Thoughts on Little Mosque on the Prairie

I just finished watching the first episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie. Actually, we managed to get the press kit from the CBC, for the sake of our CKUT radio show. Part of the press kit was a DVD with the first episode.

There seems to be an inordinate amount of “buzz” (God, I hate that word) around this show. We’re finally showing the “normal” side of North American Muslims. Frankly, the mass media has failed, thus far, to really deal with Islam outside of the context of fundamentalism or extremism, so this is a refreshing change. It’s also, in my view, representative of the continuing Islamic renaissance here in the West.

I withheld my thoughts on the show until I actually saw it. It seems to me that too many people are attaching too many hopes and dreams to the mirage that Little Mosque on the Prairie represents. They are also taking the show way, way too seriously. This isn’t Guernica, people! But let’s face facts. Our entire entertainment industry is based on buzz, trailers, teasers, and anticipation. It’s all about creating need, right? The merits of the actual show are secondary. That is, until the show actually airs.

I foresee the buzz around this show deflating pretty quickly. How long can the media’s fascination with a particular TV show continue? (What about Friends? Seinfeld? Survivor?…okay, okay, never mind, leave me alone…) It’s ground-breaking, it’s courageous, it’s amazing, yadda yadda yadda. Can we see the show already?

Anyway, with all that being said, I sat down this afternoon to get a look at it. Since we’re going to be doing a piece on it during our next broadcast, I’m going to be following the show and trying to get in touch with someone from the CBC.

In any case, down to the nitty-gritty. Is the show any good? Well, it’s a definite work in progress. It feels like a first episode. A lot of the jokes feel forced. The characters haven’t been fleshed out yet and they are, so far, pretty one-dimensional. For example, the younger Muslims (the ones who are around 30 years old) are all sarcastic and given only witty comebacks to deliver. Oh those young people, so hip with the comedy and the talking-back to elders, and being seduced by Western television! Then again, it is a comedy, and comedy works with character types: the moronic house husband, the smart-aleck wife, the prying neighbor, the sarcastic teenager.

Anyway, so the characters are pretty blah right now, and there aren’t that many funny jokes—death for a sitcom. The acting is pretty hammy, and not good hammy. But it’s the first episode, and we’ll see after the first eight episodes that the CBC ordered if the show has gotten anywhere. For now, I’m waiting. It’s too early to deliver a verdict. I had high hopes but low expectations, and in that sense, I wasn’t particularly disappointed.

Let’s not delude ourselves: comedies on TV rarely hit their stride by the end of the first episode. If anything, it takes a good 20 episodes—about a year—for a show to find its legs. Not every show is going to be as funny the first episode out like The Cosby Show was.

My only worry at this point is that I don’t see where this show can really go. Once they get done with all the “ethnic misunderstanding” jokes, and all the “we’re not terrorists” jokes, and the “gosh, we Muslim women sure are feisty” jokes, where is the show going to go? At that point, it has to be about the characters. We have to care about their stories. Right now, as of Episode 1, I don’t care about these characters except for the fact that they are Muslims, like me.

To take the example of another so-called ethnic comedy, look at My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That worked because it not only had specific jokes that the Greek community could relate to, but it could reach viewers on a human level, and it also was general enough that different ethnicities could relate to its representation of the immigrant experience in North America.

The biggest problem this show faces is the audience’s expectations. It has to be too many things to too many people. That’s why I think it’s going to fail. Also, it’s going to try to be PC. And it’s going to be aw-shucks quaint sentimentality, just like Corner Gas.

Anyway, before we pass greater judgment on the show, let’s wait and see how things turn out over the next few episodes. The expectation in the media is to make snap judgments about things so that we sheep can know whether or not those things are worth consuming. I’m not going to do that. I’ll see where Little Mosque on the Prairie takes us, and then I’ll decide if it’s worth anything.

Still, I commend the intent of the producers, and I commend the CBC for taking part in this sorely needed cultural dialogue. The greatest disservice anyone can do now to this cultural dialogue would be to produce a mediocre show. My hope is that the producers will stop trying to please everyone and do what we Muslims apparently do best: go for the jugular. Real comedy takes no prisoners, and it doesn’t try to be diplomatic.

I’ll leave you now with my favorite line. A hip new imam arrives in the little country town, and is welcomed by the family of the local businessman who is establishing the new mosque. A clueless reporter arrives on the scene, and asks some typical questions. “What is your connection to al-Qaeda?” he asks the imam. The businessman’s daughter spits back, “What is your connection to journalism?”

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