A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Little Mosque on the Prairie: a thoughtful critique

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 31, 2007

I am pining for episode 3 of Little Mosque on the Prairie to be posted online. Please, Canuck Youtubers, let me in on the fun! Downloading Desperate Housewives from Itunes is a poor, poor substitute.

I did find a very thoughtful critique of the show as a show from a self-described semi-successful Canadian television writer, Denis McGrath. He analyzes (analyses, I suppose, since he is Canadian) the effectiveness of each character, the staging, and the script – from the vantage of someone who wants the show to succeed and is dissatisfied with its prospects if it continues as is.

Here it is, posted on January 22, just over one week ago:

Little Mosque: My Take

Okay, so I finally got a chance to see the second episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie.

I was really reticent about posting anything negative about the show at all, because I thought that those premiere numbers and the coverage was such a good step in the right direction for CBC that I don’t want to rain on the parade. But let’s face it, no show is perfect. And if CBC wants a long term hit with the show, there’s definitely some things that need a good tweak.

I did not think the Pilot of Mosque was very good television. The most interesting thing about it was the concept. The execution, I thought, was lacking. I thought Episode Two was better, which was a personal relief.

You can argue all you want about the backseat driving discussions — ie: the howiwouldhavedoneits — it should have been edgier, etc, etc, but on the merits of the show they say they’re going for — a straight down the middle family, wide appeal comedy, here’s what I think’s good, and what needs attention in the next batch of eps (assuming, as seems likely, that the show gets a pickup.)

The Good:

  • Babur. I think this character is clearly the Hiro of the show. (See what I did there? I made a pun, kind of, on the guy from Heroes. Aren’t I just so…oh wait…arrrggh…I just broke my arm patting myself on the back. ow. ow.) Babur is a muslim Archie Bunker. He’s intolerant and dogmatic, conservative and doesn’t question things. He’s rigid and inflexible, but still somehow pretty lovable. The masterstroke: making him a single father of a Canadianized girl. I wish they’d hit a little harder the fact that he didn’t push the hijab question because he wants his daughter to fit in, not because he didn’t want to talk to her about her period. This plotline has the most juice in the show.
  • Yasir. He proves it on 24, but CarloRota is clearly a star. He’s got presence for miles, a good nature, and you just want to spend time with him.
  • Sheila McCarthy. I think her character is odd. It’s problematic to use her, as they did in the pilot, to express “outsider” views of Islam (like being more ignorant of how Ramadan starts, or what foods are traditional, etc, when in her backstory she converted long enough ago that she has an adult daughter with Yasir. But in both the pilot and the 2nd episode, she had little comic awkward moments — with the press in Ep. 1 and the Protesters in Ep.2 where she showed a goofy looseness that was winning.)
  • The occasional sharp line. The joke about the pot-smoking guy joining the United Church, the “You dress like a protestant. You mean Prostitute. No I mean protestant.” Occasionally, there are lines that land that are good. It would be easier if the premises were inherently more funny, but there you go.

The Bad:

