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Little Mosque, Dragon Boys, and more:
... Some recent Canadian TV notables


Little Mosque on the Prairie premiered a couple of weeks ago and, in case you've been living on the moon for the last few months, it's safe to say it has probably been the most publicized/talked about series in recent Canadian history. At first glance, the notion of a sitcom about Muslims living in a small Canadian town would seem like, sure, an unusual premise...simply for embracing Canada's multi-culturalism. But I certainly didn't realize how "daring" it would be perceived as being (after all, the CBC had previously featured a Muslim hero in its detective movies, Jinnah on Crime). Even before the series aired it got unprecedented coverage from the international press -- the U.S., England, Israel, and elsewhere have reported on it. And these are countries that aren't even broadcasting it!

Whether the press have been surprised by a western series with sympathetic Muslims...or whether they're expecting a Muslim backlash of radical extremists taking offense at the comedy, is unclear. But everyone was talking about it.

(Actually, maybe an illustration of how "unusual" is the series is reflected in an unrelated, parallel story -- Canadian comedian Shaun Majumder, a ubiquitous performer who's hosted Just for Laughs and co-stars in This Hour Has 22 Minutes and many other things in Canada, recently got his big Hollywood break in the hit U.S. series 24, pigeon-holed as...an Arab terrorist.)

Anyway, when "Little Mosque" finally aired -- it's safe to say the ratings defied all expectations, with over 2 million viewers the first night, and another 800 000 for a repeat broadcast the following night. Numbers that come quite close to being record breaking for a Canadian series. And although a drop off was expected for the second episode (assuming many of those initial viewers just tuned in because of the hype), the next week's episode apparently got over a million viewers -- also pretty impressive.

But the real breath holder was -- was the series good? Was it funny? After all that hype...would it be another Rumours? Why should anyone hold their breaths? you ask. Why should anyone be rooting for it to work? 'Cause Canadian TV has been going through a bad patch, ratings wise lately, and desperately needs a shot in the arm a hit would bring.

So was it that shot?

Well, obviously, nothing could live up to the hype, and the knives were quickly being unsheathed as some critics answered: "no". Strangely, most reviewers acknowledged it got them to laugh...just not as much as they'd have liked. Fair enough. But then, in Canada, a comedy that gets you to laugh out loud is already a leg up on most of the competition! Anyway, the first episode was a bit rough, a bit obvious in its culture clash jokes. But pilots are always problematic, as they have to establish the premise. But Little Mosque was amusing...certainly on a par with Corner Gas at the beginning (Corner Gas being the alpha dog in the Canadian sitcom pack).

So the real test was the second episode. First off, in a bizarre programming move, the CBC re-aired the pilot once again (that's three showings in a week!), delaying the second episode till Wednesday. Now I say bizarre, but some have suggested it might actually have been a canny programming move on the part of CBC programmers (in a country where "canny" and "programmer" go together like "Tommy Hunter" and "tongue piercing"). Knowing it was up against the Golden Globe Awards and an "event" programming premier of 24 (with Shaun Majumder as a Muslim terrorist, remember), the CBC executives decided they needed a sacrificial goat.

So it wasn't till Wednesday that the next episode aired...

And about half way through it, I finally let my breath out. Episode two was...good. Funny. Incisive. Half way through I realized I wasn't watching it because it was Canadian (something I do 'cause of this website), nor out of some patriotic duty to the spirit of multi-culturalism. I was watching it 'cause...I was enjoying it. It was funny, yes -- laugh out loud funny. But it was also interesting and even a bit challenging. Think Corner Gas...with a bite.

What the makers of Little Mosque seem to have clued to (and a lot of sitcom makers on both sides of the 49th parallel don't always) is that it's all in the characters. And what Little Mosque has done (so far) is give us a cast of quirky, but generally likeable characters, each with their vices and virtues. Case in point, top billed Carlo Rota as Yasir, the community's sort of first citizen (maybe the Muslim King of Kensington?) Yasir is basically a good, level-headed guy...who none-the-less has a weak spot for his own self interests. When in the second episode, radical members of the mosque want to erect a partition between the men and women, liberal Yasir opposes it...until, worried it might hurt his business with other Muslims, he reluctantly goes along...for a while. A paragon he ain't. But that's the point: a comedy relies on the characters' flaws...but a series relies on their virtues (ie: that we like 'em). Even the community's radical extremist, initially played as mainly the butt of the jokes, is revealed as a single father trying, as best he can, to raise his daughter. He's still a butt of the jokes...but there's a little bit of empathy worked into the mix.

The point is, as a cast of characters, they just might be strong enough, and nuanced enough, to carry a series.

