When Sheila McCarthy got the call asking if she'd be up for a part in CBC's quirky comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie, the veteran actress first thought her agent was pulling her leg.
"I remember thinking is that title for real?," laughs McCarthy, lounging on a sofa in a makeshift mayor's office during a break last June while filming the sixth, and final, season of the show. "Then I read the script, which struck me as a fun, sweet Lucy-Desi-type comedy. So I thought, sure, this'll be a fun little job. I'll go and hang out in Regina for a few weeks. But I really believed it would be a one-off."
The groundbreaking comedy about Muslims and non-Muslims co-existing in a small, rural town of Mercy, Sask. defied McCarthy's – and many other's – expectations. When it aired in January 2007, over two million people tuned in to see the adventures of the community and those of McCarthy's character Sarah, a former Anglican who converted to Islam for her marriage. Mosque turned into the CBC's top-rated premiere in a decade.
That number has since fallen to roughly 500,000 average viewers, a figure that CBC obviously hopes will hold when season six kicks off Monday at 8:30. Still, the audience figure is still respectable, says Little Mosque cast member Zaib Shaikh, who plays Amaar, the town's imam.
"It's the right time [to end the series]" says Shaikh, 37, who is married to CBC's head of English-language services, Kirstine Stewart. "The show has made the impact it needed to on so many levels and in so many contexts, tackling issues of diversity, race relations, religion and spirituality. The president of the American Muslim Association said this show has done more for American Muslim and non-Muslim relations than any conference or summit could have done. We've said what we needed to say. Now it's time for someone else to step up."
The brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani origin who left Toronto for Regina, Little Mosque was risky when it debuted, with emotions and tensions still high after 9/11. But the CBC took a gamble that Nawaz's background made her the ideal candidate to explore the funny side of Muslim/non-Muslims relations.
"We were part of a relaunch of the CBC as a network that was struggling to become more relevant to Canadian viewers. It was a huge risk. It took courage. And I think it paid off," says Shaikh. "It also came at a time when Corner Gas was on CTV. So here we had two shows that have the attention of the country. I really think that bolstered the confidence of the Canadian production community," says Shaikh, who appears next in Deepa Mehta's feature-film adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
From the outset, the setting – and its potential for cultural misunderstanding – attracted media coverage from heavyweights like The New York Times, CNN and BBC. That international profile has since helped the broadcaster sell Little Mosque on the Prairie into more than 80 countries.
Over the last six years, McCarthy says she and her castmates have bonded, celebrating births and mourning deaths. "I lost my husband [Stratford Festival thespian Peter Donaldson, who died early last year]" says McCarthy. "And castmates like Deb McGrath, and others, were an invaluable support and have become incredibly close friends. I like to say this show has seen me right through menopause," laughs the 55-year-old.
" Little Mosque is just a gentle reminder that Muslims are people too. They snore, they get mad, they get screwed up, and they're funny," adds McCarthy whose next role is in Norm Foster's play, Mrs. Parliament's Night Out, at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
"I'd love it to keep going, but I know all good things must come to an end. It's the perfect time to put it to bed, before people stop watching or before we exhaust the storylines.
"There's always been an underlying kindness to the show, and in a climate with so many people not working, I'm grateful to have been part of this little train that could."