Tiny Plastic Men scores AMPIA award nominations | National Screen Institute - Canada (NSI)

I’m a horrible person. I freely admit that. But I’m not horrible all the time. I have moments when I’m even okay to be around.

And when those moments happen, you’ll find me searching for the gently quirky, the strange, the oddball. All those hidden treasures and diamonds in the rough we all go blasting past, on our way to our busy lives.

Which brings me to Tiny Plastic Men, a very quirky, very fun little television series that deserves cult status and a lot more attention than it seems to have gotten.

Tiny Plastic Men is about three guys who work in a little independent toy company, Gottfried Brothers. Gottfried isn’t Mattel or Lego, but by God, they’re in there giving it their all, from board games, to action figures, to video games and somehow, they’ve managed to care themselves a niche.

Our heroes are three peons who work in the testing department: Crad, played by Chris Craddock — the everyman of the group, middle aged, divorced, burnt out, anger issues and yet somehow struggling to get by and be a decent person while pining for his boss, for whom he nurses a crush; October, played by Mark Meer, who starts off goth and gets seriously weird, and Addison, played by Matthew Alden, a kind of stereotypical lovable lunk of a manchild. Rounding out the cast are Alexandra Gottfried, played by, Belinda Cornish, daughter of old man Gottfried, and a piranha in a woman’s body, who Crad pines for. Beyond that, there’s a revolving cast of recurring characters.

Given that this is a show about three buddies working as product testers in some second string toy factory, you shouldn’t expect this to be your regular sitcom about people sitting around their apartments or having real jobs in the real world. There’s a basic silliness to the premise, a bit of surrealism, a bit of absurdity, a lot of off the wall stuff. This is not Friends, trust me. It’s not even the Big Bang Theory.

In fact, I don’t think that there’s anything quite like it. The closest I can come to is a sort of Earthbound version of Red Dwarf or perhaps a more insane version of the IT Crowd.

But in comparison, these other shoes are structured carefully, always staying within it’s premises. Tiny Plastic Men is more like a dirigible with a mind of its own, it seems stable at first, but it’s going wherever it wants.

It starts off almost normally. There’s an episode where the boys get laid off and living on the streets. Crad ends up wearing a pirate costume, because they were all out of hobo suits, and you think that’s the sort of thing to expect. But no, it just goes anywhere. Time travel, groundhog day, a multiverse (which they mostly destroy). Old man Gottfried turns out to be the bastard son of Santa Claus and immortal to boot. There’s a small toy automobile, Danger Car, which is literally a sentient death machine. These boys live in a world where Superheroes and Supervillains are real, and Crad ends up competing with and losing to a Doctor Doom lookalike for the affections of his girl. Along the way, stories are punctuated by animated or live action sketches that escalate the crazy.

Every episode seems wackier and more out of control than the next, but so rooted in pop and nerd culture that every reference feels familiar and pays off in unexpected, left field ways. Some of it is unbearably subtle — Danger Car, it’s mission fulfilled, drives off on its own, to the theme of Littlest Hobo, a reference that literally every Canadian, and no other human on the planet, will get. There’s continuous throwaway gags referencing television, comics, movies and fiction. It’s so off the wall it feels like a shame even to spill even this much.

This show is nerd heaven, as the ceaselessly lampoon everything in geek culture. The nerd culture thing also speaks to familiarity — these aren’t outsiders making nerd jokes, there’s a sense that they live there. Ninja disappearing in a puff of smoke? They play with that. There are endless references, all kinds of gags, and there’s an unlimited free wheeling quality to the stories as they roam completely unbound.

All this is anchored by the core characters and their supporting cast who mostly turn in engaging performances. Special attention goes to Craddock, Meer and Alden who have excellent chemistry and comic timing. Other performances, not quite — Cornish plays her character with too much of an unlikable edge, Jesse Jervais and Georges Laroque struggle, particularly when paired. On the other hand John B. Lowe as old man Gottfried is always a treat, Patricia Zentilli is a delight as Crad’s ex.

Somehow effortlessly swerves from hilarious, to weird, to absurdist and surreal. And oddly, once in a while, there are unexpected moments of genuine emotion, even pathos. Not every gag works, not every idea lands, but even there, you kind of had the sense they were working without a net.

Tiny Plastic Men seems to have been the brainchild of star Chris Craddock and Mark Meer. It seems to have been a local production, produced in Edmonton Alberta, starting in 2012 and running four seasons and 32 episodes. It concluded in 2015, possibly because they ran out of ideas, or just couldn’t keep topping themselves with the budget they had, or maybe they all just got tired and there were greener pastures somewhere else. It’s a shame.

You can kind of tell it’s a local low budget, it doesn’t quite have the polished gloss of an LA production, there’s a certain roughness around some edges. It was apparently nominated for a number of Canadian comedy awards and aired on Superchannel, but otherwise seems criminally obscure.

Most of the cast seems to have been pretty local to Alberta. You got the feeling that they all came out of the same theatrical, fringe, comedy ensembles. There’s often a sense of comfort and familiarity, as if they’ve worked together and know how to play with each other. The only one who seems to have had an extensive track record on IMDB is Mark Meer, who lists a lot of credits, particularly as a voice.

Chris Craddock was quite active in the Alberta arts and theatre scene, but his career imploded in 2017, when he made a speech about trying to be a better human being and regretting his ‘contributions to rape culture,’ which was taken as a confession to having been a sexist, abusive creep. He acknowledged drug and alcohol problem, apologized and committed to turning his life around. I don’t know how far he’s gotten in the year’s since. He seems to have retired from theatre since then. It seems his character, Crad, with his character flaws and anger issues might have been a little too close to home.

Craddock’s confession and his flaws and transgressions as a human being pose a challenge we often end up wrestling with in the production of artistic works — that fact that often creators are challenged people. They’re often horrible, damaged and damaging. Does this cast a pall over their works? Perhaps. Or perhaps we accept human failure and still somehow contemplate the work.

And if Chris Craddock turned out to be as flawed and broken as his character, Crad, that’s just a fact of life. How do we address his work? How do we deal with the fact that he’s only a part of Little Plastic Men, do we throw out everyone else too? If we condemn his past, should we also acknowledge his effort to become a better human being? Maybe this is too freighted a discussion for this show.

Bottom line, for all it’s flaws, onscreen and off, it’s often sublime, quirkily brilliant and utterly unique. At the end of the day, I won’t apologize for liking Little Plastic Men. I think you should check it out too. It deserves cult status.

Because, goddammit, it’s funny and silly, and smart, and shameless, and there’s an episode where a woman has fun with the name ‘Clint’ and they got away with it. How can I not love it.