The folks at TLC weren't looking for the usual reality show fireworks when they commissioned "All-American Muslim." A genre that too often feeds on divisiveness takes a gentler approach on the new show, debuting at 10 p.m. EST tonight (Nov. 13).
"Muslim" turns the reality spotlight on five families who encompass a broad spectrum of the Arab-American experience.
At times, the show feels like an extended public relations video for hardworking Muslims to show their fellow citizens they have nothing to fear. But "All-American Muslim" is honest enough about some less flattering components of the Islamic faith to keep our respect. And watching an Irish-Catholic family merge peacefully with a Muslim clan reminds us our differences truly can make us stronger - no more how treacly that might sound.
What's more, "Muslim" makes the case that American culture can have a positive effect on a religion which has festered in some repressive societies. The families of "All-American Muslim" have incorporated the best of their own religion with their American roots.
"Muslim" shrewdly centers on Dearborn, Mich., home of one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. We meet Aoude, a mother-to-be who hears the hijab but has a husband, Nader, who promises to be a more hands-on father than most Muslim men.
Nina Bazzy hardly fits the description of a stereotypical Muslim female. She's blond, aggressive and eager to make her way in the business world no matter what cultural norms say.
"I may turn a few heads, but I do what I need to do to make it in this world," she says, the only time the series comes within the same zip code as those "Real Housewives" shows.
Shadia Amen once wore the hijab, but now she sports tattoos and is about to marry Jeff, her Irish Catholic beau. The first episode's highlight is watching their respective families meet, compare cultural notes and finally come together as one.
Jeff decides to convert to Islam to help win his bride, and the conversion process boils down to one sentence. That's about the most illuminating aspect of the first episode, one that touches on the alienation experienced by the families post 9/11 but doesn't obsess on it.
The wedding itself is unlike most nuptials, shifting from an Irish dancing performance to a sensual bellydancing routine. The latter doesn't sit well with Nawal, a more traditional Muslim who shoots daggers at the dancer for flaunting her sexuality.
Viewers may not favor the practice of wearing the customary hijab, but they likely won't expect to hear what one Muslim woman says about the accoutrement - and what she wears underneath.
"I’m just like any other girl. I like to do my hair … I like to do hot oil treatments ... I highlight it," she says.
"All-American Muslim" doesn't ask hard-hitting questions about faith and terrorism, nor does it spark unnecessary furor to gin up our interest. It's a quiet look at five rather ordinary families, one that may have its work cut out for it when competing with far more salacious reality fare.