After a decade of conflict, once-popular Syrian comedies have lost their shine. New shows are trying to revive the country's golden era of TV, but comedy is a tough sell in a country still living under a brutal dictatorship.
The “Golden Era” of Syrian comedies, when shows produced in the country were a sought-after commodity on Arab satellite stations, has been over since the 90s. Since then, the Syrian conflict has clearly hastened the decline of the medium.
Now, a new batch of Syrian comedies are trying to revive the style — but is it too late?
The series Bokaat Daw ("Spotlight"), which went on the air in 2001, was a landmark of Syrian drama. The show dared to take on forbidden themes and subjects, at a time when TV shows were more often propaganda disguised as entertainment, and when everything was subject to strict government control, with whole episodes sometimes censored.
The oppression and violence Syria experienced during the first years of the revolution pushed some filmmakers away from comedy, which some felt didn't fit the dramatic experiences the country's people were living through. Confronting the Syrian regime through comedy also became more complex than ever.
Is there room for laughs after 2012?
Many top comedy stars saw their careers end as the situation in the country slid into civil war in 2012.
Because of the political situation, some drama producers felt they had to justify the need to keep making comedies. The producers of the series “Family Crisis” said that they pursued comedy to bring Syrians some levity at a difficult time.
But as comedy actors tried to approach what the country is going through, they fell into many traps, like the actress Amal Arafa from the series “Contact" who was accused of callously mocking the victims of chemical weapon attacks.
Official media is trying to convince the public to accept poverty and hunger.
Others found themselves caught in the “censorship ceiling,” which became increasingly lower. Now, comedy has become more like an obituary for the Syrian people, rather than a form of entertainment, and “corpses” appeared often, as if this was a natural and permanent matter in their lives.
Syrian comedy is still looking for a different form, to find its way to screens again and to entertain audiences. This year, a new genre has emerged: a hybrid format, half comedy, half cooking show featuring recipes for Ramadan. Many new Syrian comedies use this template. But many of these shows have common traits, which include a lack of first-class stars, slow pacing and poor cinematography, lighting and music.
It is worth mentioning that cooking programs during Ramadan have been criticized in recent years. Some programs have been accused of suggesting dishes that Syrians, suffering a continued economic crisis, cannot afford. Others have been criticized for suggesting cheap food alternatives, which has led to suggestions that official media is trying to convince the public to accept poverty and hunger.
This new format ends up satisfying everyone but the viewer.
Syrian Actress Amal Arafa from the series “Contact".
A minister's choice
Still, there have been other recent attempts to change the Syrian comedy landscape. The series “Sabaya” tries to prove that the golden days are not over yet.
It falls short of this aim, although “Sabaya" is the least problematic series among Syrian comedies this year. The plot is weak, but it at least succeeds in portraying a lifestyle that can be accepted and understood: a group of girls living together, encountering a challenge or prank in each episode. But of course, it's still full of objectification and stereotyping of women, which highlights the fact that the series was directed and created by two men.
The Syrian regime conceals the drug Captagon for export.
Another new show this year, “A Minister’s Decision,” appears interesting because it raises questions about the meaning of Syrian comedies today. It depicts the heroism of honorable officials who are constantly struggling with corruption. We do not see only one side of the story in this show, but two different perspectives: the national officials who are keen on helping the citizens, those who do not hesitate to fight corruption.
But it raises a few questions: where does comedy come from? Is it the dialogue style? The jokes? Or in the paradoxes that reveal how naïve victims of corruption are, or how “skilled” the minister is?
There are no answers, but what we can say for sure is that comedy has come too late. The real jokes are serious news when it comes to corruption and the regime in Syria. Tell me, what's funnier: a sleeping policeman on duty, or watching a report revealing how the Syrian regime conceals the drug Captagon for export?