At first, TLC's All-American Muslim sounded like a TV critic's worst nightmare. It's the story of five Arab-American families' struggle to reconcile Muslim faith with life in modern, post-9/11 America. But that tale is told as an unscripted, so-called "reality TV" show from the network that also brought you Kate Gosselin and My Strange Addiction. Still, look past the contrived drama or ham-fisted editing, and All-American Muslim emerges as something singularly revealing: The new face of the minority culture's struggle in America.
Once upon a time, immigrants to the United States couldn't wait to assimilate into the great American melting pot.
In modern times, there is a new goal: retain that which makes your heritage special while seeking acceptance on your own cultural terms.
In All-American Muslim, that means the daughters of the Amen family cover the gamut. Wild child Shadia Amen refuses to don the traditional hijab headscarf and admits she's a "hillbilly at heart" who loves going to tailgate parties where alcohol is served — despite an Islamic prohibition against such behavior.
She also agrees with father Mohsen's insistence that her fiance. Jeff, the son of a longtime Irish Catholic family, convert to Islam. In next Sunday's episode, viewers will see her needle Jeff for his inability to stick with the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast (she has little sympathy, it seems, for a man who left his family's religion to be with her).
Another sister, Samira Fawaz, stopped wearing her hijab after the 9/11 attacks. But her failure to conceive a child has led her to don it again, concerned that God is punishing her.
A friend, party planner Nina Brazzy, wears her hair blond and her dresses tight — like a Real Housewife of Arab descent — with dreams of owning her own nightclub and transcending the limited role allowed for women in her family's culture.
They all live in Dearborn, Mich., a town viewers are told houses the largest mosque in the United States and has one of the largest populations of Arab Muslims in the country.
There are basically three struggles here: the effort to adapt strict religious codes to modern life; the decision on what parts of their culture are crucial in a country where every immigrant is pressured to assimilate; and the challenge of overcoming Islamophobia in post-9/11 America.
When Samira decides to wear the hijab, for example, she realizes she must also take down photos around her home from her days without the headscarf — only other women and males who are blood relatives can see her without it, now. Earlier, an imam had told her she could use artificial insemination only with her husband's sperm and her own eggs — otherwise, under his interpretation of Islamic law, any child would be descended from the donors.
It's a powerful message delivered in the language most young TV viewers understand, in the same storytelling rhythms as Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives.
But that's also the problem. Reality TV shows are often manipulative and misleading. Rare are the experienced viewers who will trust everything they see in them.
Reality TV's biggest problem is that these productions generally fail to admit their own presence. We never see how producers set up scenarios. If a supposedly true-to-life series won't show how it affects the environment, how can you trust anything they present?
For example, after feeling a flash of anger while watching a scene in which a restaurant hostess seems to ignore a couple from the show, I wondered: Did it really happen that way? Or was it somehow set up?
Regardless, All-American Muslim easily achieves its primary goal. It makes us all think twice about issues of assimilation, religion and culture.
The only question left for TLC is whether viewers of Sister Wives and Say Yes to the Dress will show up for something a little more challenging.
All-American Muslim debuted at 10 p.m. Sunday on TLC, and airs weekly.
Favorite jokes from 'Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me'
My colleague Sharon Wynne is preparing a longer story for the weekend on the growing juggernaut that is NPR's popular radio game show Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me. (We have learned, for instance, the panelists for the show's Tampa stop Thursday will be comedy writer Adam Felber, host/commentator Faith Salie and author Roy Blount Jr. No word on who the celebrity guest will be.)
But in honor of the show's sold-out Thursday stop by the Straz Center in Tampa — and as a certified Wait, Wait nerd — I wanted to provide some of my favorite jokes from the show's past.
"Congressman Weiner said the photo leak (of him in underwear) was a prank, he's a victim; the picture could be taken out of context. In what possible context would you take this picture? Maybe he meant to send it to his doctor, with the message, 'Okay, it's been four hours, time to get you involved.' " — host Peter Sagal.
"Miami, in particular, when I first got here, I thought, 'Nobody here knows the traffic laws.' And I learned over the years everyone here is driving according to the traffic laws of his or her individual country of origin." — guest Dave Barry
"Statistics show there are far more single women than men over the age of 40, right? And as a result, the men that are around are fiercely pursued. That gives them an inflated perception of their own attractiveness (called Hotness Delusion Syndrome). Scientists say there's but one cure … wives." — Sagal
"What did I ever do to p - - - you off?" — NBC News anchor Brian Williams, on hearing he would be quizzed about obscure, widely ridiculed early 1900s performer Florence Foster Jenkins