Little Mosque on the Prairie

Ten episodes into the second season. Appears on CBC television but also (more relevant to me) in many corners of the Internet.

Lying home on the couch, coughing and wheezing and sulking, I ran out of TV shows recorded on the TiVo. I didn’t really have the attention span for a movie, so I started foraging on the Internet for something to entertain me and eventually stumbled across Little Mosque on the Prairie. I’d read about the Canadian sitcom when it made its debut a year ago, so I decided to check it out.

As the name implies, Little Mosque on the Prairie is groundbreaking! daring! and radical! in that it portrays a Muslim community living in small-town Saskatchewan. The little mosque is led by Amaar (Zaib Shaikh), a handsome young lawyer-turned-imam from the big city of Toronto. Amaar’s relatively progressive approach to Islam puts him at odds with the congregation’s former imam, Baber (Manoj Sood), a more traditional character, but Rayyan (Sittara Hewitt), a beautiful young woman who is both devoted to her faith and committed to feminist principles, hopes that Amaar will be the one to lead her small community into modernity.

There are other characters—Rayyan’s more secular father, her convert mother, Baber’s rebellious teenage daughter, to name a few—but that initial sketch should make one thing clear: Despite all the attention about Little Mosque being groundbreaking! daring! and radical!, it’s actually a very conventional sitcom. Would it surprise you to know that Amaar and Rayyan share an unspoken, unacknowledged attraction to each other? Would you be shocked to learn that, despite his gruff, reactionary tendencies, Baber is a devoted father who truly only wants his daughter to be happy? Or that the small-town locals are somewhat suspicious of Amaar’s big-city background?

Little Mosque has its moments. In the pilot, for example, Amaar is detained at the airport after a fellow passenger overhears—and misunderstands—his exasperated conversation with his mother. That sequence has some satiric bite, some latent anger, but most of the comedy is toothless: just a mix of mild, often pedantic culture-clash gags. The show doesn’t have a laugh track, but it feels like it should. The rhythm is stodgy and stilted, and you can practically hear the da-dum-ching of a drum kit closing out each scene.

In a way, though, the old-fashioned clichés of Little Mosque are what make it sort of endearing. Zarqa Nawaz, the show’s creator, clearly wants to celebrate ordinary, everyday Muslims; to humanize people who so many reflexively fear; to tell stories that involve benign misunderstandings and universal parent-child squabbles rather than violent extremism and repressive regimes. And she succeeds in that. Little Mosque is conventional and trite, a benign addition to the not particularly grand tradition of Western situational comedy, and in a weird way, that humanizes the Canadian-Muslim community beautifully.