Watching last week’s premiere episode of the new TLC reality series “All-American Muslim,” I couldn’t help noticing that virtually every member of the show’s large ensemble introduced themselves by explaining why he or she might not be considered a “typical Muslim.” There was Nina, who styled herself as if she was auditioning to be on “The Real Housewives of Dearborn, Michigan.” There was tattooed, heavily-pierced Shadia, who explained that while she studied the Koran, “Do I choose to follow all of that? Not so much.” Even a relatively traditional couple like expectant parents Nader and Nawal made a big show of explaining that their marriage is much more of an equal partnership than most of the Muslim-American couples they know.
And initially, I wondered if this kind of casting represented the complicated struggle between the show’s two primary goals: 1)To personalize and demystify Muslim-American culture for the benefit of people who know little about it (and/or have developed certain false assumptions in these complicated post-9/11 years), and 2)To entertain. Television shows – scripted and unscripted alike – tend to focus on outliers: the cop who mainly does paperwork is realistic but much less interesting to watch then the one who’s getting into car chases and shootouts every week. In casting people who claim to have defined themselves outside the norms of their culture, “All-American Muslim,” it seemed, was prizing entertainment value over being about what it claimed to be about.
But having seen three episodes now (the second airs Sunday night at 10), I’ve realized that the two goals aren’t quite as contradictory as they seemed – that the point is that there is no one person or family that would neatly define the Muslim-American experience, and against whom all others would be measured. I’m sure if you asked members of any ethnic group whether they consider themselves typical representatives, most would say no, because who wants to think of themselves as typical?
What “All-American Muslim” does well is to illustrate the diversity of experience, religious belief and observation, and just plain personality that can exist even within a relatively homogenous group like the large Muslim-American population in Dearborn. Individually, these people may not be representative of their community, but when you add them all together, you get a good sense of the bigger picture.(*)
(*) Though I should note that even with the array of personalities on display, the show still focuses predominantly on Lebanese-Americans, leaving out a wide array of Muslims from other national and cultural backgrounds. To do the concept full justice would require a Bravo level of franchising and spin-offs.
Many scenes may as well come with an Us Weekly-ish “Muslims: They’re Just Like Us!” logo, as we see Nader and Nawal deal with false labor pains, or we see Shadia dance with her father at their wedding, or see local cop Mike Jaafar and his wife Angela intercede when their kids fight with each other. And that’s obviously an important part of the show’s message, but the most interesting parts tend to be dealing with how these people try to incorporate their faith into their daily life. The show frequently cuts away from the action to let the castmembers debate some topic (the importance of women wearing the hijab, for instance), but it also does well at showing how these issues play out.
This Sunday’s episode, for instance, takes place at the beginning of Ramadan, and we see Shadia’s new husband Jeff – an Irish-Catholic who only converted to Islam so they could be married – struggle with hunger during the day. High school football coach Fouad, whose team is overwhelmingly Muslim, switches the team over to a nocturnal practice schedule for the month, then has to explain the situation to the mildly concerned parents of one of his few non-Muslim players. In another storyline, Shadia’s friend Samira struggles with fertility issues and goes to consult with an Imam to find out which of her medical options are acceptable within their faith.
As with any reality show like this, there are certain scenes that are obviously staged, and others where the presence of a camera crew was likely a factor. But from my perspective – admittedly, as an outsider to the culture being depicted – it feels fairly honest, and more interesting and relevant than most.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org