Here they are now, to entertain us
No, it isn't a Kurt Cobain cover band, but the new series nirvanna the band the show just might revolutionize Canadian television, Barry Hertz writes
To understand just how much of a game changer nirvanna the band the show is, it's best to start with describing what it isn't. It is not a sloppily spelled Kurt Cobain cover group. Nor is it an ode to Buddhist enlightenment. It's not about a band or even a show, in the traditional sense. Instead, nirvanna the band the show is a new television series courtesy of Viceland – a wild, subversive, mostly unclassifiable work of new-media pastiche that might save its upstart network, cement the bona fides of its polarizing co-creator and, just maybe, revolutionize the Canadian television landscape.
So, besides that spew of hyperbole, what the hell is nirvanna the band the show? The easiest summary: A half-hour comedy that follows two hapless idiots who allegedly play in a group called nirvanna the band (we never see them actually perform) and whose sole mission in life is to play The Rivoli, a real-world Toronto institution of middling repute. To accomplish this goal, Matt (Matt Johnson) and Jay (Jay McCarrol) concoct every wild scheme imaginable, all of which end with the pair enduring some form of seismic failure and public embarrassment.
It's a simple enough log line – 90 per cent of small-screen comedies revolve around men behaving badly – but the series' execution is next-level. Filmed in a mockumentary style on the streets of west-end Toronto with often unwitting participants, the show mixes real-world action with expert improv and a slick layer of meta-humour. One episode finds Matt surreptitiously invading the offices of Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine, another with the pair infiltrating the Sundance Film Festival, a feat done on the sly while Johnson was legitimately attending to promote his other mockumentary, the dark comedy Operation Avalanche.
In between these stunts, the show twists itself into a parody of the sitcom form itself, breaking the fourth wall and appropriating familiar theme songs ( Growing Pains' catchy As Long as We've Got Each Other will never sound the same) to create an anarchic stew that's a joy to consume. Think Adult Swim's Too Many Cooks sensation from a few years back, but much more complex and even sincere than that lark.
But while Johnson and McCarrol's creation is unlike anything seen on television before, let alone Canadian television, it's journey to Viceland was not exactly easy. The project originally started off as a Web series – same premise, worse lighting – which earned a cult following by the time it ended in 2009. But each time it seemed as if the online version of nirvana the band the show (the extra "n" was added when it moved to the more legality-conscious Viceland) was ready to make the leap from the Web, the project's radical postsitcom language got lost in translation.
"Every time we tried to make this show with other people, they just couldn't wrap their heads around it, and they wanted everything, every little joke, every Easter Egg, explained," says Johnson, the 32-year-old who co-stars, co-writes, and co-produces the series with childhood friend McCarrol, also 32.
"One of the biggest enemies of good creative work is needing to explain it, and I know that's counterintuitive because if you're a good filmmaker you should be able to explain what you're doing, but trying to explain something that in your mind is kind of magical is very trying. It's not a shadow play like The Big Bang Theory, where every joke has to go through this complicated explanation process. Because we're free of that here, we can explore."
In an only-in-Canada twist, the series landed at Viceland mostly because Johnson found success outside of the country. "I'd been talking with Patrick McGuire [now head of content for Vice Canada] since he interviewed me about The Dirties way back in 2013," Johnson says, referencing his debut feature, a bold mockumentary about a movie-obsessed loner who plans a school shooting, which is far funnier than the subject matter would lead you to believe. Once that film secured a U.S. champion in director Kevin Smith, Johnson found his reputation leap-frog south of the border, which led to Lions Gate financing Operation Avalanche, and Vice circling back to resurrect nirvanna.
"This is all a symptom of doing well [in America]," Johnson says. "When Vice was given a channel, it came with the opportunity to produce a lot of new content, and Vice was in the enviable position of doing what they wanted to do. It was a long and complicated road, but they're very hands-off and trusting that we could do it. We made the show with no scripts, very little planning. The trust on us to deliver a show is absurdly high, but so far it's worked out very well."
