The Yard

Hulu is bringing Canadian miniseries The Yard to American audiences over the next six weeks. You can watch the first episode, and eventually all episodes, here.

When Hulu announced its slate of new shows—read: British and Canadian imports—premiering this summer, each show included a list of shows whose fans might be interested in the show in question. It’s a logical technique, designed to get writers like me to send notifications to fans of shows like Archer, The Wire, and Arrested Development to let them know that six-part Canadian miniseries The Yard is a show Hulu thinks you might enjoy. You’re welcome, Hulu!

While part of me—yes, the Canadian part—bristles at the notion that the only way to sell shows from other countries is to sell them as being related to American television, it has become a part of how networks promote content: Just look at how often we see “from the executive producer of something successful” used in marketing campaigns. However, as in most cases, Hulu’s comparisons are surface-level at best: While The Yard does (sort of) investigate the intersection of youth subcultures and larger social structures as seen in The Wire, and it is framed as a mockumentary like Arrested Development, and features jokes like Archer (seriously, that’s the only connection I can find for that particular referent), to suggest that fans of those hip and popular shows will therefore enjoy The Yard is facile, if not necessarily false. As someone who likes those shows, I was charmed by The Yard, although for reasons that have little to do with its connection to a show like The Wire, and with some reservations.

Cast with real pre-teen actors, The Yard is a mockumentary-style comedy that sells itself as an edgy take on schoolyard society, with competing factions, elaborate schemes, and plenty of cussing. While the show’s production company compares it to Goodfellas, and Hulu is particularly fond of the comparison with The Wire, I’d argue we need to look to something a bit more innocent to understand the show’s appeal. For me, The Yard is a product of nostalgia, of returning to the world of the schoolyard and being reminded of when the smallest things seemed like the biggest things. Some of the comments on Hulu’s page for the show bring up Disney’s Recess, and it was my first thought as well. That show, one of my favorites growing up, aired during a period where I grew out of the isolation of the schoolyard. In the four years the series aired new episodes, I transitioned from my final year of elementary school into my first year of high school, and so a show that once told the story of my day-to-day life gradually transformed into a connection to a life I had left behind.

Of course, part of the argument central to The Yard is that we never really left the schoolyard behind. The show follows Nick, the de facto leader of the playground, as he and his crew (his brothers J.J. and Adam, his muscle Suzi, and his magician friend Johnny) deal with familiar crises emerging among his fellow students. Some of these are fairly typical of schoolyard scenarios, like an overzealous bully (Frankie) and his crew who steal kids’ lunches, but others are elaborate social and political allegories. The opening episode, “The Economy,” has Nick managing a crisis where a hip new trading card game threatens the standing of the trading cards currently used as currency around the yard, and that’s honestly more subtle than future episodes where the right to use the soccer field becomes an allegory for conflict in the Middle East, the sale of illicit peanut butter sandwiches becomes the drug trade, and the contract for providing stink bombs becomes a take on the BP oil spill.

While some of these allegories have clever moments, they’re the show’s biggest problem. One of the things I always loved about Recess was how it brought us into a completely different world than the one inhabited by adults, a world that only the kids truly understood. Perhaps my favorite example of this was the word “Whomps,” a fake word developed to swear without getting into trouble.

This episode, “The Story Of Whomps,” is a fantastic distillation of what happens when adults try to confront a world governed by children. You can enact authority over the world, but you can’t really make a difference if you don’t understand it. It’s the kids who hold the power because it’s the kids who define that power, and while Recess was ultimately interested in telling playful—but smart—stories within that framework, I came to appreciate the show over time for how well it dealt with the insulated and yet occasionally profound silliness of those communities.

By comparison, The Yard feels like the world of adults being drafted onto the world of kids, without the same child-generated sense of community. The presence of “shit” and “fuck” (the latter bleeped, the former not) within the show doesn’t feel authentic so much as it feels like an attempt to shock the audience with edginess, while the real world allegories feel grafted onto—rather than drawn from—this environment. While Hulu is touting the fact that The Yard was called “The Sopranos with kids” when it debuted in Canada (for which my country’s journalists deserve some measure of shame), the miniseries is at its worst when that’s all it is: edgy dialogue forced into the mouths of kids because that’s supposed to be clever or meaningful. Such moments are ultimately empty, and when combined with the on-the-nose allegories, it makes it difficult to settle into the show’s rhythms.

