Published Sep 08, 2013In the late '90s, when Todd Solondz was shocking audiences by skewering the upper-middle-class with Happiness, Bruce Sweeney was making similar waves in Canada with sophomore outing Dirty. The two were often compared, at the time, not necessarily because they shared thematic specificities, but because they were both exceedingly controversial, examining sexuality and identity in a less than flattering light, capturing the shift in cinematic ethos from objectification and desire — the '90s being known for sexually charged adult thrillers — to shame and degradation.
Sweeney (working with his actors during an extended rehearsal period to exploit the candidness of an improvisational dynamic) was a fresh, new voice on the Northern landscape, biting into the status quo and assessing identity with a shrewd eye. He, along with several other talented filmmakers (chiefly Atom Egoyan, with the Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter), helped English-language Canadian cinema become recognized globally, at a time when David Cronenberg was one of the only directors with cross-border appeal.
Since then, Sweeney's work has mostly fallen by the periphery. Last Wedding and Excited were both entertaining in their own right, but the bigger social observations — unseemly insights exposing the aspects of humanity we try to repress — were missing, which is why The Dick Knost Show is particularly relevant.
The titular Dick Knost (Tom Scholte), a sports radio host with an uncompromising tendency to call people on their bullshit, represents a dying breed of nationalistic voice. Though he's often flip and dismissive of modernity, his simple conversational format — avoiding cheap recaps and pandering for advertisers — doesn't cater to a generation accustomed to single-serving information and constant distraction. This is likely why Dick, someone that appeals to an older demographic, has fewer followers on Twitter than most non-celebrities, leading him to make inflammatory remarks about the effectiveness of Osama Bin Laden's leadership, hoping to get a bit of attention.
Ironically, this misguided attempt to adjust to the times — one that didn't account for the modern plague of moral vanity — simply garnered the wrong kind of attention, causing advertisers to bail and giving some bureaucrats a reason to oust him and bring in a host more amenable to cheap ratings ploys and celebrity worship. Another bit of irony comes when Dick gets a concussion while playing racquetball with his temperamental co-host, Neil (Paul Skrudland), right after insulting an author for suggesting that hockey players needed more headgear to avoid injury.
The comedy of The Dick Knost Show stems mostly from this head injury and everyone's self-motivated quest to pretend it doesn't exist. Though Dick's clever rants and his producer Kelly's (Gabrielle Rose) casual tendency to tell everyone to "fuck off" are quite amusing on their own, how everyone interacts with Dick as he gradually deteriorates from an untreated concussion is the vital comic trajectory that allows idiosyncrasies and core characteristics to shine through.
Amidst the litany of well-performed exchanges between a group of wildly different people there are little jabs at the rigid conservatism driving a culture that claims to be liberal. Similarly, acknowledgements that a medium like Twitter is inconsequential, rendering the message irrelevant, speaks to the intense narcissism of a society that, in encouraging everyone to voice an opinion, has become littered with an endless array of incoherent white noise, with denizens more likely to defend their ignorance than attempt to educate themselves.
These criticisms are ultimately minor and, in a way, facile, which has been the main issue with Sweeney's work, post-Dirty, but there's a fire that suggests he might be onto something. With his cast of regulars having mastered their interactions and ability to find the randomness of any given situation, the basic framework exists to make something more substantive than a rather tenuous, albeit often hilarious, stab at social commentary.