At the television critics tour, apparently many reacted harshly to the premise of an upcoming CW sitcom, Aliens in America.
“I’d like to ask what is it that you interpret in the American psyche, or appetite for entertainment, that will embrace a show in which Americans are depicted as bigoted and stupid to be shown the way by a young man from the Middle East?” one critic asked.
After recounting several questions to the show’s panel participants indicating that reporters were offended by the premise that a Muslim character could teach Americans anything about tolerance, Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post ends by relaying this doozy:
“You are dealing with people . . . from a part of the world that aren’t always very tolerant, you know — the Danish cartoon thing and everything. Do you have a technical adviser to keep you from getting Salman Rushdied?” another critic said.
We’ll pause here so you can reread that question.
In Canada, we went through this kind of debate earlier this year, before Little Mosque on the Prairie launched on CBC. Except in Canada, critics were kind — I’d say too kind — to Little Mosque. It was generally the ugly corners of the Internet, many not even Canadian, not even exposed to the show, who fretted about the “glorification” of Islam, or questioned the wisdom of risking religious tensions … through a sitcom that’s no edgier than According to Jim, I have to say. I heard from people who hated the way small-town Canadians were portrayed, though the critics seemed to treat it as no different from any other conflict exaggeration in any other sitcom.
John Doyle of the Globe and Mail recently explained Canadian television to TV Quarterly, the journal of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — the nation being the US, the organization the people behind the Emmys. He had this to say about how Little Mosque reveals a key difference in our cultures:
Little Mosque on the Prairie made the American media curious because it has a comic premise that’s outrageous in the context of mainstream U.S. network TV — it finds comedy in the lives of a group of Muslims living in a small prairie town where many of the locals are suspicious of them. The locals, including the police and the town’s media, tend to think of all Muslims as terrorists and see the Mosque as a place were suspicious activities occur. The humor arises from both the exaggerated prejudices of the locals and the fact that most of the Muslims aren’t as devout as they’d like others to believe.
What intrigued the U.S. media was the very idea of distilling comedy material from tensions between Muslims and others in the community, from jokes about terrorists and Islamic fundamentalism. This was not material that could be mined for comedy on mainstream American television. The idea was avant-garde. But, in a nutshell, that is the strength of Canadian television — the best of it, by instinct or design, rejects the common ingredients for comedy or drama on American TV and cooks up a distinctly indigenous television culture.
Despite the arrival of Aliens in America, Doyle’s right that Little Mosque represents a distinction between the two countries. In Little Mosque, the characters are predominantly Muslim, and they are as Canadian as the other townspeople. The humour derives as much from within their community as from how the non-Muslim townspeople view them. In Aliens in America, there is one Muslim character, and he’s a complete outsider — a foreign exchange student. It’ll be interesting to see where the humour lands, with that balance. De Moraes calls it Freaks and Geeks-ish, which bodes well for quality if not quantity.
But critics here either liked Little Mosque or objected to it on the grounds that it wasn’t funny — not that it was offensive. It also became one of our highest rated comedies, following close on the heels of homegrown Corner Gas.
So the real test will come with the audience reaction to Aliens in America, and even how much of the press tour objections make it into the critics’ reviews. Even then, there’s the bigger question — what does it mean? Do Canadians simply have less political baggage over religion, or are we truly more tolerant, or is it more acceptable in the US to voice intolerance?