And the series tackles some issues with a surprising -- a refreshing -- complexity. When the Muslim women realize, to their chagrin, that they're on the same side for once as the right wing bigoted talk show host, you realize the series is interested in tweaking our expectations. Or when Sheila McCarthy's character goes out to confront some well-meaning non-Muslim feminist protestors, the scene goes from being some simple swipe at white liberals, to a scene which has fired off so many (gentle) barbs at so many sides, you can't help being impressed.

Little Mosque also boasts an intriguing provenance, created by Zarqa Nawaz -- who not only was raised in the Muslim faith...but is still a practitioner! She is clearly from the liberal side of religion, but the very notion that a hijab wearing Muslim woman would create this show, which lampoons Muslims as much as non-Muslims, will probably surprise a few viewers who think of all Muslims as humourless and monolithic in their beliefs.

Is Little Mosque a sure-fire winner? Don't know. I've jumped the gun before. After all, two episodes isn't enough to judge -- even in geography you need three points to draw a line. But, me, I'm breathing easier. Good intentions are all very fine, but Little Mosque has to be entertaining. And so far...it is.

So what are some other high points in the recent Canadian TV schedule?

Even I can't believe I'm writing this, but perhaps the pleasant surprise of the season is...The Smart Woman Survival Guide. A seemingly ill-conceived idea to do a series that is part sitcom, about the characters who work at a lifestyle/light information series, and something that really is a lifestyle/light information series where the actors will occasionally address the camera or pop ups appear at the bottom of the screen telling you how to get out stains or what have you. Add to that the initial marketing campaign, where the show was advertised by a little mini-story told in commercial breaks that made it look pretty bad, and the show had no right to succeed.

And yet it does. It's a goofy, but oddly charming, fast-paced little affair that's funny and likeable -- kind of the antithesis of most Canadian comedies in that the characters are almost all generally likeable, good natured characters -- even the show's selfish diva has a soft centre. Top marks to the actors, who have to make it work, and everyone involved. It's a series where most of the leads are women, which supposedly should appeal to women...and where most of the leads are women, which should appeal to guys as well (top-billed Laura McLean has that sexy girl-next-door thing going for her, and Joanne Alderson has that sexy girl-next-door-if-the-girl-next-door-was-a-sexy-supermodel thing going)! Call it a guilty pleasure, but it is a pleasure.

Of the recent hour long dramas, the one I'm liking the most is Jozi-H, a medical dram set at a Johannesburg, South Africa emergency room -- and I'm not generally a big fan of medical dramas. There's nothing particularly ground breaking about it -- think ER with more culture clash -- nor that fresh -- after years of medical dramas, you can't expect much that's going to be a fresh story idea ("Good lord, doctor, he has a panda grafted to his buttock!", "But nurse, pandas are endangered -- oh, the dilemma!") But it's fast paced, with an engaging cast (including Canadians Sarah Allen and Vincent Walsh), and benefitting from the "exotic" locale and issues (a character whose father was murdered during the old Apartheid regime), and it's shamelessly pulpy/soap operay, with plenty of the staff having secrets that are being teased out over a series of episodes. Yes, the array of different accents can test the ear at times, particularly combined with the usual incomprehensible medical jargon, but it's an engaging enough, rapid-paced hour.

Intelligence is from the creator of DaVinci's Inquest/ Da Vinci's City Hall, but I'm actually enjoying it more than DaVinci -- the premise is a little more unusual, a crime-soap opera following the parallel paths of a crime lord and a high ranking police woman who's trying to establish a world class intelligence/spy network, and their unlikely alliance. There's more of a soap opera-y feel to the show, and it has a kind of low-key, hypnotic ambience. But it still suffers from similar problems as the DaVinci shows -- a feeling it's more style than substance, more a procedural than an emotionally involving drama, and something of a shaggy dog story where plot lines are stretched out indefinitely with no clear promise of a denouement. Still, it has a good cast (Klea Scott inparticular is making an impression) and I keep finding myself making time for it.

Alice, I Think, a CTV sitcom about a misfit teen raised by hippy-esque parents is uneven but has a goofy energy and a good cast, and an anarchic sensibility that evokes Malcom in the Middle. If CTV had any brains, they'd have paired it with Corner Gas, to see if it could scoop up some of that "Canadiana" viewership. Granted, Alice, I Think's Bohemian characters (even though it's mainly making fun of them) might not appeal to fans of Corner Gas's more conservative citizenry, but it would be worth a try.

I'll also give props to Global's teen drama, Falcon Beach.

And though not a TV program, one my favourite productions of the last few months was the smart n' funny CBC Radio sitcom, Monsoon House. Which I detail here.

Some of the biggest surprises of the last few months have been in movie of the week/mini-series field.

