There was a time before Jersey Shore, before Toddlers & Tiaras, before Dance Moms, when it seemed like unscripted television might be used for good. It goes all the way back to the time when the Louds were profiled on PBS's An American Family, but more recently when Pedro Zamora died of AIDS the day after the airing of his last episode of MTV's The Real World. Television is powerful, and while that's most often said with a shake of the head, now and then, it can be said with some satisfaction, and that's the way it feels to watch TLC's All-American Muslim.
The show follows five Muslim-American families in Dearborn, Michigan: Nadar and Nawal Aoude, newlyweds expecting a baby; Dearborn Deputy Chief Sheriff Mike Jaafar, his wife Angela, and their children; Nina Bazzy, an aspiring nightclub owner, and her husband and son; football coach Fouad Zaban and his family; and the sprawling Amen clan, which includes four grown children and is at the center of Sunday night's premiere episode of the eight that will air.
In the premiere, the Amens' daughter Shadia prepares to marry Jeff, an Irish Catholic converting to Islam. Just looking at two of the daughters in the Amen family, you find the show's central argument, to the degree it has one: it's a mistake to try to find out what Muslims are like, since everybody interprets being Muslim in a personal way, as is the case with any faith. Shadia doesn't wear the hijab (the traditional headdress), but her sister Suehaila does. Shadia is far less strict in her adherence to her own understanding of Islam than Suehaila is, but Suehaila is in some ways more wryly outspoken than Shadia — she's relieved, for instance, that she doesn't have to sit around in a salon for hours before Shadia's wedding like she would if her hair were showing.
What makes the show entertaining is that these are interesting, lively people with a lot of opinions and strong personalities (which was instantly clear when they appeared at an intriguing panel discussion during the Television Critics Association press tour this summer). But what makes it valuable is that it's devoted neither to arguing that religion doesn't affect people's lives at all (some kind of a silly "everyone is exactly the same as everyone else, hooray!" argument), nor to denying that these families, like all families, have problems, including problems with the way they interpret and manage issues of faith. And for that reason, it's relevant in ways that 99 percent of what we know as reality television isn't. There are conflicts, there are disagreements, and there are families who ultimately do everything a little bit differently.
While the Amen family is shown to be loving, for instance, there's no question that the women have all wrestled with gender roles within their religious community, as do women in many other religious communities. Moreover, while Jeff's conversion is a happy occasion for the Amens, the show is very compassionate in its presentation of Jeff's Catholic mother, who clearly loves Shadia and likes her family, but is heartbroken that her son is leaving the tradition in which she raised him. The story raises interesting questions: What is Jeff's conversion for? Who is it for? Does it matter? The show draws subtle but unmistakable parallels between Jeff's mother and Shadia's father, both of whom very much wish their children would create families that would continue to be part of their own religious traditions.
You can certainly see an effort at social responsibility here. But a preachy show will always fail if that's its primary reason for existing. What makes All-American Muslim a good show isn't aspirations to good-doing, but service to the healthy kind of curiosity about other people — which is particularly welcome in a story about faith, which television tends to deal with awkwardly if at all. In that sense, it has a lot in common with other unscripted shows that feature people who do something you may not do — whether the particular thing at issue is making cupcakes, raising lots of kids, or working on a crab boat.
Ultimately, telling the stories of the Louds and Pedro Zamora would have been unsuccessful as social commentary if it hadn't also been entertaining; that's the nature of the beast that television most emphatically is. And All-American Muslim is the same. These are likable people telling a story that hasn't been told very often on American television, and that's what makes it well worth checking out.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Reality television isn't exactly known for its reality. It's known for churning out what we loosely refer to as characters. Tonight, a new cast of characters will be introduced in a new reality TV show on the cable network TLC.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: "All-American Muslim" follows five Arab-American families living in Dearborn, Michigan.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dearborn is a whole 'nother world, number one most concentrated community of Muslims outside the Middle East.