The show’s other major problem is its format, which I’d argue does little to help things. Paul Gross (Due South, Slings & Arrows) voices an unseen documentary filmmaker who is filming a group of kids using a combination of standard footage and interview segments in front of a chalkboard. While we never learn what the documentary is for exactly, there are moments where the footage becomes part of the story, and Gross regularly interacts with the kids by asking follow-up questions or speaking from behind the camera.

There are parts of this documentary conceit that I like, including the way adults are pixilated and garbled like in Peanuts cartoons so as to focus on the kids’ side of things, but it ultimately doesn’t work, because nothing about the show feels observational. For me, the whole value of the “mockumentary” style is the sense that the cameras are observing real conversations and events, rather than scenes or situations, but that’s lost when none of those scenes feels the least bit natural. Child actors are capable of solid performances, and I don’t find the actors here to be particularly great or particularly terrible: Overall, I think they do a fine job. However, they are generally bad at sounding natural, with most lines coming out sounding like, well, lines, rather than just kids talking. This isn’t helped, of course, by how many of the lines are cleverly worded references to drugs or oil spills or free market principles; kids don’t talk that way, and the writerly nature of the storylines only calls further attention to the stilted nature of many of the scenes. There are some nice moments where the kids just get to riff, teasing one another over girls and the like, but so many moments are carefully scripted to play into the allegories that it completely pulls you out of the schoolyard world the mockumentary style is supposed to reveal and highlight.

I was ready to end the review here after watching the first episode, which I feel is one of the show’s weaker installments, but my opinion started to change as I watched the next five episodes. The second episode, “Boys and Girls,” strips away the sociopolitical nature of the allegories in favor of a simple discussion of how boys and girls interact on the playground, giving us more time to get to know these characters on their own terms. And while the allegories pick back up over time, more and more of those observational moments sneak in, allowing for the characters to start to feel like more than tools the writers use to make what they perceive to be clever observations about a real world conflict. When you reach the later episodes, it isn’t just “The Wire or The Sopranos with kids”; it’s “The Wire or The Sopranos with these kids,” culminating in a really charming and satisfying finale that overcomes its own allegory to end in a scene that might as well have come directly out of an episode of Recess (albeit with a few more swear words thrown in).

There is value in the tension between the harsh realities of our societies and the seemingly simple world of the schoolyard, and so I don’t want to suggest that the allegorical side of The Yard is worthless. However, it’s only really good for a few knowing smiles, lacking the kind of surprise or excitement that could drive a more successful comedy. The show finds its laugh-out-loud moments when it forgets about the allegories and focuses on the characters, with some sharp recurring supporting players (with bug-eating Cory quickly becoming my favorite) and storylines that evolve beyond allegory into being about the kids' world instead of our own. A show doesn’t need to have kids swearing to connect with adult audiences, just as Hulu doesn’t need to relate the show to critically acclaimed programming to find an audience online. The Yard is a show that appeals to the people who once upon a time lived in their own little world, and who want another glimpse into what that world was really like. While the allegories stand in the way of that process initially, and the format doesn’t offer much assistance, eventually the power of nostalgia and the winning spirit of the show’s characters pull the show together into a charming way to spend a half-hour a week in the early summer months.

Stray observations:

  • Even if you don’t know going in that Quintin Colantoni—who plays Nick—is Enrico’s son, you’ll figure it out soon enough. It’s like seeing Keith Mars as an 11-year-old.
  • J.J. is underserved by the series as a whole, but I loved his Charlotte’s Web story and reaction in the first episode, and I always appreciate the smart kid who serves as a voice of reason. Because that was always me.
  • While Parker Elementary is never placed within a particular location, talk of Buffalo as an exotic land and the presence of colored money means that the show is pretty clearly identifiable as Canadian, which I appreciated.
  • Adam is the show’s youngest character, and the writers generally just give him things to say that the writers believe will be funny because of how young he is. So, get ready for him to talk about chesticles.
  • I don’t know if this is an age/maturity issue, but I thought the three most prominent actresses in the cast were far more consistent than the male cast members. This isn’t to say the other actors were terrible, but the show got more interesting when the women got involved.
  • While the bulk of the narration goes through Nick, the show is smart to occasionally shift the narrative focus onto other characters, and I felt the diverse range of perspectives helped flesh out the ensemble over the course of the six episodes.
  • The show is officially termed a one-off miniseries, so there’s no talk of a second season. That seems to have been the plan all along, as the finale offers a definitive end, so don’t be worried about closure.
  • In case you were wondering, the other shows Hulu compared the show to were South Park, Family Guy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Summer Heights High. And thus ends my abuse of the notifications system: If you’re confused why you’re here, take it up with Hulu. No, seriously, please—I want them to defend some of these comparisons.