All-American Muslim debuts tonight on TLC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
TLC's new reality show All-American Muslim positions itself as a corrective to the kind of assumptions about Muslims that have inspired politicians to campaign against the spread of Sharia law in the United States, and that had mobs gathered in Times Square last year, protesting a a paranoid fantasy ("the Ground Zero mosque") by doing their best impression of the extras in a crowd scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie about a giant asteroid composed of undocumented alien child molesters threatening to hit the Earth. It may not have immeditately dawned on the show's creators that, in order for their product to function as a corrective to those kinds of crazy, overheated stereotypes, it would almost have to double as a corrective to the TLC brand itself.
The connecting theme of most the shows that define TLC nowadays, such as the recently departed Gosselin family circus, or the polygamy peepshow Sister Wives (the touching story of a man, his four wives, their 17 kids, and his bottomless vat of conditioner), might be "the banality of freakishness." The camera observes the activities of people who are trying to manage unconventional households, people who have too many kids, or more than the usual quota of spouses, or whatever, and the viewer is given the chance to gape at how weird they are while at the same time marveling at how boringly "normal" they are, with their low-intensity personalities and banal concerns about keeping the lights on and the grocery bills paid. (If the shows attract some attention, there's the paradox of how to keep the formula intact even while the families suddenly find themselves dealing with slightly less banal concerns, which in the case of Sister Wives included whether to hightail it out of the territory in the dead of night before someone showed up with a warrant for very publicly violating the local anti-polygamy ordinances.)
The twist in All-American Muslim is that the people, who definitely have their banal side, aren't the least bit freaky… even though they're Muslim! (The fact that they're Muslim doesn't even qualify them as unusual for the area they live in, Dearborn, Michigan, home to the Arab American National Museum and the highest concentration of Muslims in the country.) The show documents the lives of a small, interconnected group of Muslims in a way that focuses on the ways in which they're perfectly ordinary, as if that were the amazing thing about them. The approach might sometimes remind you of Bill O'Reilly trying to demonstrate how open-mnded he is by talking about how he once actually ate in a Harlem restaurant, and, to his astonishment, there was nobody crouched on the floor throwing dice or waving a switchblade while screaming for his mother-@#$%&*ing iced tea. But the show isn't stupid, and it means well, and there really are a lot of people whose response to seeing actual Muslims who aren't plotting death to the imperialist capitalist war machine because they're too busy just trying to make their next car payment would range from astonishment to being pleasantly surprised. Whether any of those people are in search of a cable reality show that will make them question their preconceptions is another question.
The most winning person in the show is Nawal Aoude, who's been married for ten months to the easygoing Nader. You don't have to listen to her long before getting a sense of the contradictions inherent in being "all-American Muslim," or maybe just being both Muslim and a functioning product of the 21st century. (Or maybe just trying to claim allegiance to any religion at all and…) Nawal is always seen outwardly observing the conventional demands of her faith by wearing a hijab, but her dry speaking voice and her bright, quick eyes tell you there's a firecracker in there someplace. It pops out in funny ways, as when Nawal, who is pregnant, talks about how she's luckier than some Muslim women she knows, "because of the way Nader is. I can honestly, like, consider Nader taking part in babysitting, taking responsibility, changing a diaper in the middle of the night."
Nader, sitting next to her, looks as if he's taking this testimonial to his nurturing-male qualities pretty well. (On the other hand, when the two of them try to talk about how their relationship developed and gingerly discuss the topic of premarital sex, and he acknowledges that it's a big no-no before shrugging and adding, "We did it, though," she smacks him on his miked chest. The resulting noise made me fear for the sound technician's eardrums.) Nawal and Nader sum up the strengths and limitations of the show, which promises to be very likable without being especially compelling. At the other end of the spectrum, there's Nina, an event planner who wants to open a nightclub in Dearborn. I've never opened a nightclub myself and have no idea how one is supposed to go about it, but Nina's method involves arranging meetings with men who stare at her in horror before saying that it's "not a typical job for a woman" and that she needs to get this crazy idea out of her head before it further interferes with her starting a family. Surprisingly, this technique has yet to bear fruit.
It's easy to sympathize with Nina in her battle with the grumpy old sexist dudes, but Nina herself, with her long blonde hair (unrestrained by a hijab) and high heels, comes across as a sop to the Real Housewives audience. She might have potential on one of those Bravo shows: She has a lot of the kind of neurotic energy that might come across as entertaining on TV if she had a pack of frenemies to trade wisecracks and gossip with. In the pilot, she doesn't seem to know anyone else who's on her wavelength, so she seems lonely and out of place, and her ambitious energy comes across as neurotic. Maybe the producers thought that if they had as many as two people like this, they'd take over the show. I just hope that Nina gets somewhere with her nightclub dream. because if it turns out that she's wasting her time, it'll look as if the producers set out to prove the grumpy old sexist dudes right.
The big dramatic twist is in the love story of Shadia, a single mother with a rowdy smile and an impressive array of tattoos, and beau, Jeff, an Irish Catholic who has agreed to convert to Islam for their marriage. Both families have their reservations about this, and at one point, Jeff comes over for a chat with Shadia's father. Pops sits down across from him, leans into his face, and says, "I hope you know what you're getting into, because I don't want you to feel any pressure," sounding just a teensy bit like Don Corelone telling someone that he has to ask him some questions and wants him to relax and not even think about the man standing beside him who's going to apply a blowtorch to his crotch if he hears an answer that is not to his liking. That's as intense as things ever get. Jeff goes through with the conversion, and afterward tells the camera that it was a lot easier than getting baptized. His new in-laws agree that he seems like a sincere guy, and his mother says that all her doubts have been retired in the face of her son's evident happiness.
This is all very sweet and, especially when Jeff's mother is on, moving. It still isn't very exciting, but given that these are the actual lives of real people we're talking about, I'm not sure how desperate you'd need to be for some light entertainment before you'd complain that you were hoping the ceremony would erupt into some hardcore Montagues-versus-Capulets shit. What's most interesting about it is that it's one of the few times that religion itself, rather than being Muslim as part of one's heritage or cultural identity, comes front and center, and there's no real thought put into it: Jeff is as determined to be a "good Muslim" as he ever was to be a good Catholic, but he trades in one religion for another easily, just to make his fiancee happy.
When Jeff is presented to Shadia's family, in his role as a supplicant seeking approval for his conversion, the man doing the presenting can't keep a straight face ("Get the sword!" he yells at the conclusion, breaking up at his own joke), and the attitudes on display are in keeping with the T-shirt one young woman is wearing: It reads "NOT A TERRORIST" across the front. The show has already proven, if it needed proving, that there are Muslims living in America who aren't, as the Jack Bauer cliche goes, "fanatical Muslims." What isn't clear from the show's first episodes is whether it will address how deeply many of these non-fanatical people actually adhere to the their own religion: whether like, say, Roman Catholics who assume that the Pope would give them a pass on birth control if he knew how much trouble it would be for them to have another kid, they "believe" in their hearts, while permitting their heads to view the rules as flexible as soon as they start to become inconvenient. That might be part of what makes them "all-American." Or maybe just part of what makes them human.