TLC’s highly anticipated yet oddly restrained new reality series, “All-American Muslim,” approaches its subjects from a starting point of total naivete. That’s because, like most journalistic acts of enterprise regarding U.S. citizens who follow the Islamic faith, it assumes viewers know absolutely nothing about modern Muslims.
Unfortunately, that’s probably still the best place to begin. A decade after 9/11, our society remains perniciously uninformed about the everyday, non-terrorist Muslims around us and is too easily freaked out by episodes of “24” or “Homeland” — when not outright paranoid about the “Ground Zero mosque” and other hot-button issues. A woman in a hijab in a suburban Costco still attracts far too many glances, to say nothing of what happens to her in an airport security line.
In that way, “All-American Muslim,” which premieres Sunday night, is a much-needed primer, focused on the lives a dozen or so residents of Dearborn, Mich., which has one of the largest and most established Muslim communities in the nation. Even there it seems as though marginalization and assimilation are constant forces with which these families reckon, and it goes both ways.
Compared with typical reality fare (especially TLC’s reality fare, which has drifted in recent years toward shows about bakeries with personnel issues, dwarfism, multiple births, obesity — any combination of those will do), “All-American Muslim” is assiduously straightforward and careful.
Too careful, probably, to qualify as must-see TV. Though there will be occasional arguments and mini-crises that come along whenever you put any human beings on TV and then tell them to pretend the camera crew is invisible, “All-American Muslim” is mainly an act of public relations, going out of its way to avoid becoming “The Real Housewives of Dearborn.”
In fact, most of the show’s stars seem to have been cast for their exemplary civic and cultural pride. In their bios on TLC’s Web site, the characters’ families are called “prominent” in Dearborn, or “pillars” — old-fashioned words that seek to describe what’s at stake here. In the Jaafar family, husband and father Mike is a deputy sheriff; wife and mother Angela is a consultant; they juggle a busy life raising four young kids. Within five minutes of meeting them, you want to be them.
No one seen here has been picked because of a propensity to throw down or scream insults at one another, requisite behavior in the reality genre. The touchiest angle involves the conversion to Islam of salesman Jeff McDermott, who grew up Irish Catholic and is about to marry Shadia Amen, a single mother who comes from a well-known Lebanese family.
Jeff’s conversion vow amounts to a single sentence repeated in Arabic in front of Shadia’s parents and siblings in the Amen family living room, which is also the site of the couple’s traditional wedding ceremony officiated by the mosque’s imams, an occasion for which Shadia must cover up her hair for the first time in years. She is more the tattoos and pink-streaked-hair-dye sort.
A big wedding reception follows, where the McDermott relatives learn to have a good time without the cash bar and where Jeff’s mother articulates a remarkable open-mindedness and trust in her son’s choices and happiness.
Another of “All-American Muslim’s” subjects, an event planner named Nina Bazzy-Aliahmad, is more attuned to the crossed signals we expect in realityland: She is tanned, blond and wears tight miniskirts with high heels, and she dreams of opening a nightclub, which most of the men around her think is a terrible idea for a woman.
Yet somehow, despite having the look, Nina is the least interesting person on the show. That may have something to do with the fact that her hijab-wearing co-stars — a young, expectant wife named Nawal Aoude who has forged a jovial and equitable marriage with her husband, Nader; or Shadia Amen’s sisters, Suehaila and Samira — have a lot more to tell us about the Muslim life.
As new convert Jeff struggles with the daily Ramadan fast (no food or liquids of any kind from sunrise to sunset), Shadia’s sister Samira decides to return to wearing the hijab, on the advice of an imam who tells her it will help God see how seriously she and her husband are trying to conceive.
Indeed, in its first episodes, “All-American Muslim” is largely focused on exterior expressions of faith — a vow here, a hijab there, a famished Jeff lunging for leftover chicken once Shadia gives him permission to break fast a few hours early.
I’ve seen all this before in my own religious upbringing, in the guise of what’s known as “cafeteria Catholicism,” in which one must broker a personal compromise between the rules and reality. How else are we to interpret the decision by Fouad Zaban, who works as the head football coach at Fordson High School (where the student body is 95 percent Muslim), to hold team practices from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., as a Ramadan workaround to the Gatorade cooler?
Yet the show is only peripherally concerned with teaching us non-Muslims the principles of the Koran. It is more about lifestyle and image. It is informative, occasionally engaging and almost adorable, but that’s not what we’ve come to think of as a reality show.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on TLC.