It's still nice to see Toronto play itself on screen, but the second season of Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol's series could use some self-awareness
At the beginning of The Bday, a new episode from the second season of Viceland series Nirvanna The Band The Show, Matt and Jay are rehearsing for their non-existent upcoming show at the Rivoli in their living room – as they always do.
“Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow,” Matt (Johnson) sings in a thick Indian accent, standing on the sofa, looming over Jay (McCarrol) who accompanies him on the piano. They’re singing Brimful Of Asha, a 1997 song by a UK band called Cornershop that you may recognize – if you were into Britpop in 1997.
“There is a message in this song,” Johnson ad libs, still with the accent, honing in on the unusual lyric. “Heteronormative-ness,” he says, clapping his hands in glee. “I brought my piano player here to play a religious song. We bring it to you! Sing it in your villages! Spread the word!”
It’s a confusing scene on a number of levels: for one, the joke doesn’t land – women exist! Lesbians exist! How does this lyric reinforce heteronormative values? So we’re left trying to find humour in a gross, mocking accent with references to religion and small villages. Some members of Cornershop may have been of Indian descent, but all members were British. Nothing makes sense and it just feels racist and like being privy to watching two very comfortable white teenagers hang out in the safety of their parents’ basement.
But that’s kind of Nirvanna The Band’s thing. The show is based on two characters McCarrol and Johnson developed while hanging out in high school, watching movies, pranking people at McDonald’s and improvising characters. The pop culture references are always 90s, and the show aims to preserve a certain part of Toronto that many of us associate with those years: for example, the new season features CityTV’s now defunct Fashion Television and the not-here-for-long Hard Rock Cafe at Yonge and Dundas.
And while there’s a certain kind of comfortable familiarity in the nostalgia – at least, if you were a white kid from the suburbs who watched a lot of MuchMusic, too – there’s also an uneasy, dated quality to it. Things have changed: ironic racist jokes of the past were never funny after all. They were just excuses to be shocking and racist. Maybe gags like this are an effort to highlight the persistent prejudices from the beginning of political correctness in the 90s, but it’s still a show programmed for a 2017 audience. And let me tell you, we’re done with this shit now. We’re over it.
It’s really too bad, because NTBTS still brings so many laughs, usually involving regular people drawn into an improvised scene, and who are almost always charming and kind. When Matt and Jay unknowingly crash this year’s 4/20 parade, cannabis activist Marc Emery gives Jay a pot brownie. Feeling peckish, he then wanders into Kensington Market and meets a kind (but horny) Buddhist in the park, while Matt feeds chips to stoners in Yonge-Dundas Square.
In episode The Buddy, Matt pulls a Mrs. Doubtfire on Jay, tricking him into thinking he has a new, cool friend by donning a disguise. But aside from making fun of a very weak 1993 Hollywood film’s premise, there isn’t much else to laugh at.
It’s still wonderful to see Toronto being itself on television, but the first season’s civic inside jokes may have been a little too inside – this season is not scheduled for broadcast in the United States as the first one was, and the creators are currently exploring VOD options to reach international viewers online.
There are a lot of bros on Viceland: pro-bro Action Bronson weed bros for days people pretending to be electro-bro Diplo. That’s to be expected, because Vice. But it would be refreshing to see more points of view on the universe – or, at the very least, some self-awareness.
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