Dragon Boys was a superb, Byzantine tale set among Asian-Canadian crooks in Vancouver, following a large cast caught up in the shifting allegiances and double crosses involving the crooks, the cop (well played by Byron Mann) determined to get them, and various civilians caught inbetween. How the seeming disparate plot threads intersected and interwove was truly enthralling television. I can't help thinking the CBC marketed it wrong -- making it seem too much like it was one of these earnest, "ripped from the headlines" exposes ala Doomtown or Little Criminals. Instead, Dragon Boys was just an unapologetic suspense-drama, a tale of corruption and redemption on Vancouver's mean streets like something you'd expect Martin Scorsese to direct, well acted by a cast apparently drawn from the Canadian, American and Asian talent pool. In fact, it's a shame that even as Scorsese's The Departed is winning accolades at the bijou, more people didn't tune into this first rate saga.

At the opposite extreme from the gritty Dragon Boys was the bombastically old fashioned Above and Beyond, a fictional dramatization of the massive project to fly planes to England during World War II. Poorly promoted (I saw only one TV commercial for it) it was lavish in its sets and f/x (the planes, boss -- the planes!) with a good cast. It kind of reminded me of the Hollywood epic, Pearl Harbour -- in that both were WW II aviation epics wrapped around a fictional love triangle. Granted, Above and Beyond was more low key (the aviation scenes tended more to involve dangers from poor visibility and altitude sickness rather than enemy zeroes, and the love triangle was understated). But it held me from beginning to end.

A Canada-Australian co-production, Answered by Fire was probably more a credit to the Australian filmmakers than the Canadians *, but it was still a superb drama following in the footsteps of mini-series like Whiskey Echo and the movie Hotel Rwanda, as it chronicled the efforts of Australian and Canadian U.N. peacekeepers trying to provide some stability during a bloody phase in East Timor's history, with Canadian Isabelle Blais in particular delivering an eye-opening performance. Obviously, more sober and gritty than either Dragon Boys or Above and Beyond, it still succeeded as riveting, compelling drama. (* Addendum: Actually, I was wrong -- although the Australians were involved in the lion's share of the production aspect of the program, apparently the project nonetheless originated with Canadian writer Barbara Samuels, inspired by stories told her by an R.C.M.P. officer friend who had served as a U.N. observer).

In fact, those three productions stand as some of the best views I've had in a while -- Canadian, American, or whoever.

The day of the TV movie/mini-series may be coming to an end -- in the U.S., where all three networks used to regularly produce TV movies, most have stopped. And the ratings for the above productions were nothing to brag about. It's perhaps a criminal shame that, in Canada, anything that smacks of having populist appeal, and a "Hollywood" style vibe for story and characters, gets relegated to TV, while movies released to the theatres tend mainly to be parochial, unpopulist, Art House flicks. One wonders if Dragon Boys or Above and Beyond had been released to the theatres whether they'd have generated better buzz and notice (granted, in both cases the very length of them was part of their appeal, allowing the stories to unfold on an epic scale).

Of course, an interesting aspect of some of the above productions is how they reflect a cultural pluralism -- Little Mosque, Dragon Boys, and Jozi H all reflect, to varying degrees, a slightly different cultural or ethnic flavour than we are used to in North American TV (as well as others like the CBC's short-lived but engaging Indo-Canadian soap opera, 49th and Main -- heck, even Above and Beyond played up the regionalism of its Newfoundland setting). And that may be part of their strength. After all: every story has been told, every idea has been used. It's in the details that stories remain fresh. So when I say Jozi H is just ER with an exotic twist...it's that twist that gives it its identity. Likewise, Little Mosque, by wrapping stories around anti-Muslim paranoia and, on the other hand, inter-Muslim conflicts over head scarves and mosque seating arrangements, it takes an old genre -- the sitcom -- and makes it new. Yet these series also reflect a western -- and Canadian -- view. Sometimes you can watch foreign films and, as much as you can enjoy them, they can seem a bit too, well, foreign. But that's not the case here -- from acting styles, to character motivation, you understand these characters and where they're coming from. In fact, the productions walk the fine line of embracing the ethnicity of their milieu...without sliding over into some broad trite caricature (Dragon Boys did an entire mini-series about Asians with nary a high kick or karate chop in sight!).

By taking the familiar and making it alien...you realize the alien is actually familiar after all.

Little Mosque and Intelligence are on hiatus this week, but are regularly shown, for Little Mosque, Wednesdays, with repeats on Monday; and Intelligence is on Tuesdays with repeats Friday after prime time. While Jozi-H is on Fridays. All on the CBC. Smart Woman Survival Guide is currently airing Sundays on WTN (The Women's Network), Alice, I Think appears to be on hiatus, and Falcon Beach is airing Fridays on CanWest-Global.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

January 23, 2007

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