By JOHN DOYLE
Today, we celebrate a triumph. What arrives tonight on CBC is the smartest thing the broadcaster has done in years.
Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC, 8:30 p.m.) is no masterpiece of comedy or social observation. It’s hokey as hell. But it’s terrifically good-natured, has a few terrific jokes and its mere existence is a grand-slam assertion that Canadian TV is different and that the best of Canadian TV amounts to a rejection of the hegemony of U.S. network TV.
The show has generated the sort of buzz that CBC has surely lacked. The last time there was this much fuss about a CBC initiative, the subject was The One, a disastrous foray into simulating U.S. network karaoke-show nonsense.
The buzz has been loud from the U.S. media, an indication that a comedy about as Muslim community trying to go about its business in a nice but narrow-minded Prairie town — enthralls and appalls the United States itself.
Last week on Paula Zahn’s program on CNN, Little Mosque on the Prairie was a hot topic. Clips from the show were aired and discussed. After the clips, Zahn declared, “You found that funny or no laughing matter? Will a show like that make it on American TV? Let’s ask our Out in the Open panel now.”
Then Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition Against Terrorism, said, “I think it’s hilarious. I think it’s good. Unfortunately, when Muslims come on the air in the United States, usually they don’t smile, they’re very serious and so on. This [Little Mosque] is great. It shows we are all really human beings. When Muslims get together, we laugh and make fun of ourselves and we do make fun of others. And I think to show that is great.”
Cenk Uygur, a talk-radio host, said, “Once you make fun of something people go, ‘Wait a minute, you’re right, that’s silly. Of course not all Muslims are suicide bombers and of course they’re not all bad guys. I don’t know why I ever thought that.’ ” Then came an important bit of information. Zahn read from an e-mail to CNN from a viewer: “But Ruth in Virginia says, ‘I see no humour in Little Mosque on the Prairie. I see a Muslim and I think 9/11. This country has been without mosques since it began, and yes I see the religion in a negative light. I feel threatened by mosques being built in our country.’ ”
Right. But this is Canada and we pride ourselves on being more tolerant here. We roll our eyes at the paranoia and ignorance of Americans, and believe it’s legitimate to strengthen our tolerance by poking gentle fun at those who are intolerant, and even by poking fun at Muslims. After all, they are kinda wacky, like the rest of us.
Little Mosque on the Prairie is about a small Muslim community trying to get its act together. The Muslims in Mercy, Sask., need a mosque and a new imam, and they need to go about their lives without everybody thinking that they are all terrorists. As it opens, Yasir (Carlo Rota) is hustling the community into the Anglican church basement. They think it’s their new mosque, but Yasir has told Rev. Magee (Derek McGrath) that he’ll just be using the space as an office for his contracting business. After a local yokel (Boyd Banks) stumbles into the Islamic prayer service, he panics, calls the cops and the media, and everybody goes nuts.
Then, as members of the community and the new imam Amaar (Zaib Shaikh) face ludicrous questions about terrorists and al-Qaeda, the humour of the situation acts to underline the idiocy of prejudice and ignorance. And some of it is very funny.
“American Idol, Canadian Idol, I say all idols should be smashed. Desperate Housewives? Why should they be desperate when they’re only performing their natural womanly duties?
But it’s not just the yokels who bear the brunt of the humour. The elderly former imam Baber (Manoj Spood) tells his congregation to be aware of wine gums, rye bread and licorice because, well, there’s alcohol involved. On the matter of television, he says, “American Idol, Canadian Idol, I say all idols should be smashed. Desperate Housewives? Why should they be desperate when they’re only performing their natural womanly duties?”
The show’s creator Zarqa Nawaz has declared, “To me, this is not a political show, this is not about the Iraq war, it’s not about 9/11. First and foremost, it’s entertainment.” Well, it is about 9/11 and its reverberations. When the local yokel confronts the Anglican pastor about the church being used as a mosque, he’s told he shouldn’t worry — “This is just a pilot project.” The response is a horrified, “You’re training pilots?”
It’s notable that Little Mosque on the Prairie, while it’s a sitcom, isn’t derived from the U.S., network model. It has a British feel to it. The gentle mocking of a small community and celebration of the eccentrics within it has been a Britcom staple for years — shows such as Ballykissangel, Hamish Macbeth and Doc Martin have mined the genre with glorious results.
And the important thing is this — popular, consequential Canadian TV is a vigorous demonstration of our difference from the United States in our attitudes and national character. Trailer Park Boys celebrates lowlifes, dope-smoking and all manner of vulgarity. Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence deal with the reality of a dope economy and the thin line between cops and criminals. Corner Gas asserts that there’s wonderful entertainment in the most gentle, never-nasty humour.
The topics and the substance of these shows stand as rejections of the U.S. network style and preoccupations. Little Mosque on the Prairie is nobly in that Canadian tradition. The U.S. media can huff and puff in wonder, but this is who we are, and we’re fine with it, thanks. And thanks to CBC for doing its job.