Arts & Culture

Les Trash

Tawdry television offers a worm’s-eye view of la belle province

by
• 2,594 words

Quebec’s hit television series Les Bougon — C’est aussi ça la vie contains something to offend nearly everybody. In one episode, Junior Bougon works with a group of mentally challenged adults whom he refers to as “mes débiles” (my retards). The work is part of 300-pound Junior’s community-service sentence for stealing a car; his lawyer told the judge Junior did it because he’s too fat to walk. At first, Junior’s unruly charges repulse and anger him: one man, Antoine, masturbates constantly, another won’t stop yelling about Junior’s obesity. But ultimately they bond. Junior buys them a case of beer, takes them home to visit his mother, and breaks into the Montreal biodome in order to take them on a nocturnal fishing trip. He even asks his sister Dolorès, a prostitute, to relieve Antoine’s erection.

When Les Bougon debuted in 2004 it was a hit, quickly attracting more than two million viewers — more than one-third of all Quebec francophones. The family made headlines south of the border, where the New York Times declared, “A Twisted Sitcom Makes the Simpsons Look Like Saints.” Now an American producer wants to do an English version of the series. Within the context of North American television, the series is remarkable both in terms of its subject matter and its relationship to its audience.

Junior, a poorly educated petty criminal with no liberal notions about how to treat the mentally challenged, is clearly the first person they have come across in a while who gives them what everyone needs: affection, respect, and a little stimulation. By contrast, the “respectable” people portrayed in the TV series act out of cynical self-interest. The contractor only hires the mentally challenged group because doing so bags him a lucrative government grant, and their social worker’s only advice to Junior Bougon is an offhand “don’t leave a mark if you hit one of them.”

Throughout the series, Les Bougon’s creator, François Avard, drives home his belief that Quebec’s institutions — especially the ones that are supposed to be taking care of people — are failing. An ongoing theme is that the Quiet Revolution has disappointed: bureaucrats are lazy, unions are corrupt, and the education and health care systems are a mess. Disenchanted, Paul Bougon, his son Junior, and the rest of the family have dropped out of mainstream society and now run scams out of their Montreal apartment.

A veteran television writer and novelist, Avard says he first wrote the series, which he now co-authors with comedy writer Jean-François Mercier, because he was sick of watching so much TV about the middle class. The thirty-sevenyear- old, who describes himself as a “socialist with anarchism in his heart,” says he wanted to create a family of working-class heroes who “fight against the system and win.” And while this David versus Goliath theme is a familiar one, Avard’s approach to social satire is uniquely Québécois.

The badly groomed, messy Bougons are a radical presence on North American television if only because of how they look and live. They expose, rub, and scratch their imperfect bodies. The clan’s matriarch, chain-smoking Rita Bougon, tends her expansive gut as if it’s Mont Royal, the family’s preferred beer, and gives it plenty of air when her pants get too tight. Junior often walks around their cramped apartment bare-bellied, his own expansive girth restrained by only a pair of stained boxers.

Like Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions barbares, the tone of Les Bougon is one of profound disenchantment. While Arcand casts a judgmental eye on his generation, the target of Avard’s wrath is le système, the so-called Quebec model, credited with wresting control away from the Church and the English. Throughout the series, the Quebec model is portrayed as a massive, slowmoving creature that is both alienating and hilariously inefficient.

By using television to express his political views, Avard is following a long-standing tradition. For more than fifty years some of Quebec’s most imaginative minds — novelists, playwrights, and intellectuals — have been using television as a vehicle for social commentary, and they have found an exceedingly dedicated audience. So while English-Canadian TV seems locked in an interminable struggle to define itself and the American viewing audience is increasingly fragmented, Quebec television remains a largely communal experience. The province churns out two and a half times as many series per capita as the American networks. The top twenty shows are all made there for a home audience. In many ways, the popularity of Les Bougon illustrates the unique and powerful role television has played in this culture.

Last fall it was the ratings showdown between Quebec’s equivalent to Canadian Idol, Star académie, and the talk show Tout le monde en parle that held the Quebecers rapt. On Sunday nights, as many as two-thirds of the province’s francophones sat down to watch either program. In the mid-nineties, La Petite Vie, a ruthless satire of the modern Quebec family, attracted four million francophone viewers, breaking a percapita world record for television watching. Shows such as Les filles de Caleb, Lance et compte, and Scoop were watched by more than half of Canada’s French speaking population.

