Months before Lord Have Mercy was scheduled air, it was the talk of Toronto's Caribbean community. Every Friday night during a three-month stretch last fall, people with Caribbean accents lined up outside a studio in the east end, braving the damp and the rain to watch tapings of the new show.
Not only did they get a free evening's entertainment and a look behind the scenes of television, they got to see people speaking their language and sharing their sense of humour on the stage. It was an aspect of their lives being polished up and trotted out for the rest of the world to see. Plus, they got a few genuine laughs as the cast of Caribbean and Canadian performers portrayed life in multicultural Toronto.
But as a Canadian sitcom, Lord Have Mercy is risky business. Risky because sitcoms haven't always done so well in Canada. Americans do sitcoms. To make things even more uncertain, the show has billed itself as "the first Canadian Caribbean sitcom" and "the first Canadian multicultural sitcom." And if that's not narrow enough, it's set in a church.
Co-creator Vanz Chapman knew from the start that attempting to compete with American sitcoms was a losing proposition, so the series is created more in the British model than the Hollywood model. "I think Canadian audiences' tastes are more like audiences in the U.K. than in the States," he says.
In that light, the chances for a show about Caribbean people set in a church might look a little brighter. There's an endless tradition of Britcoms set in churches - from the Vicar of Dibley to Bless Me Father and Father Ted. And there is something of a tradition of shows featuring West Indian characters in Britain too: Chef, starring Lenny Henry, and Desmond's, a very funny show, from the early 1990s, about a Caribbean family running a barber shop in London.
"If British mainstream audiences were willing to invite these Caribbean families into their homes, then we kind of thought that the Canadian audience would as well," Chapman says.
Lord Have Mercy is set in a small storefront church, which is run by an aging pastor, assisted by his ambitious son-in-law. The church serves as an arena in which an array of relatives, neighbours and members of the congregation can drop in, expose their conflicts and express their opinions. All 13 episodes will air over three nights this week. In April it is slated to run as a weekly series.
Some of the actors are well-known in the Caribbean, and it seems everyone else involved is familiar with some aspect of the immigrant experience. Dennis Sprangalang Hall, who plays the senior Pastor Stevens, is a popular comedian and actor in Trinidad. So is Rachel Price, who plays his daughter, Desiree. Arnold Pinnock, who plays the youth pastor Dwight Gooding, and Desiree's husband, was born in England of Jamaican parentage, and moved to Toronto as a child. Leoni Forbes, who plays Hope, the pastor's assistant, is a well-known Jamaican actress. Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters plays Dwight's co-worker and friend. And aboriginal actor Gary Farmer plays an aboriginal window cleaner. There's even a white Catholic priest, who drops in occasionally to drink rum and play cards with the pastor.
Setting the show in a church was a business decision that qualified it to be shown on Vision, whose mandate includes religion as well as cultural diversity, says executive producer and co-creator Paul de Silva. "It's also perfect because the church is a very central part of all immigrant cultures."
But this show is not all touchy-feely according to series director Frances-Anne Solomon. She regards the church in Lord Have Mercy as similar to the calypso tents in her native Trinidad, where singers rhyme off bitingly satirical, often controversial songs about the issues of the day.
"We decided, in a very Trinidadian way, to deal with racism," says Solomon, who has worked as a producer and director for the BBC in England for 15 years, "[and]to look at urban multicultural society in a comedic format."
Poking fun at cultural differences, even when there's an underlying social message, can be ticklish. In one scene, two black characters get into a scuffle and Peters' character says, "Oh, black-on-black violence. My favourite kind."
There were long discussions on set about the implications of that line, but it stayed. And in the final cut, it is actually funny - in an almost forbidden way.
"It's risky to do that," Solomon says. "But we didn't aim to be politically correct. Quite the opposite."
Will the show appeal to mainstream audiences? Its success will depend on it's authenticity, according to Chapman. "The key thing to crossover is to appeal to your core audience first," he says. "Father Ted is probably one of my favourite sitcoms of all time. And I've never been to Ireland, and I'm not Catholic."
Indeed, there's lots to amuse core and crossover audiences alike. The humour in Lord Have Mercy flows out of the easy Caribbean banter and from the minor conflicts that brew between these well-developed characters. There are none of those pantomime-fake Jamaican yeah-mons here. Hall's Trinidadian lilt is uncompromising; those unfamiliar with Trini-talk may miss some of his lines, but no one will miss the wizened allure of his character, Pastor Stevens. Conflict stems from the diversity of ideas that flow back and forth within this tightly knit, yet ideologically diverse community: from youth pastor Gooding's earnest ambitions to modernize the church, to young Kenton's night-clubbing, womanizing ways; from the Afro-centric, anti-colonial feminism of Crystal, to the traditional Christian ideals of her grandmother Hope, played by Leoni Forbes.
Forbes, who's a household name among Jamaicans everywhere, could be seen as the anchor of the cast. Her sometimes brooding, sometimes animated performance as the straight-laced church assistant at odds with her granddaughter's progressive ideas is magnificent.
But there are no weak links here. This is not just a "black" show or a "church" show or any kind of watered-down government-sponsored diversity project. Lord Have Mercy is simply a very funny show that captures the unfettered spirit of island humour.
The creators of Lord Have Mercy may have set out to make the first Canadian this or first Canadian that. What they ended up with is the funniest Canadian laugh-track sitcom ever.