If you're sick of sitcoms trying to constantly reinvent the art and go back to something more traditional and, you know, simply trying to be funny, Little Mosque on the Prairie might be just the antidote you need. For the most part it's a traditional sitcom, carried on the strength of characters who are all so gosh darn lovable! It's reeks of 80's saccharine hubris, and there probably isn't a single element about it you won't recognize. Just a bunch of people getting into mischief and situations and having them ironed out in a quick 22-minute timeframe. Well, actually there is one thing a little bit different: All of the main characters are Muslims.
Little Mosque on the Prairie is the concoction of producer Zarqa Nawaz, who wanted to show how differently mosques in North America might be run if the ummah's (Muslim spiritual community's) spiritual leaders were recruited from the United States or Canada instead of being born and raised overseas. Exclusive to the Canadian Broadcasting Channel, CBC (sorry fellow Yanks, but this is one show you're excluded from if you live too far south of the Great White North), Little Mosque on the Prairie is focused around the Muslim community in the fictional small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, in Canada. The title alludes to the old American TV show Little House on the Prairie, but the resemblance ends there.
Right from the beginning of the series, Zarqa Nawaz makes it clear she wants to show the main tenants of Islam and the differences between their practitioners to a wide audience. Being that the case, all of the characters are basically used as mouthpieces for the various kinds of viewpoints and interpretations of Islam you're likely to find in the local Muslim community. (I hesitate to say the mosques because none of the mosques I ever visited were that diverse in thought.) Just like real life, there's a nutcase out there in the media with a wide audience who talks a lot of shit about the ummah. In Little Mosque he is a radio host named Fred Tupper, who bases his shtick on attacking Mercy's Muslim population. While Tupper is antagonistic, though, I can't find it in my heart to call him a villain. Being a main character, we get to see his personal life, and the way he treats Muslims is no different than the way he treats, well, anyone at all. There are times when he comes off as liking the Muslims he interacts with every day, especially Fatima, whose diner he regularly eats at. (And who shed a tear over him once, having missed him after banning him.)
The Mercy Muslims share their little mosque with the local church. Yasir Hamoudi (Carlo Rota) runs his business as a contractor out of the mosque, which he receives for free in exchange for helping out around the place. He's a practical guy; he tries to be a good Muslim but often screws it up if his wife, Sarah (Sheila McCarthy) - a former Anglican Christian who converted to Islam to marry Yasir - and his daughter, Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt) aren't breathing down his neck. He's basically helping at the mosque only for the office, and he's an official, card-carrying member of Canada's Conservative Party, but only for any networking opportunities that happen to come up. During the series he apparently moves back to his home country of Lebanon to care for his mother, and in doing that he was apparently removed from the series. I had to skip a couple of seasons due to my life in Illinois and my computer not coughing up episodes from the last couple of seasons, but apparently him and Sarah are now divorced.
At the series opening, Baber Siddiqui (Manoj Sood) is acting as the Mercy Mosque's imam (minister and spiritual leader, like a rabbi or reverend). Baber is a professor of economics at the local college and the most conservative Muslim on the show. But his conservatism proves to be a little off-putting (quoth Baber in a khutbah, a sermon: "Desperate Housewives?" Why should they be desperate?! They are doing the work of Allah!") and he tends to rant and rave over things, so the Mercy ummah decides it's time to bring in a cool youngster, Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh), a lawyer from the Center of the Universe (derogatory Canada-speak for the city of Toronto, which for those who aren't in the know is Canada's response to New York City in cultural and economic power) who felt the call of a higher power. Aamar is the heart of Little Mosque on the Prairie, and the show revolves around him, albeit very loosely.
Other characters include the sharp-tongued diner owner Fatima Dinssa (Arlene Duncan), a very conservative Muslim woman from Nigeria; Ann Popowicz, Mayor of Mercy and Sarah's boss; and Rayyan Hamoudi, Yasir and Sarah's daughter who is a doctor and in my absence apparently married to Aamar. Rayyan is the most pious member of the Hamoudi family and always wears her hijab outside the house, and is a follower of Islamic feminism. (Ironically, Sitara Hewitt is a model in real life.)
Since the current mosque is located in a church, yes, there's quite a bit of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. There's a lot of mutual respect too, and it's clear some of the Christians can't imagine life in the church without their Muslim friends. Over the course of the series, the church has had two ministers. The first was Reverend Magee (Derek McGrath), an older liberal Christian who stands up to the church when he believes it's going against the true message of Christianity. The writers sort of put him on a bus after season three. He disappeared from the show, and his replacement, Thorne (Brandon Firla), wasn't quite as accommodating. Thorne saw his original duty to compete with Aamar for Mercy's souls, and he was just far less likable, playing a jackass when the show already had an effective - and more likable - jackass in Fred Tupper. When he first appeared, he couldn't walk onto the screen without me wanting to kill him. Since then, his act seems to have died off in obnoxious jackassery for the most part, and he seems to be friends with Baber now.
The episodes tend to be standard sitcom fare. Yes, they can be quite funny, and there's always a Muslim spin on them to universalize the show's ummah. But still, there's an episode for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr in which it is repeatedly promised that it will be the best Eid ever! Rayyan and Aamar did the thing where they realized they each have feeling for each other while Rayyan was engaged to another man, and there was a wedding episode in which the other man ended up leaving Rayyan at the alter, in the rain no less. There's even a flashback episode in which the characters all talk about where they were five years ago, and Baber has problems understanding his daughter Layla, who is on the brink of teenagehood.
Despite the overwhelming dominance of religion on Little Mosque on the Prairie, the themes are a lot more universal, and Nawaz says she wasn't trying to make a political statement with the show. As I mentioned it's basically a traditional sitcom which is more or less 80's style, but not nearly as saccharine. Themes revolve around family, friends and community. A lot of issues that are brought up in a Muslim context are either universalized so everyone can understand them or played strictly for laughs: The show has explored silly issues like if a woman has to cover her hair if the only man in the room with her is gay; whether Muslims are allowed to curl (a Canadian sport in which players try to slide 42-pound stones into targets), if it's okay to negotiate with a carpet salesman when buying a prayer rug, and if hijab is enough to mitigate a bad hair day.
Although the production values are bad by pretty much every standard - American or Canadian - the show gets points for the effort put into making it authentically Islamic. The actors are all of middle eastern descent, and Zaib Shaikh and Aliza Vellani (who plays Baber's daughter, Layla) are Muslims themselves. Sitara Hewitt is of partial Pakistani descent, though she was raised Anglican Christian. Manoj Sood is a Hindu Punjabi. The show goes out of its way to regale the audience with real Muslim terminology and practice, and differences in interpretations are clearly based in real scholarship. I couldn't help but laugh at some of the people and spins I saw myself at the local mosque.
Fox once announced plans to adapt Little Mosque on the Prairie into an American setting, but those plans were apparently scrapped. It's Fox, it's run by Rupert Murdoch, who also runs Fox News and you KNOW how those guys feel about Muslims, so I guess we could have seen that coming. Hopefully someone will take that ball and run with it, though.
The fictional rural prairie town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, was never the same after a cast of unlikely characters set up shop. See, these folks lean on the Middle East side of things and bring with them a culture that is not only foreign, it also creates wonderfully comedic moments that touch on all aspects of society and religion.