That is the hope, at least. The program, which debuts next week, is the U.S.-based network's first original scripted series, its current programming consisting mostly of provocative-sounding documentary series ( F*ck That's Delicious, Balls Deep, Bong Appetite) and whichever edgy-ish films happen to be in its library (savvy Canadian couch-surfers might recall an airing of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs early last year that had its profanity bleeped to the point of absurdity).
While the cable channel, co-owned by A+E Networks and partly funded by Rogers in Canada, has earned some critical notices for progressive programming like Ellen Page's Gaycation, its ratings have struggled to match the company's braggadocio. Last August, The Wall Street Journal reported that, in the United States, Viceland averaged just 45,000 adult viewers under the age of 50 (a coveted demographic). And this past October, The Guardian reported that, in the U.K., Viceland pulled in less than 10,000 viewers during its first two weeks. (In Canada, though, Viceland's ratings tell a slightly sunnier story. Since taking over the Biography Channel, Viceland's ranking has gone up 12 spots for adults aged 18-49, from No. 34 to 22. And it has jumped 10 spots among all English non-sports digital specialty channels in the country.)
Still, the channel is barely a year old, and it is not as if Vice was caught unaware on millennial viewing habits, or lack thereof when it comes to traditional mediums like television. (When Viceland launched last winter, creative director Spike Jonze told The Globe and Mail that "I don't think it matters" that more younger viewers are avoiding cable. "If you make good stuff, it'll be found in any medium. The cable channel is just one means of distribution.") And if the company is indeed intent on breaking the small-screen mould and disseminating programming that's unlike anything else out there, nirvanna the band the show is the perfect project to bank on.
"Viceland has a mandate of just taking the model of making TV on a network and turning it upside down – like what would happen if kids made a show when all the adults leave a network. And I think that fits for us," says McCarrol, who has an extensive music background, performing with his sister Stefanie as the pop outfit Brave Shores and previously acting as musical director for Second City. "We wanted to keep it feeling as loose and rough and crazy and manic as the Web series but with a budget and bigger plots. But we needed it to have that autonomy, and there is some sort of magic to it."
Which is exactly the kind of untraceable alchemy that the Canadian television landscape currently needs. The CBC has made great strides when it comes to new, exciting comedy – the rawness of Workin' Moms, the diversity of Kim's Convenience, the youthful vibrancy of Four in the Morning and Baroness Von Sketch Show – but most Canadian television still rests too comfortably on conventions: audiences can see the bones on which a program is built, and can safely identify its genre, its tone, its general direction. If anything, nirvanna the band the show is impossible to acclimatize to: it is wild, unpredictable and a little dangerous. In other words, exactly what homegrown television is missing.
"Matt's voice is a really important one in Canadian cinema, and with [ nirvanna], he has done the tricky thing of evolving and transforming this very different type of fictional world," says Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, which last fall screened a handful of nirvanna episodes as part of its "Primetime" program. "Plus, the challenge he put to the establishment in Canadian film is an important one."
Which brings us to why Johnson's name might seem familiar to those outside of Viceland's sphere of influence: The filmmaker caused a huge stir last year thanks to a series of interviews in which he directly challenged the Canadian film industry's status quo (namely, telling The Globe that "a lot of people just need to die of old age for the system to change.") Although Johnson has earned his fair share of press thanks to his open film-industry views, he insists that the television game is a different one altogether. "My criticisms of Canadian feature programming are not at all associated with television," he says. "I put everything on hold to do this show, I wanted to do it more than anything."
The question then becomes, will Johnson have anything to complain about this time next year about Viceland – or will nirvanna the band the show be the panacea the channel, and the industry as a whole, needs?
For now, it appears the show's creators are in the game for a much more simple, easily achievable purpose.
"This was born when Matt and I were just kids and he would jump around and be insane and I'd score his insanity, this crazy spoken-word, slam poetry, anger-venting cabaret," McCarrol says. "Whatever the hell that was, I think we've been able to recreate that here."
Nirvanna the band the show premieres Feb. 2 on Viceland.