TV show review: PURE (CBC)

Back at the beginning of the year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation released a new TV show called “Pure.” It was set in a Mexican Mennonite community in southern Ontario, similar to mine in a lot of ways (and different in some key ways too). It’s a rare privilege to get that kind of media attention, but since the fictional community was involved in the cross border drug trade, most of the Mennonites I know were quite critical of the portrayal.

Since there were only six episodes, and there is no word on a second season, the odds are that if you were going to watch it, you would have already, but in case you are holding out until now, I’ll help you decide if it would be worthwhile for you. All six episodes and some extra features are still available on the CBC website here.

This show is not for everyone, including a lot of Mennonites I know. A lot of people, because of their values and sensitivities won’t be able to enjoy Pure. So, if you are disturbed by the sight of people getting shot, dead bodies (including children) being dragged away to be disposed of, or inaccurate portrayals of Low German Mennonite culture, you probably shouldn’t watch this show.

There was a clear parallel between this show and Breaking Bad (which I haven’t watched, but read people’s tweets about it); an unlikely figure gets caught up in the drug trade out of desperation, and through a combination of virtue, determination and cunning, stays one step ahead of the evil knocking at their door (or do they?)

A lot has been written about the cultural inaccuracies. Their depiction of clothing, transportation, and acculturation are inconsistent with Canadian Old Colony Mennonite life. I suspect those choices were made intentionally to appear believable to the mainstream Canadian audience, rather than a lack of research by Pure’s producers. The use of Low German in the show proved that they had done research, and the actors were clearly coached, and while I wouldn’t expect them to get the accent right, some of the Low German scenes were quite good.

Like most shows, it’s easier to enjoy it if you simply watch it for entertainment without reading cultural statements into the content. That’s just easier to do when you aren’t part of the cultural group being depicted. While lots of people pointed out that their use of horse and buggies was inaccurate, nobody was offended that they didn’t use Chevy Suburbans instead. The offense was because of the insinuations that producing and distributing drugs and the murder and corruption that comes with it is commonplace among Mexican Mennonites. In their defense, the CBC did base this story on real events. There continue to be Mennonites in Mexico being used as mules to bring drugs across the border into the US and Canada, just like there are Mennonites here that produce, sell and consume those same drugs, but that isn’t the majority and shouldn’t be the only story that is told of my people. Fortunately, most people watch TV for fun, without attaching cultural labels. Very few Harry Potter fans are trying out real witchcraft and Breaking Bad fans aren’t asking their local chemistry teachers for drugs.

The truth is that for the Mennonites to be used in this story this way is a compliment. The corruption of these Mennonite characters is the ongoing twist of the show. You don’t expect them to be involved in drugs, but they are. Just like you don’t expect the bad guy to be good, but he sort of is, and you don’t expect the inept policeman to be capable and determined, but he is. The whole story hinges on the positive reputation of the Mennonite people. It would be an easier compliment to take if the opposite wasn’t also true.

The CBC also recently produced a TV show called “Little Mosque on the Prairie” which was based around a Muslim community in a prairie town and their daily struggle to reassure their neighbours that they weren’t terrorists. While it was a comedy and Pure was a drama, the underlying question was the same; have you ever considered that your stereotypes of this religious minority are inaccurate? The Old Colony Mexican Mennonites in Canada aren’t as crooked as the characters in Pure and the Muslims in Canada aren’t necessarily as quirky and charming as the characters in Little Mosque on the Prairie. I have met fantastic people in both communities, models of hard work, graciousness, religious devotion and piety. I’ve also met people in both groups that fall short of their own communities’ standards. It’s just that if your culture is going to be portrayed inaccurately, you would hope it’s a positive portrayal.

In order to get the most out of your Pure viewing experience, you need to be prepared to walk the fine line between valuing the Mennonites’ positive reputation and acknowleging that it isn’t always true. You have to want them to make good decisions and then be prepared when they inevitably make bad decisions to discuss what other bad decision they would be more likely to make.

I regret not watching and analyzing the show sooner, but the experience has given me a lot of food for thought, so this will be the first in a series of blog posts about the show.

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