Having garnered attention as a TV sideshow — with programs including couples who birth children in bunches, polygamists and Sarah Palin — TLC seeks to add “thoughtful” to its provocative repertoire with “All-American Muslim.” Yet if strict Islam represents a source of tension with western values, so too does serious programming on a channel whose imperatives are as much about creating compelling drama as winning hearts and minds. By that measure, “Muslim” is a cut above — or at least provides a public service by putting a humanizing face on the religion amid persistent and even politically sanctioned Islamophobia.
Granted, religious bigots probably won’t be a big part of the audience, and TLC’s underlying formula — meet people who might seem strange to you — hasn’t really changed.
Still, the producers appear to recognize their subject matter calls for more serious treatment than something like Lifetime’s “Russian Dolls,” though questions regarding immigrant assimilation remain the same.
Set in Dearborn — a Michigan community that’s home to a vast Muslim population — the series focuses on American-born Muslims who have embraced U.S. culture, from playing football to serving in law enforcement, while observing their faith to varying degrees.
Inevitably, this can create friction with immigrant parents, and debate within the group — who are regularly shown sitting in comfy chairs, discussing their religion — based on how each of them chooses to honor their faith. In the case of Nina Bazzy, that includes eschewing the traditional Hijab, or head scarf, dressing provocatively and dreaming of opening a nightclub. Fouad Zaban, meanwhile, is a high-school football coach, whose predominantly Muslim team speaks of being taunted by opposing players and has to schedule practice around fasting for Ramadan. Under these Friday-night lights, clear eyes, empty stomachs, just might lose.
Understandably, the eight-part series opens with Shadia, who is engaged to Jeff, an Irish-Catholic. Although he agrees to convert to Islam to mollify her parents, the editing suggests he hasn’t completely thought the matter through, though reaction shots in these programs should be viewed with suspicion.
Such conflicts obviously aren’t confined to Muslims, but how their experience mirrors other groups does offer an alternative perspective on Islam that isn’t as monolithic and rigid as many believe. Indeed, to the ill-informed and certain political demagogues, the very notion of Muslims as patriotic Americans with divergent approaches to their faith will perhaps represent a breakthrough, along with seeing the discrimination they experience.
Even so, TLC is clearly trying to have it both ways by mixing docu elements with the soapy, suspense-building twists — will Nina get her club? How will the football team do? When will Nader and Nawal have their baby?
“All-American Muslim” should not be dismissed for its laudable aspects, but it’s difficult to escape a sense TLC took its game up a notch merely by virtue of the title. Then again, in the wake of controversies regarding mosques in U.S. communities, every little blow against overt discrimination surely helps.
Raising the bar much higher than that is probably asking too much from a channel whose best intentions are bound by its own set of traditions.