Last Monday saw the first episode of Citizen Khan, the BBC’s first Muslim family sitcom, and, well, it’s not been well received. There have been claims the programme is offensive to Islam, that it stereotypes Muslims, and, most fundamentally of all, that it simply isn’t funny.
I’ve now watched the first episode all the way through twice (which appears to be roughly 4-12 times as much as the average person who sat down to watch it), and tried to set down some thoughts about the programme.
What follows is part review, part analysis and partially a look at the social implications of the show. (I’ll try to prevent it from being too pretentious, I promise.)
To start with, I’ll say that I’m not a fan of Miranda, another BBC sitcom that seems to be aiming for a similar ‘retro’ feel as Citizen Khan. Though I love Dad’s Army, Morecambe & Wise and have generally positive feelings towards ‘Allo ‘Allo, I’m probably not the ideal viewer to target with this kind of ‘big’ humour.
But even so, there’s a lot in the first episode that could be improved without driving off the target audience.
To get something out of the way first, there’s a few cultural references that I didn’t get. Citizen Khan is a character spun off from a sketch show, Bellamy’s People (and the character had appeared as a radio character before that). In Bellamy’s People, a TV host travels round the country meeting with a cross-section of British people for a ‘documentary’. He meets Mr. Khan, who describes himself as a ‘community leader’ despite not seeming to have a lot of respect from the locals. Similarly, in Citizen Khan there are jokes that play off the settee being covered in plastic, and Khan bringing in a large bag full of toilet rolls, which, judging by the reaction on Twitter, seems to be a real cultural trait amongst British Muslims. These are jokes that didn’t connect with me, but that’s fine, not every joke is going to land with everyone.
But beyond that, the show is full of predictable, obvious ideas, and decent ideas really badly executed. It might seem paranoid and reactionary to say that if this programme didn’t star a Muslim family, then it wouldn’t have been made. But it does seem that the people making Citizen Khan got carried away with the idea of making a show centred around a Muslim family, and were blinded to the flaws.
For instance, in one scene Khan sits at his desk within the mosque, and for some reason starts singing into the turned off microphone. it never feels real, like a person relaxing and being silly, but like a performer doing something wacky for the sake of it. And then, in a massive twist, it turns out that the microphone was turned on the whole time!!
At another point Mr. Khan is told that his family is considered common, which he responds to by asking why, then hocks his throat as if he’s about to spit.
It just feels so, so, fake – artificial situations set up purely for a joke, but too predictable to land a laugh, rather than creating situations which are inherently funny.
And Khan himself… Well, he’s a self-indulgent anti-hero of a patriarch, so I think the best models of comparison, for good and bad, are Homer Simpson.
In the early years of The Simpsons, Homer is an idiot, and a self-indulgent jerk, but he means well and tries hard to fix the messes he accidentally causes.
Homer dances with a bellydancer on a stag night, and fails to get Lisa a new reed for her saxophone in time for a performance, but always means well, taking a second job to earn back Lisa’s love in the second of those two episodes.
Then, in later years he morphs into what’s been called Jerkass Homer – a character who causes disruption for others, yet faces no consequences himself, blindly riding off to cause more mess without any punishment.
I think the creators of the show wanted Khan to fit into the first model – he forgets that he needed to book his eldest daughter Shazia’s wedding at the local mosque, a classic ‘early Homer’ mistake (religion aside). But in the process of trying to fix or hide his mistake, he tries to bully the mosque manager into giving him what he wants, then places the blame on his future son-in-law, which leads to the pair breaking up.
Khan does eventually go to Shazia to beg her forgiveness, but he seems happy for his daughter to lose the love of her life, just as long as he doesn’t get the blame.
As well as this…well, I’m pretty sure Mr Khan is racist.
He seems to think ginger and Scottish are the same thing, and insists he can’t be racist as he’s from a minority – well there’s definitely potential for humour there, and I’m sure some people laughed, so I won’t dwell on that.
Khan meets his friend Riaz outside the mosque, who introduces his new employee, Omar. Omar greets Khan cheerfully, and Khan then turns round to whisper to Riaz:
Khan: “What’s wrong with him?”
Riaz: “He’s from Somalia.”
Apart from a slightly strange pronunciation (I doubt it’s a completely accurate Somalian accent) there’s nothing OTT or unusual in the way Omar speaks or acts, so I’m genuinely confused as to what Khan’s commenting on. And if it’s Omar’s accent Khan’s laughing at, doesn’t that make him racist? Omar is played by Felix Dexter, an excellent actor in a minor role, who I’m sure could have pulled off whatever was asked of him. Was the joke genuinely meant to be that foreigners with strange accents are funny and should be laughed at? I’m honestly unsure what they were going for with this.
Aside from Mr Khan, I counted seven other significant characters in the first episode (plus two – Riaz and Omar – who appeared very briefly). Of those seven, five can be described totally by a very brief handle – The White Convert; The Timid Idiot; The Fierce Mother-in-law; The Partygirl; The Middle-Aged Maneater – while the other two, I have trouble even describing in that much detail. The Houseproud Mother and The Nice Daughter perhaps? I can’t think of anything any of those seven characters do that contradict or add complexity to those very brief and narrow descriptions.
And the whole show is over-acted. It seems almost like a parody of acting, with every joke and emotional beat being struck as hard as possible.
Adil Ray as Mr Khan is the worst – the scenes in his office come across, as I’ve said, more as a performer doing something wacky than a character intended to be mistaken for a human being. The character has been transferred from radio and sketch comedy, where a bigger performance is appropriate, without adapting the performance to fit. In fact, it feels like the rest of the cast were instructed to rise to his level of melodrama, rather than bringing it down, rooting it in something human, identifiable.
