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Defining the Tygers:
..."Little Mosque" and looking for "edginess" in Canadian TV


There's a word I've been seeing a lot lately. Almost every time I read an opinion piece, or a blog, relating to Canadian TV and movies. "Edgy". Usually to say something isn't edgy enough. It's too safe. The equation seems to be: No edge = no good.

But...where is this edge?! Bring it before me! (he says in his best General Zod impression)

See, the problem with decrying a lack of edginess is that everyone's awfully vague about what constitutes this edge. It's almost become the latest catch phrase, the unthinking mantra spouted by those who want to appear hip. "Nah, dude, (he now says in his best Bill & Ted impression) I don't like that...it's not edgy enough for me." Like calling for extra hot sauce on your taco, it's supposed to separate the he-men from, well, everyone else. And it's a great way of shutting down disagreement. If you say: "I didn't like the actor" someone could respond, "Oh, but I did". If you say, "I thought the plot was unbelievable", someone could respond "Oh, I believed it." But if you say it wasn't "edgy" enough, no one can disagree without you responding: "See, I guess you only like safe stuff, you feckin' wuss!" End of conversation.

Look, I've enjoyed everything from South Park to Six Feet Under. But I'll admit, I'm not entirely sure of the problem with "safe". Corner Gas is besting most imported US series in the ratings, and most agree it's about as safe as it comes. But is there anything wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with saying: "I'm not here to shock you, or offend you...I'm here to entertain you?" I was watching (and listening) to some old Wayne & Shuster stuff recently and, you know what? It's actually kind of funny. Not shocking, not edgy...corny as all get out, but it's also sometimes clever and witty, in a way that Saturday Night Live and This Hour Has 22 Minutes aren't. And sometimes. just because something is "shocking"...doesn't actually mean it's funny. Sometimes it can be pretty tiresome, even lame -- the easy route for a comic blocked for that truly clever punchline. And if "edgy" is defined by "different", surely Wayne & Shuster were kind of different, with their penchant for self-reflective gags, Latin puns and Shakespearian parodies. Even Corner Gas isn't competing with a dozen other identical comedies.

Because a lot of Canadian TV series are made for cable channels, and even Canadian networks have looser standards than American ones, there's a feeling sometimes that Canadian series are given the greenlight because of their "edge", more than for any inherent quality or entertainment value. That some programmers are more impressed by the number of times a character uses the "F"-word than by the number of times a joke actually gets a laugh.

In my more cynical moments, I'd say the definition of edge is: whatever doesn't offend you, but offends your neighbour. Because we think of something as edgy if it's, what? Controversial? Provocative? Challenging? But, in a way, if we like it, then we aren't really finding it any of those things. So, we want something we like, that other people don't, and we then say it's edgy. But if we don't like it, if we find it too provocative, too challenging? Then we say it's stupid. Or maybe we say it's not edgy enough. And sometimes...we're right.

I was thinking about this with the recent, morphing reaction to the hit CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie. Now that it's airing, I'm seeing a number of critics complaining that it's not "edgy" enough. And I'm kind of left saying: huh?

Just by existing, the series became an international news story, getting coverage all over the world even though it's only airing in Canada. Even before it aired, redneck cybercowboys were denouncing it, demanding the CBC be shut down for even thinking of airing a series about Muslim protagonists. And now that it's airing? People still can't stop talking about it! If only to tell us how it's not edgy enough.

And this is why I say: how do we define this mythical edge? How do we identify the "Tygers" that lurk beyond this invisible demarcation that separates the known safe from the unknown lands of edginess?

Zarqa Nawaz, creator of Little Mosque, said that one of her intents was to show that Muslims are just like everyone else, with the same concerns and emotions. So what is the criticism you sometimes see? That the sitcom has the affront to show us that Muslims are just like everyone else! By showing us Muslims who are not suicide bombers, who are not jihadists, critics say it's too safe, as they point out that every other depiction of Islam in TV and movies and stand up comedy routines deals with the violent, fanatical side of the religion. Why is she being different? they demand. Why is she being safe, instead of depicting Muslims the way everyone else depicts them? Why does she have to challenge their view of Muslims like this?

Oops! There it is: challenge, which, by our earlier definition, means edgy.

Some moderate Muslims are now denouncing the show for only showing religious conservative Muslims -- where are the "moderate" Muslims they ask? (To which the CBC might respond: where were you when we were trying to drum up viewers for our secular Muslim hero in the Jinnah on Crime movies?) And of course, since when has a TV series -- any TV series -- been required to represent any and all people and points of view?

