The last time NBC tried to do a show that was primarily about non-white, non-Christian people, it ended up with Outsourced. By which I mean a show rooted in the idea that Indian people have funny names, Indian food is poison, Hinduism is pretty strange, and Indians either over- or under-adapt to American culture. To be fair, Outsourced is also about the fact that Americans have deeply terrible taste in novelties, inclining towards the racist, purile, violent, and drunken. But still. Not a victory for tolerance and mutual understanding.
Which makes the news that the struggling network’s taken the intriguing step developing a comedy based on The Infidel quite heartening. The original movie follows the misadventures of a moderately observant British Muslim, played by Omid Djalili (who has had a deal with the network in 2002 but never seen a project come through) who, on the eve of his son’s engagement to the stepdaughter of a radical imam and shortly after his mother’s death, discovers that he was adopted — and that he was born to observant Jewish parents. And to complicate matters further, his father is alive, but gravely ill, and being taken care of by a rabbi who won’t let the son his charge gave us see his father unless the son makes a serious study of Judaism. So he seeks out the tutelage of a depressed, divorced Jewish cabbie, played brilliantly by Richard Schiff.
A lot of the movie’s power is in its rawness. When Mahmud, the main character, first tells Lenny, the cabbie, that he’s Jewish, Lenny spits back, “I’m the shoe bomber. Pleasure to meet you.” In prepping Mahmud to go to his first bar mitzvah, Lenny goes through a checklist of things Mahmud probably shouldn’t bring up, including “Hitler. Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitler. The fact that you’re actually a Muslim.” And in a raw showdown between Mahmud’s father’s rabbi and Mahmud, Lenny pits cultural Judaism against Jewish religious knowledge, telling the rabbi, “My friend has drunk my chicken soup. He’s danced like a Cossack in my living room, he told a funny story at a bar mitzvah and got a good laugh. I’m a Jew, and my friend is Jewish enough for me.” Jews aren’t the only ones with intra-faith tensions. “Give me one reason that can calm me down about inviting Arshad Al-fucking Stalin into my family!” Mahmud despairs as he grapples with how to reconcile his son’s happiness and the prospect of ending up permanently connected to a preacher of hatred. The show even has one of the funnier, more effective satire of British hate speech laws I’ve ever seen, complete with Jack Benny jokes.
The movie’s not perfect. It ends in a really profoundly stupid twist ending, which fortunately doesn’t invalidate any of the very funny work that comes before it. In a fall that’s felt divided between not particularly funny comedy and drama that’s excellent but that can be spiritually wearing (I love Homeland, but it does not make me feel very good about humanity), the prospect of a show that is extremely precisely irreverent is bracing. With faith, extremism, and terrorism in particular, when folks have gotten open about their feelings in American culture in recent years, it’s resulted in stuff like Holy Terror, art that’s dialogue-ending rather than continuing the conversation.
There are lots of questions here: whether NBC will be able to execute The Infidel with the same courage as the original; whether Richard Schiff can be peeled away from Criminal Minds to reprise his role; what the long-arc plot will be. But this is a worthy experiment. It shows signs of the genuine daring and ambition Bob Greenblatt demonstrated at Showtime. And while it doesn’t really make up for NBC’s cowardice regarding projects that involved Djalili in the aftermath of Sept. 11, it’s a small step in the right direction towards making good use of his talents, and for the cause of getting us toward a Muslim Cosby show.