The reactions to the family being told the mosque hadn’t been booked are so over the top that I was left wondering why I’m supposed to care about these hysterical idiots.
In addition, the characters are incredibly unperceptive – I buy Mr Khan thinking that his partygirl youngest daughter Alia is as devout as she claims, as she seems to have him wrapped round her finger, but her mother seems like she should see through the act. And Shazia, the eldest of the two daughters and supposedly pretty smart, is meant to have bought her father’s blatant lie that her fiancée is responsible for the mosque not being booked.
Families, by nature of spending time together, get to know each other pretty well, but no-one seems to know anything about each other in the Khan family.
Kris Marshall plays the mosque manager, a white convert to Islam, and seems to be the only member of the cast who wasn’t told they were supposed to play every joke, every emotional moment, as over the top and obvious as possible, pandering to the most slow-witted members of the audience.
Yes, the idiot son in My Family is the only member of the cast who seems capable of understatement.
It’s a shame, as I think there were genuinely some good jokes in there, hindered by the mess around them.
Going by my notes, I was amused eight times (seven of them where the joke seemed deliberate).
In one, Khan asks if anyone saw News at Ten the previous night, adding
“Seven times they mentioned Pakistan! Twice in a good way!”
I’m not from an immigrant family myself, but this felt ‘true’ – it felt like this was a believable reaction from an immigrant with pride in his country of origin so strong it sort of overrides logic.
This, to my mind at least, is how sitcoms should work – believable characters with a range of character traits, some of them comic.
I mentioned that one time I laughed when the joke didn’t seem deliberate. Late in the episode, when Shazia and her fiancée are separated, she’s laid in a foetal position on her bed, clearly distraught, in a room with pink bed sheets and pink lamps, wearing cuddly bear slippers and clutching a pink fluffy toy. All of this is clearly meant to convey that she’s a soft, delicate young woman, and set the stage for the emotional heart of the story (Khan apologising to Shazia) but it’s expressed in such over the top stereotypical way that it made me laugh.
I didn’t dislike Citizen Khan in the same way I do Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys – it’s surreal in a way I couldn’t quite believe or understand. I watched it with a sense of confusion, bewilderment about where they were going with certain plot elements, and how things had managed to turn out this bad without someone slowing down production to fix its problems.
Onto the reaction.
The BBC had received 185 complaints by the time they put out an online article on the reaction less than two full days after transmission, Citizen Khan was covered in opinion pieces in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Huffington Post
and was described as “outdated…lazy and offensive” in The Independent.
Two of the main lines of criticism (besides the show not being funny) were that it mocked Islam, and negatively stereotyped Muslims.
Firstly, there’s a difference between poking fun at one aspect of religious culture and mocking the religion itself.
To return to The Simpsons, there’s an episode where, after getting home from church on a Sunday, Bart and Lisa throw off their Sunday best clothes in celebration, with Bart explaining that it’s the part of the week that’s furthest away from having to go to church.
That line isn’t mocking Christianity itself – it’s a lot different from a section that argues that there’s no God and that everyone who attends church is an idiot – but gently teasing about one aspect of religious culture that does happen in the real world.
The ‘controversial’ aspects of Citizen Khan – the idea of a party girl daughter pretending to be devout for instance – fit into the same mould.
As for the stereotyping…
Stereotyping, can be used for comic purposes by playing off the audience’s expectations. Think of the Indian friends ‘going for an English’ in Goodness Gracious Me. The sketch takes the way many English people misunderstand Indian food, and turns it on its head. By using commonly held stereotypes, the creators were able to start with a basic set of shared ideas that they could safely assume the audience as a whole were aware of.
Stereotyping can also be used to reduce a group to something small, and limiting, whether purposeful or not. (Black people are good at athletics and join gangs; Asians are religiously devout and keep to themselves; the Irish are humorous and drink a lot, etc.) Stereotypes say that this is who your culture is, and since you’re from this culture, this MUST also apply to you.
The characters (Mr Khan aside) are underdeveloped stereotypes, but I’d say they’re more sitcom family stereotypes than Muslim stereotypes.
A sitcom, as opposed to a sketch show, should go beyond the stereotype, to something individual to that character. To return to The Simpsons one last time (because there really is no better programme to compare against) Homer is a loudmouthed idiot, but he’s also a sensitive soul who wants to look after his family. Lisa is a borderline child genius, but she also has a sense of melancholy that she only feels able to express through blues music. The characters are stereotypical enough to be recognisable, yes, but they have depth and complexity that makes them feel human.
Citizen Khan is only one episode in, so it may well develop a greater character complexity. I’m sort of cautiously optimistic about Alia developing into an interesting character. But there was enough time to devote to basic character development in the first episode, rather than show how hilariously wacky Mr Khan is.
I apologise if I’m wrong here, but I think most Asian families in Britain have immigrated within three or four generations, so the majority will know a relative who was raised in their old country, and will still be going through the process of adaptation. There’ll be a tension over changes in the younger generations, as the Asian/Muslim community is growing into something new as they’re exposed to wider British culture, either degenerating into something tacky, or evolving into something that combines the best of both.
Citizen Khan, as deeply flawed as it was, put me in touch with some cultural traits within the British Muslim community that I didn’t know about, and gained an ever so slightly deeper understanding of the ways in which we are different and similar. A programme of this type, if well executed, can build the sense that Muslims are part of ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. Think of programmes like The Kumars and Goodness Gracious Me, gently mocking both British Asian habits, and wider British culture.
But by far the most offensive thing about Citizen Khan is that it wastes the audience’s time on something that simply isn’t funny.
Citizen Khan is available on BBC iPlayer, episode 2 is on BBC One at 10:35 Monday September 3rd.