an ass, very much the Sudbury numbskull not much interested in doing good, except to keep his obviously deranged mom off his back.

Taylor is excellent as this very Canadian jackass, savouring the foul language and idiotic macho absurdity. The show rests on his shoulders to a large degree and it's essential he does it with aplomb. The totality of the show feels less than polished and Thompson is given way too much freedom to turn Father Luke into a very broad, camp joke. McDonald is funny as the sad, snaky sidekick and Dale is great as mom. Supporting them in key roles, and this matters in the context, are the excellent Kaniehtiio Horn as Sal's some time girlfriend Nicole and Priya Rajaratnam as Father Luke's endlessly eye-rolling Hindu intern.

Exactly why Trailer Park Boys became popular and cool remains an unknowable to many so-called creatives in the Canadian-TV racket. But it comes down, essentially, to a sense of warmth and decency beneath the hair-raising comic antics and What Would Sal Do? has that essential ingredient. The show is cheaply made, crude and appears to be dumb, featuring the criminally stupid and yet, it works. Recommended.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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