The joke's on us: a review of Little Mosque on the Prairie (National Post, January 11, 2007)

I caught the opening episode of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie Tuesday night. It wasn't quite as bad as I'd anticipated. That is to say, it's awful, but at least my worst fears were not realized: Thanks be to Allah, there are no Jews in this sitcom.

So I was spared my fantasized plot thread of a young Muslim boy and a young Jewish boy -- the son of the local rabbi, of course -- who find some quarrel in a straw, but then, through the wisdom of their sage and tolerant fathers, become best friends, while their families go into business together in a joint kosher/halal butcher shop, where the Jewish boy's older brother, home from med school for the summer and helping out in the shop, falls madly in love with the Muslim boy's doe-eyed, hijab'd sister, as a result of which her father's wish for an arranged marriage with a friend's son from Pakistan wavers, he sees the multicultural way of the future, and his opposition to the match with the Jewish boy melts away. Fade to a wedding feast on a groaning table laden with chopped liver, hummus, brisket, couscous, with happy Muslims and Jews, arms linked, awhirl in a dizzying hora, segueing into a joyous, high stepping round of YMCA ...

There are two sources of conflict in Mosque: internal and external. Internally, the "tension" within the Muslim community devolves around: (a) whether cucumber sandwiches or goat stew should be served for breaking the Ramadan fast; (b) when the heck Ramadan actually starts anyway; and (c) if the new, young, hipimam from Toronto's inability to get a cappuccino in Mercy, Sask. will be a deal-breaker for him staying.

The external conflicts involve: (a) anxiety over the Anglican minister finding out the Muslims are using his church as a mosque, not just as a community centre; (b) the new imam's problems at the airport when he is falsely suspected of being a terrorist; and (c) convincing the village idiots of Mercy -- that would be virtually all the non-Muslim residents -- that they, the Muslims, are just regular chaps and not "Johnny Jihads."

No hijinks (must less hilarity) ensue, since all conflicts are resolved within 12 seconds of their being aired, and everything works out the way you knew it would: cucumber sandwiches and goat stew, a little compromise here, a little coaxing there, an explanation, a smile, a handshake, a sigh, a shrug ... and even though nobody explains why the beautiful daughter wears a hijab and the mum doesn't, everyone is cool with whatever.

The greatest potential "tension" occurs when Amaar, the young imam, is detained at the Toronto airport. The situation is resolved handily, but exposes the cringe-inducing impulses behind the series.

Look you: Amaar is of Middle Eastern appearance, has spent a year in Afghanistan and several more in Egypt, is travelling alone on a one way ticket, and has been overheard loudly using the words "bomb" and "suicide" on a cellphone (perfectly innocently, of course -- who hasn't used those words in an airport lineup?). Still, he is shocked, shocked, that he should be taken aside for questioning.

In this surreal sequence -- sorry, not comic for me, but then I would have found Hogan's Heroes kind of a downer if it aired in 1946 -- the witty and confident Amaar displays insouciant contempt for the implied Islamophobia of the dumber-than-dumb cops.

Well sorry, Amaar, your postmodern irony is just a tad misplaced here. How come you're not even a wee bit scared? Even laid-back, irony-suffused Jerry Seinfeld would not have banalized the seriousness of the situation. Rather, he'd have made himself the humour target by whinging and grovelling and creating the real tension that makes for good comedy. But apparently in this series, the role of idiot is reserved strictly for non-Muslims.

Amaar's ironic facade strikes a false note in any case. The rest of the cast is stuck in the pre-ironic 1950s model sitcom, like Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, where characters are cardboard cutouts, the reigning mood is earnestness, where nobody is really bad (although many are somewhat simple), everyone's intentions are good and whatever minor conflict serves to propel the plot forward is resolved with a kind word.

Wait a minute. I think I just described every comic series that has ever been produced by the CBC. Ah, all is illuminated. In 1957, Little Mosque on the Prairie would have been a crackerjack series. In 2007, it is a reminder that the CBC is a cultural fossil.

© National Post 2007