I grew up in a neighbourhood where women like my mother had their hair tuned up monthly in beauty parlours that were often in the front rooms of someone’s house, and have vivid memories of squirming on the couch reading women’s magazines, inhaling fumes from the hair dye and perm chemicals and trying to puzzle out the often tense, loaded dialogue passing between the hairdressers and customers.

The staff and clientele at Vancouver’s Chop Shop might sport tattoos and Mohawks, but the atmosphere is familiar enough, at least after viewing a couple of episodes of the eponymous reality TV series debuting tonight on Slice.

Chop Shop co-owner and de facto star of the series Daniel Hudon says that the producers began approaching him over two years ago with the show, and that he’d said no at first, before consenting to a pilot episode that he’d forgotten about until they came back with a series order from Slice.

“The type of people that we are,” Hudon says, “I don’t have cable and a lot of my staff don’t have cable, so when you say ‘reality TV show’ it can be a dirty, filthy word, right? I just really wanted to make sure that we were representing what we believed in, on a business perspective especially.”

Superficially, the show is modelled on “extreme workplace” shows like L.A. Ink or American Chopper, but in a larger sense it’s part of an ongoing fascination TV viewers have with the relationships we’re forced to have daily with people who aren’t necessarily our family and friends, a trait shared by shows as different as The Office, Ugly Betty and Lost. Who hasn’t, after all, felt as stranded at their job as they would on a desert island?

The dramas on Chop Shop are small but easy to grasp — the first two episodes of the show deal with the anxiety surrounding a new hiring at the close-knit shop, and the attempts by stylists to get a date for the workaholic Hudon.

Director Ziad Touma says that his biggest challenge was getting the staff to trust him and his crew, and to relax around the cameras and microphones.

“Just imagine the narrowness of this shop,” Touma says, “with the camera and the boom operator, following hairdressers who are already working elbow to elbow, with mirrors all around you can always see the crew and me behind the camera, plus blow dryers and sinks and then clients.”

“These are not actors, these are real hairdressers, and we were in their face for three or four days a week for six months, so you get to learn about them and the relationships and dynamics, and when I’m at work or at a lunch break with one of them, it’s really about fitting in.

“I had to be a Chopper, and they could tell me anything, although they knew I might use it as a storyline.”

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