Why are Quebecers so into their television? The simple explanation is language. Creators and producers here have a captive audience. Yet while Quebecers regularly watch American movies dubbed into French, American television series aren’t that popular. A more fundamental reason for the success of television shows such as Les Bougon lies in the unique way television developed in this province.

Television and modern Quebec came of age together. When television arrived on the scene in 1952, Quebec society was on the cusp of major cultural change. At that time, the province’s artists and intellectuals were frustrated by the repressive Duplessis government and the Catholic Church. This emerging elite needed an outlet, and they found it in television. At Radio-Canada these young creators were protected and they used television to communicate their belief that Quebec had to enter the modern world.

In 1956 journalist Gérard Pelletier, who later became an adviser to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, attempted to articulate in an article in Cité Libre what the arrival of television meant to his culture. “In a span of four years, 600,000 televisions appeared in as many living rooms. More than one million people turned their eyes to the screen and told their writers, artists, intellectuals, educators, scientists, and politicians: ‘Talk, move, we are watching and listening to you.’ ” According to Pelletier, this collective drive for self-expression was urgent and with- out precedent. Pelletier wrote, “In three centuries of history, it’s the first time that two words resound here, urgently: ‘Express yourselves.’ ” And express themselves they did. By 1958 Montreal was the third largest television production centre in North America, behind New York and Los Angeles.

Many historians contend that television played a role in the Quiet Revolution by strengthening Quebecers’ sense of collective identity (through television dramas or téléromans) and opening their minds to the world through current affairs shows such as René Lévesque’s Point de mire, first broadcast in 1956. When a producers’ strike at Montreal’s Radio-Canada station from December 1958 to 1959 became a hothouse for nationalism, Lévesque and an entire generation of Quebec creators realized that the Diefenbaker government didn’t know anything about Radio- Canada and didn’t really care.

Nearly fifty years later, téléromans have become the province’s popular literature, establishing enduring archetypes and reference points in Quebec’s collective psyche. So important are they to Quebec culture that in 1996 the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City hosted a fourteen-month exhibit depicting their history. Montreal’s Frenchlanguage broadsheet La Presse has two television critics and during the winter — high season for television — the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal often devotes a half-dozen pages every day to TV. There are also numerous gossip tabloids, magazines, and talk shows dedicated to the industry.

For an outsider, the Quebec television scene is impressive in its scale and vigour. But it is also self-referential and, like every television industry, produces its share of trash. The same baker’s dozen of vedettes also appear to act in everything. If one misses their performance in the latest téléroman, they can usually be found on another channel peddling the details of their intimate and professional lives on banal talk or variety shows, of which there is no shortage.

Would Gérard Pelletier be disappointed to discover what has become of the medium he believed held so much promise for his culture? He’d likely be baffled by the industry’s glitzy largesse but nonetheless impressed. Mindnumbing junk aside, television drama in Quebec has evolved into a respected and meaningful form of creative expression. There is even a name for it: télévision d’auteur, which reflects the fact that in Quebec, television dramas are viewed as part of oeuvres. The intelligentsia not only watch but care about what’s on television in Quebec, and the stir caused by Les Bougon is a case in point.

In the weeks just before and after Les Bougon premiered, the French and English press ran more than fifty articles about the series. The first to weigh in were welfare-rights groups, who were given a private screening of the show before it aired on prime time. The reviews from that corner were mixed, but surprisingly few expressed fears that Les Bougon was perpetuating negative stereotypes about the poor. Thousands of people visited Radio-Canada’s Bougon website, hundreds discussed the series online, and a few wrote letters to the editor. In L’actualité magazine, an academic compared Avard to Václav Havel. Another scholar opined in La Presse, “We are in the midst of a collective reflection about our society, about the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec model.” A wellrespected sociologist told a La Presse journalist, “It’s the end of the individualistic society of the 1980s; we live in a time where we are trying to rebuild our social relationships.”

The word bougon is now a part of Quebec’s vernacular. Initially, it meant a grumpy complainer but after the show aired it morphed into a more sophisticated political meaning, denoting a fraudster who cheats the system. Just as Avard hoped, the ingenious family became heroes for ordinary Quebecers, their popularity helped along by the release of Sheila Fraser’s report on the sponsorship scandal. A picture of the Bougon family, their faces replaced by politicians such as Bernard Landry, Paul Martin, Jean Charest, and Jean Chrétien, was soon posted above photocopiers and water coolers everywhere. The caption: “The real Bougon.”