So -- despite bringing in an impressive one million plus viewers a week (or maybe because of it) -- everyone with an opinion is explaining what's wrong with Little Mosque: it's too moderate, it's too extreme, it's not focusing enough on Islam, it's focusing too much on Islam; the plots are too generic, the plots are too specific to Muslims; it's not funny enough, it's not serious enough; there are too many Muslims working on it, there aren't enough Muslims working on it, there aren't the "right" kind of Muslims working on it. But at least they can all agree on one thing:

It ain't edgy enough.

Edgy? Brother, you could cut yourself it's so edgy.

And that's why I say, how do we define edgy? Surely by defying expectations, whatever they may be, something becomes, at least a little, edgy. So far, Little Mosque, an unassuming little sitcom, has tackled hot button topics of religion and culture clash -- not exactly typical gist for your average sitcom in which "culture clash" is usually no more esoteric than one character likes to wear socks to bed. And it has tackled its issues, and its characters, with a surprising complexity and subtlety -- like the scene where the villainous right wing talk radio host vaults over a counter to come to the aid of a Muslim woman who's twisted her ankle. What? The bad guy does a compassionate deed? All this and, in one episode, menstrual blood, too. Or did I just miss that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine bloodies her undies?

To be honest, it's hard to read some of the criticisms of Little Mosque without seeing it for what it is: racism. No, I don't mean if you don't like Little Mosque you're a racist, not at all. If you don't find it funny, if the pacing's wrong for you, if you don't like the characters, then fine. That's all there is to it. No, I'm talking about the people who are getting so angry about it. The ones who are angry it isn't depicting killer Muslims...but then offended that it is showing anti-Muslim bigotry. According to critics, this depiction of small town prairie Muslim life is unrealistic...yet these critics are generally big city non-Muslims, while the show is created by a Muslim who lives on the prairies. Damn -- don't you hate it when people make series about things they know nothing?

Besides, it's sitcom: a sitcom exaggerates, plays up the extremes. Otherwise, we'd call it a slice-of-life drama.

As I say, using the word "edge" just seem to be the chic phrase of today. A way of seeming like you're saying something without saying anything. I mentioned in earlier essays how Canadian TV, and particularly the CBC, is constantly labelled as too safe by critics -- yet those critics are awfully vague about what shows they're talking about. After all, the CBC has recently aired shows like Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, This is Wonderland, What it's Like Being Alone...even, too some extent, Intelligence. If you don't like these shows, fine (What it's Like Being Alone was particularly, um, problematic), but were any of these shows "safe"? And if so: how? I think the answer, as I say, is that this "edge" is just a knee jerk response to criticize things, sight unseen. The National host Peter Mansbridge could get his scrotum pierced on camera and critics would still decry the CBC as being too safe because he used a silver ring and not a gold one -- or vice versa.

Little Mosque on the Prairie is, so far, an amusing little sitcom that clearly has people talking -- and surely that's all you can ask from 22 minutes plus commercial breaks.

One of the comments that did strike me, in an article written by self-described moderate Muslims attacking the series, was that, instead of being ghettoized in a single sitcom, they'd like to see Muslim characters worked into other, "regular" series. In that, I'm more in agreement...to some extent. One of the on-line discussions I saw about Little Mosque had people talking about how many funny Muslim comics there were in Canada who could be recruited to write for the show (the commentator couldn't actually identify these comics by name, but anyway). And my reaction was: um, if they're funny...shouldn't they be recruited for any show, Muslim-themed or not? Because the danger with Little Mosque, or any "ethnic" series, is that it becomes too easy for the powers that be to shunt talent off into a dead end little cul-de-sac. Little Mosque -- and any ethnic specific program -- needs to be the beginning of opportunities for ethnic talent, not the final destination.

But where I do feel there is a problem in expecting "Muslim" characters to be worked into other series is that, in general, TV series tend not to get too deeply into religion. How often do the characters on Corner Gas go to church? When was the last time a character on Intelligence prayed for guidance? No, the most you can hope for (but the least you can demand) is that actors of visible ethnicity be hired to play "regular" characters and, sure, if a religiously significant name can be given the character ("Mohammed" or "Greenberg" or "Singh"), all the better. But don't expect the cops and robbers on Intelligence to take time out to discuss comparative religious thought.

Though, come to think of it, it might be edgy if they did.

Then again...maybe not.

Where is this edge?! Bring it before me!

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

February 25, 2007

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