steve russell/torstar news service


Little Mosque On The Prairie co-creator Zarqa Nawaz.


GREEN CLUNKERS: There has, no surprise, been a bunch of controversy about Little Mosque On The Prairie, a new comedy debuting tonight at 8:30 on the CBC. The sitcom doesn’t sound revolutionary – a fish-out-of-water story about a small Muslim community in a small Saskatchewan town and their new imam, a slick young ex-lawyer from Toronto. Prime time TV loves formulas, and the formula for Little Mosque boils down to: Add white crescent to Green Acres, stir vigorously. Most of the criticism has been preemptive, and has come from the right side of the political spectrum, who’ve come (with some justification) to be wary of the CBC’s attempts at topicality.

Frankly, you can’t blame the CBC for trying – if your mandate involves some vague direction to explore what we’ve come, with tightened sphincters, to call our "national identity," then this is exactly the sort of topic they should be taking a swing at; in any case, it beats yet another sentimental period drama featuring a plucky young girl coming of age in the midst of turn-of-the-century rural tedium.

Written by Zarqa Nawaz, a practicing Muslim who moved to Regina a decade ago, the show stars Zaib Shaikh as the new imam, Carlo Rota as the westernized community leader, Sheila McCarthy as his convert wife and Sitara Hewitt as their daughter. Secondary characters include the liberal Anglican minister who rents the parish hall out as the new mosque, the female mayor, the disgruntled former imam, and the hostile local talk radio host.

Despite insisting that the show is not political satire, Nawaz squeezes in every hot-button shorthand cliché from the last five years of tension and headlines – hostile airport security, paranoid non-Muslims, incompetent terrorist "hotlines," self-styled right-wing pundits bullying their guests on the air, orthodox imams preaching misogyny, and mainstream Muslims afraid of attracting attention to themselves.

There’s too much situation, and far too little comedy – the gags, when they come, are little more than asides that misguidedly try to deflate the tension. Depressingly, the unnamed non-Muslim locals are mostly painted as yokels, the talk-radio host is set up as the series’ likely villain, while the Muslim characters get a much softer treatment, even the orthodox former imam, whose hints of bigotry and sexism – too well documented in Islam’s fundamentalist wing – should, you’d think, be anathema to CBC dogma.

The problem with Little Mosque is simply a lack of cruelty. Good comedy is essentially mean, and if Nawaz is happy to trade in diminishing clichés, she should have been just as willing to spread them around. Judging from the first episode, Little Mosque obviously isn’t a character comedy, based around the eccentrics populating its rural setting. That show would have been Corner Mosque, and while it would have reeked of imitation, it would have been a more interesting prospect than yet another frantic but flaccid comedy running on bald and punctured gags.