Normally, I would never tell you to watch something just because it would make someone mad. But noted Islamophobe Pamela Geller is apparently vexed that TLC’s All-American Muslim, a new reality show about a group of Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, doesn’t achieve what she thinks of as balance, by which she means including storylines where Muslims commit crimes based on their faith. So I’d really like to see the show, which premieres at 10 on Sunday, do smashingly well as a rebuke to folks like her, and to the idea that we should based practitioners of a faith by its extremists.
You should also watch All-American Muslim because it’s a very good show: warm, funny, with great characters, high-stakes storylines, and the some of the most thoughtful discussions of faith I’ve ever seen on mainstream television, or in mainstream popular culture at all. First, the characters: it’s nice to have so many people to like on a television show. Blowsy Shadia’s the least observant member of her fairly observant family, but she’s sweet and funny. Nawal and Nader are expecting a son, and watching them attend a childbirth class, even though it’s not traditional in Dearborn’s Muslim community, or seeing Nader get extremely anxious when faced with a tiny, adorable baby in a tutu makes Up All Night‘s instincts for parenting comedy look clumsy. And seeing the Muslim football coach of Dearborn’s high school team explain to the Christian parents of a black player how he’s trying to balance the obligations of Ramadan for observant players with the need to get the team in championship shape is a great moment of dialogue. In an era of increasingly vile reality television characters, and in a fall television season that’s stumbled in part by relying heavily on abrasive main and supporting characters, it’s a nice to have people to get invested in and to root for.
And it’s fascinating to me that two of the best new shows this season, Homeland and All-American Muslim, are direct and thoughtful contemplations of faith. So much of the conversation about Islam in America in the aftermath of September 11 has been dominated and misdirected by conspiracy theorists like Geller rather than rational attempts at dialogue and understanding. And perhaps the greatest service All-American Muslim does is in demonstrating that Islam isn’t a monolith. The characters banter back and forth about head scarves, drinking, their personal relationships with God, the motivations behind conversions, not because these are abstractions, but because they’re trying to figure out how to live their lives a decision at a time. And while getting that window into Islam is useful for the cause of understanding and tolerance, it would be a mistake to think of the show as spinach. It’s narratively refreshing to have characters with a different set of motivations than the ones we normally see on television, and to see those motivations interact with the ones we’re familiar with, like the search for love and professional ambition. Complications, as long as they’re not ridiculously contrived, tend to make for better story-telling, and in this case, they absolutely do. I can’t imagine what it would be like, for example, to desperately want a child but to have a rabbi tell me that I couldn’t use donor sperm and still have a child recognized as my husband’s.
I don’t think All-American Muslim will change television, or even reality television forever. And as much as I agree that the greater integration of Muslims into our fictional and reality-based popular culture is an important goal, I don’t think one show alone will banish intolerance. But there’s something to be said for executing extremely well within an established genre and framework. And even more to be said for asserting that good entertainment and good causes aren’t mutually exclusive.