  • Zaib. He looks good, he could probably be good in his role as the Imam, but he mugs and overacts insanely. The guy needs to be reined in, hard. It’s like he believes no one will find it funny unless he actually rolls his eyes. (I’m not dreaming that, am I? He really did roll his eyes?)
  • Wake Up, White People! Neil Crone, who plays the right wing radio host, is a great comedian who is absolutely stranded in his role. It’s decent, at least, that they managed to spin it in Episode 2 that he was fomenting intra-Muslim conflict as well as conflict with the community…but come on. Compare this character to Maurice Minnifield in Northern Exposure. Where does he go in three eps? What is the slightest bit interesting about him?
  • Fatima I hate to say this, but the fact that Sheila McCarthy’s character got to use her as a tactic to play on the feminist protestor’s political correctness (because she’s a person of color, see?) was the best use of this character so far. She plays the same role in the show as Babur. Two characters who play exactly the same role does not work in Comedy. You don’t need two Dumb Joeys…you don’t need two space cadet Phoebes, and you don’t need Fatima and Babur, both. One’s gotta show a different side or it’s gonna be a bitch trying to service them both. It’s not enough that she’s a person of color. What makes her distinct and unique? She was useful as a plot point (she’s a woman and wants the barrier too!) but useful as a plot point does not a good character make.
  • The Imam vs. Rayann. The standard Romantic, “they hate each other, but they like each other” thing that they’re going to play here is a big problem for one big reason: there’s nothing keeping them apart. She’s a progressive single Muslim, He’s a progressive single Muslim. They live in a town where Muslims are a serous minority. They agree on most things theologically. What’s keeping them apart? What’s the obstacle? Diane was brainy and Sam was dumb and brawny. Then they got together, and once it didn’t work, the obstacle was external: Frasier. (Thanks to my friend with the house for this point.) Also, they missed an opportunity by putting the most interesting thing about Rayann: that she discovered her faith as an adult, in the backstory. Why would you not have dramatized this journey in the show? Could have been a brilliant way in. If they’re not careful, Rayann could turn into a scold.
  • The Direction. From scenes that are overacted, to scenes that are staged wrong, the comedy is consistently crushed through bad choices in shooting. You also get the sense that there’s A LOT of editing surgery going on to put this together. Two examples that explain all: The Pilot, where the Imam’s on the phone and is mistaken for a terrorist. The women in front of him reacts, big, and goes off. If only that was staged as a slow burn with her behind him, it would have actually have been funny. Dont’ announce, “ATTENTION AUDIENCE, JOKE AHEAD!” Trust them to find funny things funny. Example two is in Ep 2, the sequence where the women get on the board to prevent the men from putting up the barrier again. This could have been rich. But it was shot indistinctly, there was no build to it, and a potentially funny sequence (Imagine what Niles Crane would have done here, or hell, Lucy) was as flat as the board it was played on.
  • The Scheduling. Good God Almighty. The one thing the CBC has going for it is that because it’s not a slave to simulcasts, it can put a show on and run it and not move it, so people can get used to when it’s on. So they premiere in one slot, move, run a rerun, then get pre-empted. Are they TRYING to shake off 500, 000 viewers, or what.

There’s also a lot of merit in what Alex said when he wrote about the show:

A really clever look at Canadian society, seen from the point of view of people who are outsiders in some ways and insiders in others. Sometimes it takes a fish out of water to notice how odd terrestrial critters really are. This is where the show really fails for me. I don’t feel its white characters are keenly observed at all. They seem to be mostly racist and all stupid. Whereas I bet most white people in the Canadian Prairies are extremely tolerant, and racists are in the minority. Most Canadians bend over backwards to be nice to minorities (except possibly not to the Natives), reserving their passive aggression and venom for empowered white people. Instead of making out every white character to be a buffoon, why not write episodes based on actual observation of white society, from a Muslim’s perspective? How white people’s kids are defiant to their faces? How white women wear push-up bras and low-cut shirts but get mad when people stare at their breasts? How white people worship an impoverished, anti-intellectual, rabble-rousing mystic carpenter and cherish money, hierarchy and dogma? Etc.

I think the show really does have promise. It’s still not my type of humor, but I wish CBC every success with it, and I hope it will lead to lots more “higher concept, boundary breaking” shows on CBC.

And like Matt Watts observed a few days ago, it would be nice, now that they have their feel-good Muslim comedy, if at least one or two of those new boundary breakers was pitched to be edgier and more clever, a la the last time CBC really, really broke through with a critical homegrown hit: those first glorious eps of The Newsroom. (Before Auteur Ken disappeared up his own digestive tract, I mean.)I don’t watch enough television to understand all the references and allusions, but I think his critique of the characters is valid. Babur, Fatima, Sarah, Rayyan, and the Imam all have more interesting roles to play, and deeper personal narratives, than the show has allowed them thus far.

Meanwhile I shall continue with my pining, hoping some kind soul’s internet intervention will bring episode 3 to my eyes soon.


One Response to “Little Mosque on the Prairie: a thoughtful critique”

  1. Med said

    Episode three is just on tonight. I am sure it will appear soon on YouTube.

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