In a bold move, CBC-TV's fledgling - and much-hyped - new sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie, has lured two top writing guns from its comedic rival, CTV's Corner Gas.
Last week, Corner Gas - which has been pulling in a weekly average 1.64 million viewers since January, making it far and away the most-watched Canadian comedy on TV - lost two of its creative team's pivotal players: show runner, Paul Mather, who oversaw the series' day-to-day workings; and story editor Rob Sheridan, who has also worked on Showcase's Naked Josh. In an interview, Mr. Mather said he jumped ship primarily because he couldn't resist the challenge of trying to nip at Corner Gas's heels in season two.
The 37-year-old Mr. Mather is an especially bright star in network TV today - he is also the head writer of CBC's Rick Mercer Report, and, along with Corner Gas co-creators Brent Butt, Mark Farrell, David Story and Virginia Thompson, has won a pair of best-comedy Geminis for his work on Corner Gas. But he seems unrepentant about his decision to move to the competition. "Sure the two shows are rivals," says Mr. Mather. "We both want our shows to be the best. And I'm going to give them a run for their money. When people tune in to Mosque this fall, I think they're really going to dig it. I'm going to bust my hump to earn the right to be slightly patronizing to my friends at Gas," jokes Mr. Mather, who has worked on Corner Gas the past four seasons (the show's season finale is March 12).
Mr. Sheridan, whose other credits include The Red Green Show, was a story editor on Gas during its fourth season. Both reported for Mosque duty officially last week.
Little Mosque is one of the few bright lights on CBC's prime-time television schedule, and has been pulling in an average audience of 1.23 million on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. - a remarkably solid performer for the beleaguered public broadcaster, which has watched a slew of its new TV series get hammered in ratings over the last few years.
CTV declined to comment on the defections, but pointed out that the Monday-night Corner Gas, set in fictional Dog River, Sask., reached a season high of 1.8 million viewers last Monday.
Little Mosque, based in make-believe Mercy, Sask., pulled in an audience of 1.03 million. But Mosque has been hitting a few bumps in recent weeks (in part, it's true, thanks to the reappearance of CTV's American Idol). Last week, it drew only 906,000 viewers. Its eighth and final episode of the season airs Wednesday.
At CTV, Kevin White, whose earlier credits have included CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, will replace Mr. Mather as Gas's show runner. "We're quite good friends," says Mr. Mather of Mr. White, adding that, over the past few weeks, the two have been "fighting over writers by day and then going for drinks at night."
While this kind of aggressive hiring of top creative talent is common among U.S. networks, it's relatively rare in Canada, where people tend to stick to their camps.
"I know this throws a slight wrench in the works [at CTV] but Kevin was really ready for this," says Mr. Mather. "It's really good for everybody.
"For the writing community, it's great to have two shows competing for writers. It means there are more places for people to work, more places for people to learn. And it creates opportunities for advancement. Writers deserve respect, and it's a healthy sign for this industry."
Little Mosque on the Prairie, with a title that riffs off Michael Landon's hanky-ready American TV classic, has attracted media attention around the world. The brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani descent, it has been written up in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post and London's Daily Telegraph.
Comparisons to CTV's homespun, homemade Corner Gas were inevitable. Both are set in fictional backwaters where madcap locals (including the requisite rubes) have a lot of time to kill and a lot of opinions on everything.
Some TV pundits have criticized Little Mosque for being a little too earnest, trying too hard for cheesy laughs as it explores the inherent challenges of Muslims and Christians co-existing in Canada's rural heartland. One TV critic said this week that he hopes Mr. Mather, who also cut his writing teeth on CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, will bring an edge to Mosque's writing that will take the show to the next level, ratings-wise.
Little Mosque co-executive producer Mary Darling says she went after Mr. Mather and Mr. Sheridan for one simple reason: "We're trying to create the very best show.
"We know the show is good," says Ms. Darling, who co-founded WestWind Pictures with her husband, Clark Donnelly. "It launched with very good numbers. But now we want to make the show great. And when you want to make something great, you hire the best people.
"We didn't give huge consideration to the fact that [Mather]was on Corner Gas," she adds. "He could have been working at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, and we still would have called to see if he was interested."
CBC has recently confirmed it is going to order a second season of Little Mosque, but has yet to announce the number of episodes. "We expect to hear from the CBC in mid-March," says Darling, whose company has offices in Toronto and Regina.
"The first season obviously struck a chord with people," notes Mr. Mather. "It got great numbers that are sustainable. I have huge respect for the show, and in particular its first-season writers, such as Al Rae, Rebecca Schechter and Nawaz."
At the same time, the series-jumper added: " Corner Gas is great. And it's been a great thing for me. But it's moving into its fifth season - and it's nice, sometimes, to do something with a different set of challenges, different characters and different stories."