Lord Have Mercy! is exactly the sort of show title you would expect to find on VisionTV, Canada's multifaith non-profit broadcaster.
It might be a documentary about contemporary miracles or a more conventional treatment about the power of faith.
But here's the catch: Lord Have Mercy! is an original sitcom, a 13-part series set at the fictional Mt. Zion, an evangelical Caribbean storefront church in midtown Toronto.
Tapings before a live studio audience started last week and the series -- starring Jamaican actress Leonie Forbes, rap artist Sean Singleton, standup comic Russell Peters and actor Gary Farmer -- is scheduled to air sometime next spring.
At first glance, a sitcom might seem more than a little incongruous in a broadcast schedule populated by shows dealing with Christian healing crusades, Sikh history and morning Mass services. But Alberta Nokes, Vision's director of independent production, insists otherwise.
Reruns of classic British comedies, such as The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted and The Desmonds, have long been part of the network's broadcast schedule, she notes.
"So Lord Have Mercy! was a logical thing to do," says Nokes -- a sitcom more or less about religion, rooted in the modern-day reality of an urban Caribbean neighbourhood and dealing with generational conflict.
Focusing on the comic clash between the ambitious, reform-minded but inept Youth Pastor Gooding (Arnold Pinnock) and his easygoing senior counterpart, Pastor Cuthbert Stevens (Dennis Hall), the show is the brainchild of Francis-Anne Solomon, a director and producer with Leda Serene Films, an independent Toronto-based production company, and Vanz Chapman, a writer and producer.
A veteran director, Solomon has a British Academy Award to her credit for Peggy Su! (1997). She moved her production company from Britain to Toronto in 1999.
Chapman, a Canadian Film Centre graduate who earlier wrote CBC's Drop the Beat, says the creation of Lord Have Mercy! followed a traditional evolution -- months of research into the community, development of a show "bible," establishing the main characters, and a pilot, made for $150,000 last fall.
On the strength of that pilot, Vision bought a first-broadcast licence. Second windows were taken by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and Showcase.
"It's a risk," Nokes concedes, "but it's a risk worth taking for three reasons. The genre has done well on Vision. Our mandate is to focus on diversity and reflect Canada to Canadians. And it will bring to the screen a community you hardly ever see on Canadian television."
Indeed, according to Nokes, Lord Have Mercy! is the first truly multicultural sitcom produced in Canada. As such, it's a breakthrough not only for Vision, in terms of licensing and overseeing a domestic sitcom, but also for multiculturalism on Canadian television.
Although the streets of Canada's largest urban centres increasingly reflect a multiracial, multiethnic mosaic, the image of Canadians projected on television continues to be predominantly white. That makes Lord Have Mercy! "revolutionary, almost," says Julie Crooks, a film director working as a production associate on the show. "It's a step forward, definitely. There's a space we all can claim. You will now see yourself reflected on TV, which is what we all want to see. You want your children to see themselves -- positive or negative, it's food for discussion." That sense of affirmation is also evident behind the camera. Almost every major position -- the production team, crew, as well as wardrobe, set, makeup and lighting designers -- is occupied by a person of colour.
The next step, says Crooks, would be a green light for a second season of Lord Have Mercy!, or the creation of other TV series, including dramas, featuring a greater range of cultures, with minorities not relegated to bit parts, cameos and extras. "The possibilities are endless," she says. "It can be done, and those who said it cannot be done are wrong."
In fact, it takes no gifts of prophecy to predict that Lord Have Mercy! will be only the first of many Canadian TV shows with a decidedly different racial cast mix. By 2006, according to demographers, one in six Canadians will be a member of a visible minority; that's a percentage significant enough to interest advertisers, and a cultural reality few producers or broadcasters are likely to ignore.
In the cinema, Asian, East Indian and black Canadian directors have long since cracked the subtle barriers of race, producing several features that document the immigrant experience or the lives of cultural minorities.
But television's mass market, as Crooks says, "is a whole other beast, and broadcasters have historically been less willing to take chances on what they will commission."
Lord Have Mercy! encountered its own problems getting launched. Telefilm Canada, the federal film agency that is a critical component of film and TV financing, initially passed on the project. Vision and Leda Serene then appealed the decision, arguing, as Nokes recalls, that "no big conventional broadcasters would touch the project, but if we were serious about the rhetoric [of multiculturalism]there has to be backup." Eventually, Telefilm came onside.
The series, which carries a total budget of about $2-million, is being shot live to tape every Friday night for the next 12 weeks.
"A lot of people think you can't do anything good for $2-million," Nokes says. "But it's not true. With an ensemble cast, the show is tackling the same sort of universal conundrums as the King of Kensington did or All in the Family. It may not have the kind of fancy sets and lighting that Friends or Frasier have, but it doesn't have to have them to be funny."