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.
"Nader and I, we would go back and try to research," the questions that came up in discussions, she says. "This has kind of stepped up our game in trying to understand our faith better. This is an educational opportunity for us, too."
None of which is to say the show is saccharine, or drama-free. Bilal may be a bit preachy, but at Jeff's conversion to Islam, he jokes that Shadia's finacee suggested the whole family become Jewish instead but that they compromised on Buddhism. When a sheikh tells Samira that she can't use donor sperm to try to become pregnant if she wants her child to be recognized as her husband's, her disappointment is palpable. The show never treats the difficult and ongoing project of trying to reconcile the demands of faith and the possibilities of the modern world as if it's easy, or if there's an obvious answer the characters are missing.
And it manages to generate powerful tension out of that most anodyne subject: tolerance. For instance, how Jeff's mother handles his conversion: In one episode as she struggles find a way to say she wishes he'd stay Catholic, she tells Jeff, "Society evolves. It doesn't stay the same. Sometimes we would like things to stay the same," connecting her personal anxiety to larger fears of change. Later in that very same episode, she lets Shadia's mother fix a head scarf for her and tells the camera, "Today was one of the most special days of my life." Her evolution from rejecting her son's new faith to embracing at least his new family is genuinely moving. Similarly, when Shadia and Jeff hit up a country music festival, telling us, "I'm a hillbilly at heart," it's easy to brace for a confrontation between her and the cowboy-hatted fans bugging her husband to chug a beer. Instead, she ends up talking to a white, non-Muslim woman who's happy for a chance to vent about how annoyed she is by Islamophobic stereotypes. And when Samira comes to work wearing a hijab for the first time, her coworker Kelly tells her, "You look so different. You look awesome, though. I love the color." There's something touching about the faith All-American Muslim exhibits in Americans generally—when a heavily pregnant Nawal and Nader find themselves repeatedly ignored by a restaurant hostess, Nader tries to convince his wife that they're just experiencing routine bad service rather than outright discrimination.
Of course, we live in a world where that faith isn't always justified. A well-financed and paranoid industry that conjures wild fantasies about the establishment of Islamic theocracies in the West, rather than focusing on the mutual goal of mainstream Muslims and non-Muslims alike: marginalizing and disempowering extremist terrorists. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors bias attacks and extremists groups, reported a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes around the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Dearborn is an incomplete refuge from that turmoil. But with All-American Muslim, TLC suggesting that the town and its families might be part of a better American future. And in challenging Islamophobia, the network's upended the conventions of reality television and produced one of the best new shows of the fall.
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