TV: Tiny Plastic Men a kids’ show for grown-ups

From left: Chris Craddock, Mark Meer and Matt Alden

Tiny Plastic Men isn’t just another little TV comedy – it’s an important signpost to a modern world where grown-ups have refused to grow up.

The Edmonton-produced sitcom-sketch comedy series – premiering Monday at 8 p.m. on Superchannel – stars the local writer-creators Mark Meer, Chris Craddock and Matt Alden as a trio of numbskulls who work as testers in a toy factory. Antagonists come in the form of nasty bosses, stuck-up video game testers and the characters’ own delusions.

In episode one, for instance, Crad’s beloved Clint Eastwood action figure is missing, presumed stolen, so of course he dresses as a ninja to get it back.

Dialogue runs along these lines:

“When you least expect us, expect us!”

“Then we’ll always expect you.”

“Then never expect us!”

Cue ninja smoke bomb that has the unexpected result of blowing off people’s clothes.

Anyone familiar with the work of Dan Schneider on should recognize the style. Tiny Plastic Men is loud, colourful, fast-paced and frequently ridiculous – exactly like iCarly or Drake and Josh or any number of interchangeable Nickelodeon sitcoms ostensibly aimed at teens, only this one is R-rated, shot through with edgy humour, adult language and mature content.

In short, Tiny Plastic Men is a kids’ show for adults.

The tastes of the characters – October (Meer), Addison (Alden) and Crad (Craddock) – run along the same lines as the real people who play them, says Craddock. They’re into comic books and cool toys. Meer is perhaps the biggest enthusiast of them all. Fans should be familiar with his work as Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect video game series. Meer and Alden were also stars of the TV comedy Caution: May Contain Nuts. Craddock, meanwhile, is an award-winning playwright and actor, and has the least experience in television. They’ve worked together innumerable times in comedy improv shows around Edmonton, which has held them in good stead with this project. The timing is pretty good. All three have to know much geek culture has taken off. They probably had a hand in it.

“In all of us there’s a bit of Peter Pan,” Craddock explains. “This is being indulged by our society much more. Actually, our society doesn’t really have a choice. We’re doing it. You could get into deep psychological reasons for it. I saw it put well in a Chester Brown comic. He was commenting on the popularity of superheroes, and I’m paraphrasing: ‘Has the world become so insecure that now everyone is in need of the same sort of emotional soothing that was once the province of the socially unfit?’ And maybe it’s true. Maybe it is a bit scary. And maybe all of us have room for the idea that a super-powered someone can come and save us.”

But that’s pretty deep for “just a little TV comedy,” Crad hastens to add.

Tiny Plastic Men can be also compared to the original sketch comedy show first produced in Edmonton – SCTV – or to Family Guy for frequent diversions from the plot. With plenty of fantasy moments to balance, if not completely support, the basic story, Tiny Plastic Men follows the path of Monty Python, too, featuring satiric cartoon clips produced by Edmonton animator Riley Beach. These are some of the most subversive parts of the show.

The Plastic Men have the element of surprise on their side since the basic scenarios are so silly – like trying to get a Clint Eastwood doll back by dressing as ninjas, and then before you know it, one of them is performing oral sex on their female boss. Definitely not Nickelodeon.

Since Superchannel is basically Canada’s answer to HBO, there’s a lot of freedom here. Sure, there are considerations to legal matters in making a TV show that don’t exist in on a comedy improv stage – they had to take out a line that Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes contained “horse anus,” for instance – but the writers can do almost anything they want.

“The tension is there,” Craddock says. “We build a certain amount of innocence and spend it on depraved things … It’s for grown ups. It’s profane, it’s sexy, insofar as we’re sexy. Belinda’s sexy, so that helps.”

He refers to Meer’s wife Belinda Cornish, one of a number of Edmonton actors rounding out the cast.

Tiny Plastic Men accidentally benefited from losing its first producer halfway through the project, Craddock says. The first guy wanted it “harder, weirder, more coarse, more hardcore, and we were like, OK!” The new producer was more concerned with story and character development, he says. “I feel the show benefited from the contrast between these two broadcasters, so what we have now is kind of both: The plot holds up, at least according to our weird internal logic, but also a lot of the comedy in the sketches is fairly hard-hitting, I like to think.”

As for their characters’ immature behaviour, that’s nothing new. The basic idea is that these guys are not very good people – and that’s been one of the secrets to TV comedy since there was TV comedy. “A person only has to be morally superior to the antagonist,” says Craddock.

Lying is a big part of it. Many a sitcom episode is based on a single deception, from I Love Lucy to Frasier. The viewing public loves to watch these “lovable losers” as they lie and flounder their way through a half-hour or so of laughs.

“They strive, they want things, they try to get them – usually by lying, and we watch them try and fail,” Craddock says. “I think the principle of all television comedy comes from effort, from striving, from a protagonist who’s trying to make moves.”

Even if that striving revolves around playing with Clint Eastwood dolls – sorry, “action figures.”

It’s worth including a quote from Joe Flaherty to wrap this up. The SCTV star was here for the Edmonton Comedy Festival last year and in an interview started banging on geek culture, particularly Star Trek, which he said was “lame.” He was also pissed off at young improv students who would pick invulnerable superheroes for role playing workshops, saying he was into comic books when he was a kid, too, “But we grew out of them, you know?”

Times have changed. Scary stuff, kids.

Tiny Plastic Men runs every Monday night on Superchannel through Jan. 21. Contact your local cable provider for details.