TLC's new series subverts reality TV cliches as it focuses on the everyday lives of Muslim families in Michigan
The producers and stars of TLC's All-American Muslim, which premieres this Sunday at 10, are taking great pains to insist that their show is nothing unusual. "It's just a natural fit for us," says Alon Ornstein, TLC's vice president of production and development. "We're always all about telling compelling stories about real families." Nawal Auode, one of the cast members insists that the show is more about what Muslims and non-Muslims have in common with each other than what they don't: "You'll relate to me being a new mom and dealing with post-partum, and you'll relate to [her husband] Nader being a loving husband." All-American Muslim certainly follows in the tradition of programs like The Cosby Show and The George Lopez Show in debunking myths about minority families. But there's nothing ordinary about how excellent All-American Muslim is, or how skillfully and sensitively it builds drama out of questions of faith and religious practice.
One of the most important things that distinguishes All-American Muslim from its reality-show peers is simply that the cast is uniformly likable and engaging. Hatefests like Bravo's Real Housewives franchise and villain-focused competition show formats have been wildly successful, but it can be spiritually draining to watch wildly privileged people savage each other on television. And attempts to adopt a kinder tone can also fall flat: TLC made tried unsuccessfully to humanize controversial figures like Sarah Palin, whose reality show, Sarah Palin's Alaska, was cancelled after a single season, or to tell a heartwarming family business story in DC Cupcakes, whose baking sisters seemed more sickly sweet than sympathetic.
But in All-American Muslim, the network appears to have found a genuinely engaging cast in its network of Dearborn, Michigan families, who range from tattooed and country music-loving Shadia Amen and Jeff, who converts to marry her; Shadia's bossy but well-meaning brother Bilal; ambitious event planner Nina Bazzy, who defies expectations based on her gender and her faith to expand her business; Nawal and Nader, who are expecting a baby; Mike Jaafar, Dearborn's deputy police chief, who finds himself defending the safety and free speech rights of virulently anti-Muslim protesters; and Fouad and Zaynab Zaban, who balance Muslim observance with Fouad's role as the coach of Dearborn's competitive high school football team. There are no obvious schadenfreude possibilities here—at worst, I found myself wishing that Bilal, who tends to police the rest of the cast's behavior, would get taken down a peg or two. It would take the most hardened Islamophobe or a committed skeptic to root against a Muslim version of Friday Night Lights' Coach Taylor, or to look for signs of incipient extremism in a couple preparing for parenthood.
That switch in tone isn't the only way All-American Muslim subverts what have become reality television norms and produces genuinely moving television as a result. Take the show's clever inversion of the confessional, a staple of reality television that traditionally gives individual cast members a chance to sound off—often about each other. It's routinely a source a source of drama, but rarely of insight. All-American Muslim's replaced the confessional with group discussions of faith. That's not to say it's not raw. "I would feel like a failure," Lila Amen tells her children as they discuss the impending conversion of Jeff, Shadia Amen's fiance, from Catholicism to Islam. "It would depress me immensely if you wanted to convert."
The group-confessional device is thoughtful and the discussions are serious, but they're never boring or academic. If the cast is talking about Ramadan, it's because Fouad Zaban's trying to structure football practices so players don't pass out from fasting, or because Jeff, and inveterate snacker, is struggling to stay observant. If they're talking hijabs, it's because Samira's trying to decide whether to start wearing one again in the midst of her struggle with infertility. In a pop-culture environment where religion is either a simplistic signpost—often of hypocrisy—or reserved for indie fare like Vera Farmiga's directorial debut Higher Ground, a mainstream show that's deeply engaged with faith is groundbreaking for everyone, not just for Muslims. And Nawal Auode says viewers won't be the only people who take new information and perspectives away from the show.