New HBO Canada mini-series The Yard—premiering tonight—applies a Wire-style turf-war storyline to the school playground, and succeeds on account of its impressive pre-teen cast.
Child stars were once pop-culture punchlines—adorable tykes added to sitcoms to increase cute quotients and then abandoned to the vagaries of fate to become addicts, convicts and corpses. Kinda like corner boys on The Wire.
If that train of thought makes you wish that The Wire starred kid actors then look no further than HBO Canada’s The Yard, which puts recess through the prism of the streets.
Created by Globe and Mail parenting columnist David Eddie and filmmaker Michael Mabbott (The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifco) and executive produced by CanCon icon Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows), this six-part miniseries turns its faux-reality TV lens on a Toronto elementary school run by two rival gangs.
The titular schoolyard is Nick Moshanski’s turf. Played to casual perfection by Quintin Colantoni—the son of Flashpoint and Veronica Mars star Enrico—the longhaired, lollipop-sucking tough uses his powers as capo to keep the yard at peace and the kids at play.
With a crew of lieutenants—led by muscle Suzi (Keana Bastidas), a tough girl who secretly wets the bed, and brains JJ Moshanski (Alex Cadillo), a vegetarian ever since he read Charlotte’s Web—Nick settle disputes, maintains order and pushes back against Frankie Miladic (Daniel Lupetina), the bully who runs the lunch racket and wants to expand his cafeteria territory.
This admittedly sounds goofy. But thanks to pitch-perfect cast of kids who all play it straight—with the super cuteness restricted to Nick’s littlest brother Adam (Devan Cohen), so that it never becomes cloying—the show is a fascinating take on the epic nature of childhood and the ridiculousness of the adult world.
Tonight’s pilot, for instance, revolves around an upset in the yard’s complex economic system. See, it’s been based around the trading of Ju-Ji-Mon cards for several years but Frankie has now introduced Ho-Ping-Kong cards into the mix. This threatens to devalue the current currency, eliminating everyone’s savings and creating school-wide upheaval because kids have been trading in futures (i.e., two Ju-Ji-Mon’s now for next week’s worth of pudding).
It’s a literal house of cards, and yet no more or less idiotic than the subprime shenanigans that created our current Great Recession. (If only that could have been solved by flooding the market with on-par Korean-import trading cards.)
Subsequent episodes delve into gender politics, soccer-pitch racism and PB&J smuggling, continuing The Yard’s mix of sociopolitical subtext, well-developed characters and charming storytelling.
But it succeeds on the strength of the kids’ acting. Admittedly, “child star” isn’t the slur it once was, not with billionaire-esses like the Olsen Twins, full-blown brands like Miley Cyrus and actual actors like Dakota Fanning and Zac Efron. Still, they’re largely known for mugging for the cameras, so to entrust an adult show—the salty language leaves no doubt about The Yard‘s target audience—to an all-kid cast is risky, but these child stars are effortlessly real.
The lesson from The Yard is that, while people may love to see little kids act like grown-ups, it’s even better when they can actually act like grown-ups.
The Yard airs Fridays, 9 p.m., on HBO Canada.