CORNISH: The show is an attempt to portray an often-maligned and stereotyped group in all its diversity - not as characters, but as people. Joining us now is Eric Deggans. He's a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Eric, welcome to the program.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So let's dig in with the show's cast. It follows five families in Dearborn, Michigan. Who did they decide to follow for this program?
DEGGANS: Well, it was interesting. Producers seemed to find a range of people - all, you know, negotiating how devout they were as Muslims, and how much they wanted to assimilate into America. In particular, there's a family, the Amen family, where you have three daughters: one who always wears the hijab headscarf; you have another one who describes herself as kind of a redneck - she's kind of a wild child - she doesn't wear it; and then you have a third who stopped wearing it after 9/11, but then decided to put it back on when she was trying to conceive and having problems conceiving, because she's concerned that God may be punishing her.
CORNISH: And there's an interesting scene where she - once she's decided she is going to start wearing the headscarf, she talks to her husband about taking down the photos in her house.
SAMIRA AMEN-FAWAZ: They'd be finding dead people in the house - what, looking at pictures of me without my scarf and here I am, with a scarf, in front of them. Weird.
CORNISH: So much of the show is about assimilation.
DEGGANS: Or, I say it's a little different than that. What it's really about is several couples trying to decide how much of their religion, how much of their culture they want to hold onto, and how much they want to assimilate into American culture, and really saying, you know, I can be very strongly connected to my heritage but I can also be American, and I should be accepted - which is not normally how America works.
CORNISH: When most people think of cable reality TV - I mean, they're thinking of the Kardashians or frankly, any of the other shows on TLC about little people or big families or, you know - there's a little bit of a circus aspect to it. And is this really the right format to tackle issues like Islamophobia or racism or assimilation?
DEGGANS: Well, what's interesting is that we're used to reality TV shows that make fun of or exploit the stars. And clearly, I think that's something TLC avoided here, and that was a good move. They seem to be trying to tell these stories in a language that young viewers can understand - which is reality television. I've always said, reality TV is sort of the young viewers' version of a sitcom. So, they figured out a way to lighten up the ideas a little bit, and maybe deliver them to an audience that wouldn't normally be thinking about this stuff. But the problem with reality TV is that it's very manipulated and sometimes, you can't necessarily trust what you're seeing. For example, there was a scene where a couple goes to a restaurant, and they seem to be reacted to in a racist or prejudiced way. And...
CORNISH: Well, right. This character, she's wearing the headscarf and she's pregnant, and they're standing, waiting for the hostess to acknowledge them, for a really long time. And finally, they get seated. But it's one of those moments of, was there discrimination or was there not?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM")
CORNISH: Eric, I know for me, that was a sort of familiar feeling when I was watching that scene - where sometimes, you're second-guessing your environment if you're in a place you're not familiar with. And in this scene, this couple had left Dearborn.
DEGGANS: Yeah, exactly. You know, as an African-American myself, I've been in situations where, you know, service is slow or something's weird and you sort of go, what's going on here? And what I wonder is, how contrived was this situation? Would a hostess really be stupid enough to discriminate against people in front of a camera crew? You know, these are all the questions that you have. But certainly on its face, this seems like a very regrettable situation.
CORNISH: You call reality television this generation's sitcom. What kind of track record does television have, in terms of introducing to the wider culture, people who are outside of that kind of white Protestant mold that we're used from - maybe the '50s and '60s?
DEGGANS: Sure. Well, you know, everyone sort of credits "The Cosby Show" for coming along and sort of mainstreaming this idea of a successful, upper-middle-class black family that people were able to accept. You know, it only makes sense that if you were to take a popular show and center it on a type of person that maybe, you know, a lot of people in America don't know, you know, then America gets to learn that culture. And I'm sure that's the hope with "All-American Muslim." I just wonder, you know, it's on a cable channel that has normally produced reality shows that have a lot more conflict. And, you know, the messages are subtler, I think. But I think the messages are very interesting, and I just hope people check it out.
CORNISH: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from his office in Florida. Eric, thanks for chatting with us.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
CORNISH: And you can catch the first episode of "All-American Muslim" tonight on TLC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.