But not everyone was impressed by Avard’s contribution. “The first episode shocked me, the second bored me, and I was revolted by the third. I’m stopping there,” wrote veteran Quebec City political commentator Michel Vastel. Paul Warren, a cinema professor at Laval University, charged that Avard is “artistically irresponsible.” Les Bougon isn’t true social satire because we identify too much with the characters, Warren wrote in Le Soleil, a Quebec City daily. Good social satire establishes distance, and therefore causes people to reflect. This show filled him with despair.

The criticism from other corners was even stronger. Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, a Governor General’s Literary Awardwinning novelist, essayist, and prolific television writer, believes Les Bougon is simply another sign that the quality of Quebec television is declining. In an article published in La Presse entitled “Adieu téléroman! Adieu télévision! ” Beaulieu lamented that “television isn’t what it once was.” According to Beaulieu, for many years, television writers equalled the great feuilletonnistes (serial novelists) of the nineteenth century — writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo, and talented Quebec writers helped to create a national, popular culture. For him, Les Bougon demonstrates that Radio-Canada no longer cares about culture, only ratings and entertainment. The show’s popularity is a sign that Quebecers have lost their way, and no longer know “what beauty, brotherhood, and solidarity mean.”

Beaulieu is right. Quebec television isn’t what it once was. But then neither is Quebec society. Beaulieu resides in a small community on Quebec’s south shore, so he doesn’t live where most Quebecers do, in cities and suburbs. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t appreciate the most insightful aspect of Avard’s satire: his ruthless analysis of the dysfunctional institutions that torture so many of us. Over the last fifteen years companies and government departments have been busted apart and slapped together in the name of efficiency and reform, here as elsewhere. A recent health department report, commissioned after relatives of a fifty-oneyear- old female patient in a chronic care hospital released audio tapes of her abuse by orderlies, said that nearly onethird of patients in long-term care facilities are living in poor conditions. Last October, Quebecers expressed alarm after a grisly documentary was released about the horrid lives of children under the care of the provincial youth-protection agency. Of course similar problems exist elsewhere in the country, but the soul searching may be deeper here because Quebecers fought so hard to create their own institutions.

Political dissatisfaction has intensified in recent years. In 2003 Quebecers dumped the Parti Québécois for the Liberals, whom they have been complaining about ever since, and the PQ will likely win the next election. But the sovereignty movement is far from unified and there is a noticeable absence of new ideas. A new left-leaning party, Option citoyenne, has emerged, led by the respected former head of the Quebec Federation of Women, Françoise David, and it may draw much-needed votes away from the PQ. And last October, a dozen prominent Quebecers including Lucien Bouchard, former PQ minister Joseph Facal, and film producer Denise Robert ( Denys Arcand’s wife), published the manifesto Pour un Québec lucide ( For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec). In it they warn of a looming demographic and economic crisis if something isn’t done about the declining birth rate, inflexible unions, and the “bulky albatross” that is the provincial government. Some of the twelve are federalists, some are sovereignists, all are worried. Quebec, it seems, is a society looking for answers.

Avard once referred to the Bougon family as Les Plouffes trash, in reference to Quebec’s first téléroman, La Famille Plouffe, broadcast in 1953. The parallel he draws with that classic series, which was also shown on English cbc, is an apt one. La Famille Plouffe’s creator, Roger Lemelin, pioneered the practice that Avard continues: using TV to push Quebec society toward change. In the 1950s, Quebec’s old guard — particularly its religious elite — wanted the province to remain a pious rural culture revolving around family and church. But this vision was out of step with the way many Quebecers were living. People wanted a different interpretation of reality and La Famille Plouffe provided it. Like many Quebecers in the 1950s, the show’s characters struggled to reconcile their traditional Catholic values with the realities of modern, urban life.

Nearly a half-century after the Quiet Revolution, many Quebecers are questioning the model it produced, and the Bougon family reflects this sentiment. Perhaps veteran television critic Louise Cousineau said it best when she exclaimed: “À qui ressemblent le plus les Bougon? À nous tous voyons! ” Who do les Bougon resemble the most? Why all of us, of course.