Four years ago the CBC failed to see the humour - or the humongous ratings potential - in a bunch of oddball prairie petrol pumpers.
Not wanting to be burned again, the suits at the Mother Corp green-lighted Little Mosque On The Prairie, a Muslims-in-a-small-town sitcom that's got more than a few burqas in a bunch before the first episode even airs. This isn't unexpected given the religious tension in the wake of Pope Benedict's Islam-bashing and a few inflammatory doodles in a Danish newspaper.
Never mind that Little Mosque is no more controversial than the average episode of Corner Gas, a show it resembles more than a little. Substitute a mosque for the gas station, dress Brent Butt in a thobe and sandals, toss in a few references to Allah and Dog River turns a few degrees toward Mecca.
"Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour," says the sardonic young imam who ditches his Toronto law career to become the cleric of the show's upstart Sasketchewan mosque.
Thankfully, if the pilot episode is any indication, at least one Muslim Little Mosque creator Zarqa Nawaz does know funny.
Nawaz is the Regina-based filmmaker behind the short BBQ Muslims, a comedy about two brothers suspected of terrorism after their barbecue blows up, and Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance. Her production company is called FUNdamentalist Films because she wants to put the "fun back into fundamentalism." For the most part, she succeeds here.
If you can get past the SNL-sounding parody title, you'll find a charming, low-key comedy.
Unlike the usual fish-out-of-water scenario in which an ignorant and often arrogant newcomer is taken down a peg or two by the quirky but knowing locals (see Men In Trees), Little Mosque makes the locals (God-fearing white folks) ignorant and intolerant and the butt of most of the jokes, while the members of the Muslim community are peaceful, conciliatory and occasionally sharp-tongued.
Not that Islam doesn't take the occasional gentle ribbing. One character suggest that Toronto Muslims determine the start of Ramadan by the ringing of the bell at the Toronto Stock Exchange.
The show opens with the imam's extremist predecessor offering words of wisdom: wine gums, rye bread and licorice are Western traps to seduce Muslims into drinking alcohol; American Idol and Canadian Idol, like all idols, must be smashed (which I think we can all get behind).
References to 9/11 abound. The imam is held for questioning at Pearson Airport when someone half-overhears him talking on his cellphone about (career) suicide and his new job as "Allah's plan for me."
A Sasketchewan radio shock jock fans the flames when he calls for the mosque to be shut down because he believes it's a terrorist training camp.
Yasir, a leader in the Muslim community, owns a struggling construction company, and someone quickly points out that Osama bin Laden was in construction, too.
But most of the material focuses on the scheming Yasir, his Muslim convert wife (played by a hilariously mugging Sheila McCarthy) and their devout and beautiful daughter. Overall, it has the charm of classic 70s sitcoms like One Day At A Time, with just a touch of The Jeffersons' race-based comic tension.
Little Mosque On The Prairie premieres Tuesday at 8:30 pm on CBC, airs Mondays at 9 pm from next week.
What to watch this week
Sunday, January 7
Dragon Boys (miniseries) Ignore the chopsocky title and tune in for a slick crime drama about Chinese gangs in Vancouver. 8 pm on CBC (Part 2 Monday at 8 pm)
Wednesday, January 10
Road Hockey Rumble A cross-Canada road hockey grudge match featuring NHLers Wade Redden and Duane Sutter. 8:30 pm on OLN
Saturday, January 6
The Henry Rollins Show Punk poet Rollins makes like chatster Charlie Rose, with guests Ozzy Osbourne, Oliver Stone, Billy Bob Thornton, P. T. Anderson and others. 9 pm on IFC